Posted on by Peter Rettig

Fluency vs. Proficiency in Foreign Language Learning

Two woman talking Some time ago we wrote a blog post Fluent in Ten Days? The idea for it was related to the more outrageous marketing claims and promises that we found on the internet as we started Most people do understand that you can't become “fluent” in a foreign language in 10 days, even if you studied 24 hours a day.

In a later blog post Fluency – in Foreign Language Learning and Speaking we argue that native-like “fluency” in a foreign language clearly can be achieved by adults, even though they may have retained a distinct foreign accent.

Here's another look at the terms in question:

Fluency vs. Proficiency

The term “language fluency” is actually a speech language pathology term and refers to fluid as opposed to halting and slow speech. However, to most foreign language learners “fluency” denotes a high level of proficiency in speaking, and in comprehending spoken language.

But there's a catch. “She speaks like a native” would indeed be high praise for a young bilingual child – although he or she may not even know how to read and write, and therefore not really be “proficient” in the language. Or, on the other hand, a person may be quite proficient in reading a foreign text, but unable to engage in a conversation.

Thus, achieving “fluency” in a language is mostly understood as being able to communicate with ease in conversations. On the other hand, when you evaluate someone's “proficiency” in a language, you usually want to determine the level of proficiency in each of the four language skills.

The Four Language Skills

The four essential skills when learning a foreign language are commonly described as follows:
- Listening/Comprehension: the ability to understand the meaning of foreign speech
- Speaking: the ability to produce foreign speech and be understood
- Reading: the ability to read and understand foreign texts
- Writing: the ability to write foreign texts

Foreign language organizations in most countries have developed proficiency tests for each and all of these. This wikipedia link details it for the US. Indeed, proficiency testing has become quite an industry.

More options today

Anybody who wants to improve his or her foreign language fluency as well as their proficiency in the four language skills has many choices: foreign language apps, online courses, books, CDs, audio, traditional, or immersion courses, personal tutoring etc. (A brand new website, Sites For Teaching, ranks educational websites by popularity.)

As we describe in another blog post, the four language skills boost each other. Still, each learner may also sometimes have to decide on which of the skills to focus most: either because of a special current need, or because of a particular interest or aptitude.

But for an adult to become both fluent and proficient in a new foreign language, it will certainly take more than 10 days, more like between 100 and 1,000 days.