Posted on by Peter Rettig

“Fluent” - but not “Proficient” in a Foreign Language?

Gamesforlanguage - Fribourg, Switzerland Can you be “fluent” but not “proficient” in a foreign language – or “proficient” but not “fluent”? The first is quite common – just consider pre-school children. They'll speak fluently, but with grammar gaps and limited vocabulary and no reading and writing skills as yet.

The second option, “proficient” but not “fluent,” on the other hand, is harder to imagine, as speaking well is considered essential for proficiency. (Picture of Fribourg, Switzerland)

Proficiency Definitions

The U.S. Department of State's Language Proficiency Definitions, however, don't seem to worry about listening/understanding  and writing as they are only defining proficiency criteria for speaking and reading.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), on the other hand, has created definitions for 5 major proficiency levels for the four language skills: Speaking, Writing, Listening, and Reading. The graph to the right shows its Distinguished, Superior, Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice categories (and subcategories).

These “technical aspects” of proficiency may be important for schools, universities and for professional certifications. But even without such fine distinctions, my wife and I realized during a visit to the French part of Switzerland earlier this year, that we are a prime example of the difference: While she is very “proficient” in French, I am more “fluent.” 

Our French Story 

Although I studied French in school for a about a year (and hated it!), I had to learn French in earnest, when I started to work in Romandie (the French-speaking part of Switzerland). Now, while my comprehension improved quite rapidly together with my ability to read (I also took some evening classes), I did not become fluent in speaking French until - I came to the United States.

How come? As I lived in the US with some friends in a house where French was the language of communication, I had to speak French. Within a couple of months I became quite fluent in the language and could hold my own even in many esoteric conversations.

My wife, on the other hand, had 8 years of French in school and college. She has always read extensively in French (most recently, several Harry Potter novels) and so she has very good comprehension, as well as a large vocabulary. But she never had the chance to be engaged in the kind of immersive conversations that I was thrown into. Still, while her French fluency is still lacking, she is improving steadily by following the four simple ways below.

How can you improve your fluency?

There is only one way to do it: You have to speak the foreign language! Learning vocabulary is great and necessary, but it is not enough to help you speak. There a four simple tips:
- Practice by reading aloud.
- Chose language programs that encourage you to repeat phrases and sentences, not just words. (and don't just click on the correct word or phrase, but repeat it aloud!)
- Record your voice and compare it to that of a native speaker.
- Find a native speaker with whom you can practice, either in person or via some of the social/language networks. 

Language fluency is acquired by speaking - the more the better. Your pronunciation may not be perfect (Did this prevent Henry Kissinger from being understood?) and your grammar may be a work in progress. But, if language fluency is your goal then: Just do it - and speak! 

Our earlier post, The Three S's of Language Fluency, expands a little more on the four tips above and the importance of speaking as much as you can. (Note: This post is an expanded version of “Fluency vs Proficiency – a Case History...”, which first appeared on on March 20, 2014)