When will I be fluent?


This is a question that language teachers often hear. First, let’s clear up some terminology. The question should really be phrased as “When will I be proficient?” There is an important difference between fluency and proficiency, although the average person tends to use these terms interchangeably (fluent= highly proficient). Fluency has to do with speed. In terms of language production, fluency can be measured in terms of words per minute, the number of pauses, hesitations, and fillers (um…). In second language acquisition, it is possible to be quite fluent and yet inaccurate. For example, a learner may be able to speak without hesitation (fluently) but make many errors in verb endings or gender. For this reason, language teachers often try to balance ‘accuracy’ activities with ‘fluency’ activities. The latter are intended to allow the student to communicate successfully, even if they make a lot of mistakes. The point is that as a language learner you want to be proficient, not just fluent. Proficiency is, simply put, your ability to function in a given language in a variety of situations. Novice learners, that is, those who have low proficiency will be able to function in highly predictable situations in which they can rely on memorized language chunks (e.g., ordering a beer at a restaurant). Highly proficient speakers, on the other hand, can produce language in a wide range of situations and on various topics, including abstract ones. One of the benchmarks for Advanced level proficiency (according to the ACTFL scale) is the ability to narrate in all major time frames. Likewise, learners with Advanced proficiency can produce extended discourse (e.g., sentences connected together coherently). The time it takes to reach Advanced (or Superior) proficiency is really difficult to estimate because it depends on so many factors (e.g., learner motivation, aptitude for language learning, hours of independent study). For a category I language like Spanish, I’ve read estimates ranging from 650 to 960 hours of instruction to reach level 3 on the ILR scale of proficiency; the Center for Applied Linguistics estimates 720 hours to reach the Advanced level on the ACTFL scale. These are sobering estimates if you add up the hours of instruction offered by a typical language class (estimate 5 hours per week X 10 weeks per quarter = 50 hours per quarter). That amounts to approximately 300 hours by the end of 6 quarters of instruction. This is precisely why classroom instruction must be supplemented with considerable outside exposure to the language, preferably including a study abroad component.