Saturday, 2 October 2010

Fluency Schmuency - by Theo

Coming from a country with one of the lowest rates of knowledge of a second language in Europe, if not the world, it's hardly surprising that we should misunderstand what it is to truly master a foreign language. In England we talk about being "fluent" in a language, usually equating this with having complete control over said tongue.

Not so. Fluent, from fluid, simply means to be able to talk without hesitations or significant pauses in a smooth stream of words. Your pronunciation may be atrocious, you might put the emphasis in totally the wrong places, your prose could be littered with errors and you might be completely incapable of understanding the response you elicit. Doesn't matter; you're fluent, and as far as most English people are concerned, that's enough. Forget the fact that native speakers might be completely confused by your gnomic (yet, fluent) utterances, we feel we've done our bit by blurting out our foreign phrases in one, smooth go.

Before moving to Spain I was just as guilty of this, equating fluency with being able to 'speak' a language (also a bad term - after all it's not much good being able to 'speak' a language if you can't understand the response). In fact, upon taking one of my first classes for Spanish learners of English and finding all my students to be incredibly fluent and generally faultless in English, I was astounded to discover that they were studying for the Cambridge First Certificate in English. The First Certificate. There are two more, higher level exams after that, Advanced and Proficiency. As a rookie teacher I struggled to imagine what more these almost word-perfect teenagers had to learn about the English language. I mean they were fluent, what more did we want?

My own learning experience of Spanish and my continual struggles with French have enlightened me somewhat. I am now 'fluent' in Spanish, though I'm still a long way off being word-perfect, or understanding the majority of things said to me in Spanish. Hopefully though, after 10 months of intermittent self-study, I'll be getting back to Spanish lessons and striving to improve. Or rather I'll be bringing Spanish lessons to me, having persuaded many of my teaching colleagues to band together for an in-house teacher. Meanwhile, having been allotted 4 classes of Proficiency level students in this academic year's timetable, I'll be finding out exactly what more there is to learn about English beyond fluency.

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