I’ve come across numerous ways of organizing language levels. However it’s not always easy to fit someone’s abilities into a neat little category. For many language students, the goal is to ultimately become fluent. But what does this mean? Many people I’ve encountered think that fluent means you know a lot of words and understand all the words when someone is speaking that language. Sometimes my students were astonished when they asked me what a word in English meant only to find out that I didn’t know. Their argument was that I’m a native speaker, therefore I should know all the words in the English language. Most often the words they asked about were scientific and so I couldn’t claim to know them. Also, when translated into Russian, chances are the same Russian students didn’t know these words either, despite the fact that they’re fluent in Russian.
So is there a difference between being a native speaker and being fluent? Fluency is defined as being able to speak (read, write) smoothly, easily and readily. But sometimes even native speakers forget their words. Does this mean they’re not fluent?
Also, sometimes when speaking another language I’ll find that I understand 100% of what the other person is saying in that language. But, if I had to turn around and translate word by word what was said, in English, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Does that mean I didn’t understand? Does that mean I’m not fluent? Does fluency only relate to being able to read, speak and write? What about understand? Even if we don’t speak a certain language, sometimes we can understand by picking out cognates or because of a languages similarity to another language we know. This surely doesn’t mean we’re fluent, does it?
What about times when you know a word (either in your native language or a foreign language) but for some reason just can’t remember it at the moment. When someone tells you this word or you find it in a dictionary, you have an “aha” moment where you know that you know this word. But does that mean you really speak the language and are fluent if you can’t remember the words, thus impairing your ability to speak easily, smoothly and readily?
Or are the aforementioned examples just steps on the way to learning a language and, ultimately, becoming fluent? What are the stages of language learning? Is it even possible to outline them? It seems that everyone’s experience of learning a language is unique. While it might be possible to control and outline these steps in a language classroom, when outside materials and experience in the target country or contact with native speakers of the target language come into play, the process gets a bit more complicated.
Well, what’s the importance of all this? Is it really necessary to speak about becoming fluent or are there better goals of language learning? Does categorizing language really help us in the process of learning languages? Does fluency really exist?