Friday, June 10, 2011

On Bilingualism: What Is Fluency?

I have so many more experiences with this flower now in Japan (and therefore in Japanese), that "Ajisai" is the first word that comes to mind.  I usually have to think for a minute to pull "Hydrangea" up out of storage...

...And with this post I feel I've jumped into the frigid waters of Lake Superior, bound for the other side, with little confidence in my ability to swim that far.   Ma, yaru shikanai.  Gambarimasu.  (Nothing to do but to do it.  I will do my best:-))

What is 'fluent'?  The first thing that pops into most people's heads, I think, is "like a monolingual native speaker" or "would be taken by other native speakers to be a native speaker".

Well, that's nice, isn't it.  What does it mean? Exactly?  Does it mean that all native speakers are purely fluent?  The process of being raised and educated in a particular language environment confers completely equal fluency on all?  Are all native speakers equally fluent?  Is there any such thing as 'pure fluency' ?  Chris addressed that idea in his comment to the last post  on this topic, which was so nicely expressed that I'll just save myself the trouble and quote him:-))

I think the only concrete thing I'm willing to say is that there is no such thing as pure fluency, that is, fluency meaning absolute, unencumbered communication. I can think of so many times when I've had to clarify something myself (or had to ask someone else to clarify for me) when speaking with a native speaker of the same language and dialect, even of the same general background (age, sex, etc.).

Thanks, Chris--well said!  Clearly, there is wide variation in how well native speakers express themselves, make themselves understood, and how well they understand what others are saying or asking.  As Chris points out, native speakers do not express themselves with equal clarity (ooh-- there's another thing it means!).  Plenty of misunderstandings happen among native speakers, so 'pure fluency', as such, is probably a myth.   Sarah Palin is a good example of what I mean.  Her effusions are often so incomprehensible that, were it not for her accent, one might take her to be a non-native speaker.  Maybe we should demand that she produce her birth certificate...

Accent-- is that part of it?  Well, I think most would agree with me that Henry Kissinger expressed himself more 'fluently' (here meaning 'clearly') than Mrs. Palin, albeit in a heavy German accent that forever marked him as a non-native speaker of English.  No one, though, would accuse the former Secretary of State of lacking fluency in English.  I think most people recognize that accent isn't really the determining factor in fluency, though they might, all other things being equal, call a non-native speaker with a near-native accent (or no accent) more 'fluent' than someone with a heavy accent.

There are those who have "reading knowledge" of a language-- but they tend not to describe themselves as 'fluent'.  'Fluency', in most people's minds, pertains to the speaking and listening modalities.  Fluency in the reading\writing modalities tends to get called 'literacy'.  You can be 'fluent' in a language without necessarily being literate (which applies to native speakers, as well).

I'm having to rein myself in here, by the way, because this topic bleeds into so many others concerning bilingualism (or tri- or multilingualism), that my mind keeps running off in all directions.

Let's go back to "monolingual native speaker" for a minute.  What is it that  they do, or don't do, that makes us call them fluent? 
  • They don't make grammatical mistakes except when they are children--and the mistakes native speaker children make are predictable and often show understanding of grammar, as when they make overgeneralization mistakes (saying "goed" instead of "went", for example, shows that the child understands how to form the past tense of regular verbs... unfortunately, child is more logical than his language;-))  So-called grammar "mistakes" such as saying "he don't " instead of "he doesn't" are recognized by everyone but English teachers as a legitimate part of a dialect where inflections are gradually being dropped.  Of course, it's also perfectly acceptable if you are singin' the blues.  Saying "I doesn't" instead of "I don't", however (unless you are a child) , makes people prick up their ears.  Languages tend to evolve toward regularity and inflection loss, not the other way.  You can think of English as ungrammatical German with a bunch of sound shifts:-))  Making der/die/das mistakes in  German instantly brands an English-speaker as non-native.  Making a/the mistakes in English (using the wrong one, or leaving it out when it should be used, or sticking one in where it doesn't go) instantly marks someone as a speaker of an Asian language like Japanese or Chinese (neither language has articles-- definite or in).  
  • Use filler particles and words-- in English, these are "uh", "um", "actually", "like", "y'know", "basically", and so on.  In Japanese, "eh to", "eh to ne" "nan dake" "nan to iu no" and so on.  It surprises me that more foreign language teachers don't teach students how to pause for thought in the language they're learning.  Being able to use filler words (and sounds) is a major component of sounding "fluent".  It's also easier, ultimately, to stay in one language than to shift mental linguistic gears to say "uh".  Compare:   "I like... eh to.. nan dake... red!"  to "I like...ummm...what's that called... red!"  (this is actually related to the last point made below).
  • Can understand most of what's said to them... at speed.  Native speakers don't really talk that fast-- they just "unhear" most of what's being said when they're listening.  That means, they don't have to listen to every single word being said in order to understand-- just the main bits.  Those lacking fluency are trying to listen. to. every. single. word. and. probably. translate. in. their. heads. to. their. L1. at. the. same. time.  No wonder it sounds fast:-))  (So--give new learners a break. Don't turn up your volume, just slow down--like you do for kids.  And simplify;-)
  • Can understand new words or phrases in the language defined with other words in that language.  The ability to circumlocute (talk around words you don't know) is crucial.  Native speakers do this *all* the time--from the time they are children, in fact.  You know you've gained a significant level of fluency when you can describe something for which you lack the right word... and a native speaker says "oh--you mean (x)!"  Native speakers do this constantly themselves.  "You know that thing, that thing that goes like this (makes noise and flaps hands)".  In fact, if you can say it like that--you'll sound 'fluent', oddly enough;-))
  • Which brings me to the main point:  Native speakers don't translate into or out of anything else in their heads while speaking or listening.  This is exactly the point of a joke my sister and her friend used to tell each other during German class when they were feeling overwhelmed with grammar and floundering in 'conversation' exercises:                                                                    Sis:  Why don't they just speak English?                                                     Friend:  Yeah!  Ya know they're thinkin' it!
    Honest and for true-- native speakers only have one language in their heads while speaking:-)  (Well, apart from what Steven Pinker calls 'mentalese', which isn't technically in *any* language... but I won't get into that in this post).   If you're learning another language, you must pry yourself out of the habit of translating everything you say from your L1 (first language) in your head into the L2 coming out of your mouth.  Fluency in another language is getting a new language stuck in your head in *exactly* the same way you can get a song stuck in your head.  Language is very much like music--each language has it's own prosody, it's own rhythm.  The only way to learn to sing it is to listen to it-- a *lot*.  Factoid:  by a child's third birthday, they've spent roughly 13 thousand hours listening to their first language (assuming they sleep 12 hours and are awake 12 hours).  That's where all that fluency comes from.  Double that figure and add a bit more for a 6-year-old.
So--to sum up-- fluency is speaking more or less grammatically, understanding at speed, being able to make yourself understood by circumlocuting and correct use of fillers, understanding words or phrases defined in the language, and having the same language inside your head as is coming out of your mouth.

Upon reflection, I think a useful way to think about fluency and fluency 'ranking', if you want to call it that, is to speak in terms of Child Level fluency, Elementary (school!) Level fluency, Secondary (school) Level fluency, and Adult Level fluency.  Nobody attains Adult Level fluency after a year or so of language instruction--not even in a language immersion situation.  I'm at Elementary School Level fluency in Japanese-- I routinely tell people I'm in 5th grade, with Koshi, my 10-year-old.  I figure our fluency is roughly equivalent.  Elementary level is, I think, the level from which other people (including native speakers) will call you 'fluent'.  That level includes all those points I mentioned above.  Note that I don't think those levels of fluency that I defined are equivalent to "First Year (Spanish)", "Second Year (French)", or the typical Elementary-Advanced Elementary-Intermediate-Advanced levels of high school and college language courses.  And I will just stop right here before I start ranting about.... before I start ranting.  Lest I not sound...wait for it... fluent;-)

Upcoming topics in this series are "Who is Bilingual?" and "Inside-Out/Outside-In".

Mata asobou, ne! 

p.s.-- just for kicks, 'cause it's so funny.  Daz  found this:-))  Thanks, Daz!



  1. Umm, how about "doesn't finish a clause with 'however', which had started with 'though'"? ahem :-) (Actually, that's one I catch myself doing a lot. Second paragraph after the quote from Chris btw)

    Billy Holiday. Just. Wow! I'll swap you the (to me) definitive Summertime.

    A workmate came up with an interesting one the other day. (Amazing what you'll talk about to pass the time on a boring production line.) I'm not saying he's right or wrong, just interesting. :-)

    The ability to work out the meaning of occasional jargon-words from context. That's occasional as in you wouldn't reasonably expect someone to work out a jargon-stuffed passage, but one or two in an otherwise jargon-free passage would be fairly reasonable, in a subject they were averagely familiar with in their native tongue.

  2. Sry 4 the dbl post, but I, like, literally found dis str8 aftr leaving here. Yeah. Innit.

    Ahem. Sorry, I can't keep that up any longer.

    It seemed pertinent. Kind of.

  3. Cats can be fluent in other languages too. ;-)
    Heinz Erhardt - Die Polyglotte Katze

  4. Hi, Daz-- fixed:-) Thanks for the extra eyes;-) And I went over this and *over* this-- knowing how ridiculous it would look to put up a post on fluency in my native tongue with mistakes in it... *headdesk* Spellcheck doesn't like 'headdesk'. Or 'spellcheck', for that matter.
    Good example! Being able to work out the meaning of jargon/unfamiliar words from context means you're well on your way if it's not your first language. It's kind of the same thing as understanding words defined in the language instead of translated into your L1. Understanding jargon (or any unfamiliar word) is using the context as a kind of 'definition', or at least as defining a parameter of use for the word. In fact, guessing the meaning of a word from context is one of the most powerful learning strategies there is--straight to long term memory:-))

    And-- I, like, OMG, TOTALLY saw the same thing! (following the link from B&W;-))

  5. Monika-- absolute Spitze! Genau wie mein Lieblingsdicther Edward Lear, aber auf Deutsch! Das muss ich sofort bookmarken... (ist das ein Verb auf Deutsch geworden? Oder hab' ich ein Englisches Wort gedeutscht?) Danke sehr!

    Anybody else here who reads German--click that link up there in Monika's post! Totally cute poem about a polyglot kitty (to go along with the vid that Daz found:-))

  6. I am not fluent in Norwegian but I am effluent.

  7. PS is the Hydrangea by any chance in the same genus as the lone ranger?

  8. *groaning....*

    *moar groaning...!* ;-)

    When did you start a blog?! Yay! *rushes off to check*

  9. Thanks for the praise and the quoting! As you might expect, I have more thoughts (hopefully not too many!).

    Accent is indeed an extremely interesting topic (which I hope you will explore more in the future). I heartily agree with your statement that, all other things equal, a less accented non-native speaker would/could/should be considered more fluent than a non-native speaker with a heavier accent. This does, of course, beg the question of what is considered native accent (i.e., native phonetics and phonology) and what is considered “incorrect” (i.e., what is often called phonological interference). A good example is the “t” (/t/) in the word often. I can’t remember who pronounces it and who doesn’t, and I believe, if I am correct, that I can be heard to say it either way. What’s a non-native speaker to do? And, more interestingly, how did we get to this point where there was more than one “correct” way to pronounce something? If we can say it with or without the “t”, why can’t other variations, even ones that arise from the pronunciation of non-native speakers, become acceptable and common practice?

    I hope you’ll welcome something new from me, a bit of dissent. I dare say it’s rather a common myth that native monolingual speakers don’t make grammar errors. Of course they does, all the times! I guess the difference here is that with the casual speech that you mentioned, the “mistakes” or errors are intentional (and grammatical, in the sense that they become accepted, which, I guess, is a result of their being intentional), while in other cases speakers simply, and unintentionally, make mistakes. Perhaps the concept of fluency could be invoked simply by asking whether the speaker fixed the mistake or realized they had made a mistake (or, in the case of certain casual speech, intentionally made the “mistake”). Either way, I think phrasing it as the following question would be at the top of my list for slippery slope definitions of fluency: what frequency of grammatical error do we require before we can call someone fluent? (Not that you suggested it be done that way, but I’m sure some people might, at least at first, think of that as a potential way to evaluate fluency.) I guess you’re right, though, that “fluent” speakers are those who, when making a grammatical error, can recognize the error, if not in real time then after the fact.

    I do completely agree with you about filler noises, what I usually refer to as hesitation noises. Even if you yourself don’t feel terribly comfortable with a non-native language, I’ve found that using the hesitation noises of the language you’re trying to communicate in helps everyone. It helps you stay in that language, and it often puts a native speaker at ease.

    I’m not sure about your statement on staying in one language though; I feel like that’s a question for your children (they’re native bilinguals, right?). It’s a decently commonsense statement, but I’m just a bit hesitant. Now, you could be speaking from personal experience, in which case I will probably concede to your statement (though different people might have different experiences, which would make this very interesting; for instance, I’m thinking there might be a difference in the experiences of native bilinguals and non-native bilinguals). But as of now, I’ve seen and heard to much Spanglish to be completely convinced. I guess the question is: what do you mean by ultimately easier? I know that many linguists who work on dying languages often talk about how different languages are useful at conveying different things in different situations (a prime example would be the many different descriptive words for reindeer in Tofa; see K. David Harrison’s When Languages Die, pages 26-31).

  10. (...I did have too many thoughts, they wouldn't all fit in one comment, and this was an edited response!)

    If someone were bilingual in two languages, they might use a certain word or phrase in one language while then switching back to the other language. I’m not sure of the mental gymnastics involved in this, but for sure I can think of times where it’s much easier (faster, more efficient) to use Japanese words for Japanese concepts when speaking in English to others who know Japanese and English. I most certainly don’t know enough of the neuroscience or psychology of what’s going on when we speak, and know, more than one language, but I’m sure there are people out there who do have at least somewhat of an answer about this, from the perspective of cognitive science. There was a recent NY Times article about bilingualism that, while not outright answering this question, seems to suggest where we can look for more information. Here’s the link to the article:

    I defiantly agree about the circumlocution, and what Daz said about jargon-words. It’s like reading high school lit. In fact, I feel like this was something that we were specifically taught at some point in school—that when you encounter a word that you don’t know, you’re supposed to use the other words and the context to figure out what that word means. Even if we weren’t specifically taught that, I imagine that’s what we'd instinctively try to do. Being able to overcome an unknown word seems to be a very good measure of “fluency” since it is a powerful tool for successful communication.

    I look forward to a future post on Mentalese and Pinker. I need to go back and re-read The Language Instinct. I know I had some difficulties with it, and it’d be extremely helpful to have a sort of book club-like chat about it.

  11. I've always been fascinated by regional differences, of which we have an abundance here in the UK. (I say "of'n" for "often", by the way.) For example, it's perfectly grammatical, in my local dialect, to ask "Where are you going to?" Well, actually it's 'worse' than that — more often it's "Where's goin' to?" That used to drive my wife, who was from Kent, up the wall!

    What I find really fascinating is that most people will slip into and out of dialect, according to situation. Put me in a suit and send me off to a job interview, and my accent becomes milder, and the Queen's English appears. If I work a few days on a farm, I sound like I was weaned on scrumpy cider.

  12. I've been reading all the comments here with fascination, as well as the initial post, but I don't really have much to add.

    I don't speak any other languages (thought not for lack of trying, I've taken Spanish, German, French, Latin, and Russian over the course of my life) and there's not really any dialectal variation where I'm at. The closest thing would be the "Soda vs. Pop" debate. (It's soda.)

    There's certainly some regional dialects in the US but everyone speaks pretty much the same in the Midwest with the only variation that I can think of is 'aboot' vs 'about' for the extreme Northerners.

    Still, it's really interesting stuff, and something I'd never thought of, the nature of fluency...

  13. Thanks for this interesting series! I used to live in Japan, and when I realized that I would often go for days at a time without using a single English word, and that I (almost) never had to translate to/from English in my head, I could probably call myself fluent, even though I still had trouble understanding a lot of what was on the late-night variety shows.

    Good point about the filler sounds, too. My first-year Japanese teacher enforced using Japanese "eto" and "ano" from the first day of class, and the difference in how natural we sounded compared to students from the other classes was remarkable. When I started teaching English to Japanese people a few years later, I also corrected their "um" and "uh" usage to good effect.

    As for grammar errors, I definitely draw a distinction between non-standard dialectical "errors" and things that you'd only hear a non-native speaker say (or a native speaker fumbling their words). One common error I'd hear even my more advanced Japanese students make is when they'd combine a possessive with a definite article - "Could you please hand me the my book?" I've never heard a native English speaker make this mistake, and I doubt I ever will.

  14. After having read previous comments, I'll try to post some thoughts on this interesting topic, Amy. Meanwhile, I recommend readers who understand German, to follow Monika's link, and not to miss the other ultrashort poems. Greetings.-

  15. Chris--wow! Thanks for taking the time to write such an in-depth comment! I really appreciate it--makes my mind run off in all directions. I would *love* to re-read The Language Instinct (if I can find my copy...somehow I think my sis has it...) as a book-club thing! Re-reading your comment, I have five or six posts forming in my head...:-)) I will refrain from trying to stick them all into a comment, however. Mental gymnastics is *definitely* something I plan on talking about, as well as "successive" (me) versus "simultaneous" (my kids-- you used the term "native") bilinguals... regional dialects! When is grammar "wrong"! Why are certain non-native mistakes so glaring to native speakers! I'd better stop before I get cut off... :-))

  16. Daz-- well, I, for one, absolutely want to hear you pronounce "where's goin' to":-)) And--what in the world is scrumpy cider? (I think I already *really* like the word 'scrumpy', though... guessing from context, does it mean something like 'soured' or 'off'?)

  17. Alice-- of course you may comment! Or ask questions in the comments (which I will be much better about getting to now that my boys are all over their colds:-)). And being from Indiana... I always called everything "coke";-)

  18. Dan-- youkoso! Thanks so much for commenting! Where in Japan did you live? I gauged my fluency off tv, too--mostly Doraemon. The first time I could understand an entire episode and understand the whole thing, I knew I'd crossed some sort of fluency barrier:-)) You had a good teacher if she taught you to use filler words correctly-- they *really* help communication, oddly enough, since they actually help you sound 'smoother' to a native speaker (and therefore a little easier to understand). I've heard that *exact* same error-- "my the book" or "the my book". I'm thinking about what this says about the nature of grammatical "errors"...
    Looking forward to more comments! Domo!

  19. Frederico--thanks! Please do comment--I really look forward to hearing others' language stories/trials/frustrations/anything! Monika's link is *awesome*--loved it:-)

  20. My L1 is Dutch. With my secondary school English, German and French, I also found it surprising that hundreds of kilometers away, people on the streets, in shops and in Swiss and French households, actually spoke the languages I had learned with so much effort, “outside-in”. - At the age of 20, I emigrated to Argentina. Taught myself the very first notions of Spanish, and 'in situ' replaced the Assimil Language Course by the immersion method, making Spanish my L2.

    I am in the process of writing the story of my life. Having readers in both languages waiting to read them, I work on the two compositions almost simultaneously, basing myself for many facts, data and other details on a diary (logs before they became blogs!) and on notes scribbled down on loose sheets of paper and in [paper] notebooks.
    I find that translating myself is not only very amusing but also a luxury, by not having to contact an unknown and perhaps faraway author to ask him about some difficult passage, a complicated situation, a saying.

    In a certain description, I liked the idiomatic expression in Dutch I had used, but I was disappointed by being unable to find its equivalent in Spanish. After several attempts, I gave up and continued with another episode. When I resumed writing, all of a sudden a saying occurred to me that also nicely fitted the situation. This time the counterpart in Dutch came to my mind and I rewrote it. I forgot (would like to remember) that passage, but not the experience itself.

    I also know a few native bilingual and trilingual persons. Some mix languages up (Spanglish), others clearly distinct one from another – including filler noises. My theory is that the ability to switch from one way of speaking to another immediately depends on the ease with which our neurons establish the different circuits.

    Arigatou Amy, for encouraging me to react although several days have passed. Glad to see that I am not alone in following you on this (and other) captivating subjects.



  21. Scrumpy is locally-brewed (English west-country) cider. The name comes from scrumps: withered and damaged apples. (That's also the origin of the term 'scrumping' for stealing apples off the tree.) It's usually brewed at the farm, rather than the apples being sent to a brewery.

    It's pretty damn lethal stuff! Legend has it that it's tested by putting a dead rat in a sample. If it de-fleshifies the rat, it's considered ready to drink. Not the sample that had the rat in, obviously. Well, probably not...

    (Related tale: The crew of HMS Victory, to mourn Nelson's death when they arrived back in England after Trafalgar, were allowed to drink the rum that his body had been preserved in.)