Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Fluency in Foreign Language Learning and Speaking

Much has been learned about language acquisition by children. There appears to be some consensus by linguists that by the age of seven, children will have fully acquired the intonation and sounds of their first language. On the other hand, when they learn another language later in life, they will rarely equal the intonation of a native speaker in that language.

Does this mean the goal of foreign language “fluency” will be elusive to an adult?


A recent Wikipedia entry surfaced the following definition:

Language fluency is used informally to denote broadly a high level of language proficiency, most typically foreign language or another learned language, and more narrowly to denote fluid language use, as opposed to slow, halting use. In this narrow sense, fluency is necessary but not sufficientfor language proficiency: fluent language users (particularly uneducated native speakers) may have narrow vocabularies, limited discourse strategies, and inaccurate word use. They may be illiterate, as well. Native language speakers are often incorrectly referred to as fluent.” [Wikipedia: "Fluency"]

Well-known Public Figures

For Americans, there are wonderful examples of well-known public figures who came to the US as teenagers or adults and whose English could not be called anything but “fluent” - although their accent may still identify them as non-natives.

- Henry Kissinger was 15 when he arrived in the US in 1938.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger was 21 when he arrived in the US in 1968.
- Arianna Huffington was 19 when she moved to England in 1969
- Martina Navratilova was 19 when she came to the US in 1975

Most readers will have heard at least of one of these celebrities on radio and/or television. You probably would call their English fluent – even though their more or less distinct accent makes it clear that they learned their English later in life.

(Other examples, such as Albert Einstein, Leoh Ming Pei, the famous architect, Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court Justice, etc. could also be listed, but their voices are less well known.) 

It's likely, however, that most of these immigrants already had a basic knowledge of English when they arrived in the US. And, they perfected their new language in school and/or through diligent study.

So for all of you who shy away from learning a new foreign language or improving an “old” one, because you fear that you won't be able to speak it fluently: It is certainly not too late to start (again). You may never sound exactly like a native. It may even take an extended stay in the foreign country to give you full “fluency.”

But learning and practicing to speak, read, and write another language will open up a new world and - as an added benefit – it will keep your brain neurons moving...