Updated: Jul 6
Learning a language is a step-by-step process, but the road is not always straight. In fact, it has hundreds of paths that separate and come together again, then separate again, then come together again, and so on. Sometimes, you feel like the road is blocked because you don't have enough vocabulary or you can't express yourself quickly enough. In short, you are blocked because you haven't developed enough fluency or proficiency.
This is a normal feeling.
In this article, I want to examine the difference between fluency and proficiency because I hear people say "I want to be more fluent" when they mean "I want to be more proficient."
So, what are the elements of fluency and how can you develop them? In short, fluency is the flow of your speech. It is the ability to speak at a consistent rhythm on a variety of topics in real time. It's speaking comfortably, which means with minimal pauses and minimal hesitation. However, it's not a set target that learners should aim for. If you're reading this, you're probably already fluent in English to a certain degree--and you're definitely proficient to a certain degree as well, but more on that topic below.
Could you be more fluent? Of course! The more you speak and listen to your target language, the more you stretch your linguistic muscles. This helps you to develop your fluency. Just don't think you will wake up one day and say "I'm fluent now!" Fluency is not a binary state. You can't be fluent or not fluent. It is a spectrum. You can be "a little fluent," "moderately fluent," or "very fluent," for example. Maybe you can say "I feel like I'm not fluent enough."
Ideally, fluency should be attained by listening to and (if you can) speaking to native speakers from the region you want to understand and communicate with. If your goal is to become fluent in American English, for example, this can be done by listening to American movies and music and studying the phrases and rhythm of the language. (I'm going to ignore the fact that American English has a variety of accents and dialects for this article)
It is important to understand that fluency shouldn't be confused with proficiency. In fact, it is possible to be relatively fluent but not proficient in a language. To clarify, you might be able to speak smoothly and be understood by native speakers, but maybe you still make some grammar mistakes or use simple vocabulary with minimal idiomatic expressions.
So, what is proficiency? It is the ability to use language accurately with a high level of comprehension and production. It is best acquired through reading and writing. Proficiency is important in academics and jobs that require a precise use of language. You can acquire proficiency by reading authentic materials in your target language, by repeating target sentences, or by writing emails or other compositions in your target language. Proficiency is what tests like the IELTS, FCE, CAE or TOEFL evaluate, particularly if you're taking the academic versions of some of these tests.
Can a person be proficient but not fluent? Sure. You probably know people who hesitate when they speak despite having a strong vocabulary, or despite being able to formulate clear ideas when they do finally speak. This doesn't mean they're "not good" at English--just that they're not as fluent as others. A person who is proficient might be able to write a beautiful evocative essay, but might struggle to have a smooth conversation for more than a couple of minutes.
In summary, fluency is the ability to speak smoothly, while proficiency is the ability to use and understand language accurately. Both are important when you're learning another language, and you should probably stop saying "I want to be fluent" if you're already able to have a conversation with a native speaker--because you are already fluent to a degree, and you probably are proficient to a degree as well.
To keep improving your English fluency and proficiency, try to make regular exposure to the language a priority. Speak out loud when no one is in the room. Repeat sentences and phrases you hear in shows and movies. Read English books and articles. Listen to songs and podcasts. Use apps. Study with resources that use real language. Whatever you can do to maximize the amount of contact you have with the language and to study the way it works.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. But not impossible.
Until next time, I wish you success in your studies.