Defining “Fluent”

Part of learning a language is the expectation that one will become fluent. However, there is no way to accurately determine when one is fluent in a language because the definition of the term “fluent” is heavily debated. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one is fluent when he or she is “capable of using a language easily and accurately” and when his or her language is “effortlessly smooth and flowing.” This definition is highly problematic, though, because native speakers of a language do not always speak accurately, nor is their language always “effortlessly smooth,” so it is important to consider how linguistic experts define fluency.

Donovan Nagel, an Applied Linguistics specialist, argues that fluency is being “able to use (one’s) target language to learn more target language,” or being able to define an unknown word in the target language so that a native speaker is able to respond with the word (Mezzofanti). However, it is often difficult to define certain words by using other words, even in one’s native language. I often resort to hand motions or pictures if I cannot recall a word, so am I not fluent in English? Similarly, Kris Broholm defines being fluent in a language as the ability to “conduct yourself exclusively in that language,” but it is again important to consider that often people have to resort to non-verbal skills to get their point across because they cannot express themselves even through their native language (qtd. in Krzeminska). Broholm’s claim is supported by Luca Sadurny, who argues that fluency is “the ability to express yourself in a language without even thinking about what you need to do in order to keep going” (qtd. in Krzeminska). However, there are many times when I must think about my word choice and sentence structure when I speak English, so by Sadurny’s definition, I would not be fluent. The definitions presented thus far have all focused on language skills that even native speakers of a language may not possess in all situations, so they should not be considered the best ways to define fluency.

A less strict definition comes from Siskia Lagomarsino, who suggests fluency is “understanding and being understood in a context of your very own” (qtd. in Krzeminska). Fluency is goal-dependent, and people can experience different types of fluency without experiencing other types. An example is provided by Jim Cummins, who notes the difference between BICS, basic interpersonal communicative skills (conversational fluency), and CALP, cognitive academic language proficiency (academic fluency), and recognizes that these are just two examples of fluency types. Fluency cannot be measured as one ultimate category, but must be broken down because “fluency is domain dependent” (Max Hodges qtd. in Krzeminska). The context in which a person uses a language determines whether or not they are fluent. This is true even in one’s native language; for example, not everyone is fluent in medical language or computer language, but it does not mean they are not fluent in another area of their native language. It is up to the person speaking to determine whether or not they are able to communicate effectively for his or her own goals, because fluency cannot accurately be measured and “it’s truly in the eye of the beholder” (Benny Lewis, qtd. in Krzeminska).



Cummins, Jim. “BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction.” In Street, B. & Hornberger, N. H. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2nd Edition, Volume 2: Literacy (2008): 71-83. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

“Fluent.” Mirriam-Webster Dictionary.

Krzeminska, Marta. “What is fluency in a language?” LinguaLift, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Mezzofanti [Donovan Nagel]. “Fluency in a Language – What Does That Mean Exactly?” The Mezzofanti Guild, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.


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