Fluency: What is it, and when do I get it?

Sometimes beginners ask me “how long will it take before I’m fluent?” It’s a hard question to answer, in part because different people define fluency differently.

The first time a friend described me as “fluent in Irish,” I was rather taken aback…because I’m not…not by my standards, anyway.  When I think of linguistic fluency, my mind flashes straight to the dictionary definition:

flu·ent: adjective \ˈflü-ənt\ a: capable of using a language easily and accurately (Source: www.merriam-webster.com)

What is “fluency,” really?

Oh, I read and write Irish reasonably well. I have a very good grasp of the grammar, and understand the spoken language easily. My pronunciation is generally very good. And I have the conversational tools to get by in most situations.  In many peoples’ terms, I guess, that’s relatively fluent.

But here’s the deal: Like many self-taught learners, I struggle with conversation. Oh, I can manage small talk well enough, as well as the basic needs of day-to-day life (asking or giving directions, asking questions about a menu, asking the price of a pint, etc.)

But ask me to go into much depth on a subject, and things get harder. I can generally make myself understood, but there’s a lot of fishing for words or phrases (most of which I remember several minutes later), “mmm’ing” and “errr’ing,” gesturing, and asking “cad é mar a déarfá...?” (“how do you say…?”) going on. And often my good grammar goes right out the window.

I guess, if you pinned me down, I’d have to say that I’ve attained a pretty good level of fluency for someone who isn’t forced to use the language on a daily basis. To get past this point, for me, anyway, is likely going to take several weeks in a true, full-immersion, environment.

What is true fluency?

Most of us know people who grew up in a country where English wasn’t the majority language, but who, in spite of that, have truly excellent English. They have an accent, sure, but their English is natural and idiomatic, they aren’t always stopping to fish for words, and their grammar is at least as good as any native English speaker.

This is true fluency. In Irish, we’d say “tá Béarla ar a dtoil acú” (“they have English at their will”)…in other words, they can go back and forth between their native language and English as if all they had to do is flip a switch.

But how long does it take to get there?

I could be flip and say “I’ll tell you when I get there!” But the reality is, the answer is going to be different for every person, and it will depend on a lot of different factors. No one can predict with any certainty how long it will take another person to acheive a given level…that’s the bad news.

The good news, though, is that there are things you can do to help speed up the process.

First, you have to decide what level of fluency you’re willing to be happy with. Will you be content to have the same level of Irish I currently have? (I’m not!). Or are you hoping for true fluency? Certainly the latter will take longer than the former, though there are factors that can speed up the process.

Factors that influence learning speed

First, one that doesn’t: “Talent”

 

It may surprise you, but “native talent” doesn’t have a lot to do with one’s ability to learn a language (or anything else, for that matter).

So often people say to me “I just have no talent for learning languages (or music, or writing, or what-have-you). In all honesty, I have to call that a cop-out.

Granted that some people have a greater natural facility with words than others, that only takes you so far. The drive to learn and the discipline to practice regularly matter much, much, more.

One that may: Experience

 

Have you ever studied another language? Even if you didn’t become fluent, experience with language learning may help you learn Irish faster.

This may be partially because learning a language trains your brain in a way that makes learning more languages easier, or it could simply be that, having learned one foreign language, you’re already familiar with some of the challenges that can frustrate beginners, but it does seem to be true that the more languages one has, the easier it is to acquire new ones, even if the languages aren’t closely related.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that if Irish is your first new language, you won’t be able to learn it well (we all start somewhere!), but it may take you longer to get through the basics than if you’ve already had some experience in language learning.

Other factors that can influence learning speed

 

Are you able to take classes, or to learn one-on-one with a teacher? There are certain advantages to taking at least some classes if you can. This doesn’t have to be a full-time thing, but even the occasional lesson to supplement what you’re doing on your own can pay great dividends.

Are you able to connect regularly with other Irish speakers/learners, either irl or via Skype? Regular conversation, even if it’s on a very basic level, will go a long way toward bridging that gap between what the mind knows and what you’re actually able to use easily.

Using chat, or participating on an internet forum, can help as well, but because you’re not actually speaking, it doesn’t do as much to help with conversational fluency.

How much self-discipline do you have? The more you can discipline yourself to practice or study every day, the faster you will progress. This doesn’t have to mean sitting down at a desk with your books or the computer…it can mean taking time to read something aloud in Irish, or to talk through a practice conversation.

Is there a possibility of taking an immersion course at some point? A day or two in a full-immersion environment can really give you a push forward (and if you’re fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in an immersion program, you’ll make tremendous progress in a relatively short time).

Even if that trip to Ireland is many years and paychecks off, you may be able to find an immersion weekend happening somewhere closer (www.daltai.com coordinates them regularly on the U.S. East Coast) or even organize one yourself (if you’re interested in trying this, I can put you in touch with people who have done it).

It all comes down to you

In the final analysis, no one can tell you how long it will take you to learn a language to the point of fluency. Depending on your circumstances, as well as on your personal determination and self-discipline, it can take a few years or many.

The important thing is to recognize that language learning is a journey. Enjoy the ride!

Some other posts in this vein

Here are a few other posts at Bitesize that address some of these topics:

Irish Gaelic: Just How Difficult Is It To Learn?

Anyone Can Learn To Speak Irish At Home

Language Journeys and How To Keep Going

Irish Language Immersion in Northern California

Holiday in the Glen: A Fortnight at Oideas Gael

Did you find this post helpful?

Do you have other tips to help learners in their quest for fluency? Let us know your thoughts below!

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Comments

  1. Kaytrina says:

    I’ve been looking for activities and get togethers in Colorado (particularly the Springs area). There are some in Denver on occasion, but not many that I’ve seen. Has anyone heard of an immersion weekend here? If not I’m interested in what it may take to organize one. I don’t have the time and probably not the resources now to do it, but in the future . . . who knows.

    Go raibh maith agat!

  2. Gearóid Ó hAnnaidh says:

    I think that when one is talking about foreign language knowledge, instead of fluency, one should rather refer to a Proficency scale similar to that of the Council of Europe’s Foreign Language Proficency scale, which has six levels: A1 and A2, B1 and B2, C1 and C2.

    Further details:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages

    Le meas,
    Gearóid

  3. Luis Miguel says:

    haha… Is faoi mise an post seo. This post is about me. I am working on it Eoin! ha ha ha… I will get there someday. It sucks that I can’t be living in Ireland speaking Irish with the locals… that is definitely what kills me maidir le seo. I try to make up for it by talking to myself a lot in Irish and also writing my thoughts and then reading them out loud. It cannot make me fluent, I know that, but it definitely brings about improvements. If I even get a chance to spend a lot of time in Ireland, sharpening mo-theanga, I will.

  4. patrick mc nally says:

    I have been told “caithfidh tu ag cur le cheile”.it helps learners like myself. Padraig.

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