I’ve been reading Fluent in Three Months by Benny Lewis and I thought I’d share with you the points he makes about fluency and that our idea of what fluency is may be too demanding.
Speaking On All Topics With Ease?
So for example, people may have in mind that someone who is fluent will be able to speak on all topics; however as Lewis points out this is actually a completely unrealistic expectation. How many times have you been to your local garage when they’ve talked about the problem with your car and you’ve not been able to understand? Or a complex theological discussion? For me something as basic as football goes completely over my head. If we’re expecting to be able to achieve what we’re just not able to do in our mother tongue then expectations are way too high.
Speaking Without Hesitations?
Lewis also makes the point that we think that in our second language we should be able to speak it without hesitations, but again this isn’t something we do in our mother tongue. How many times might you say ‘erm’ as you speak? Or forget a word, struggling to find what you mean even though it’s just ‘on the tip of my tongue’. The fact we have an expression for this is telling in itself.
Yet when we forget a word in French, and as a result find it hard to communicate, we put this down to our inadequacy in our chosen language. Most of the time it’s a word we do know, but our brief lack of recall convinces us in this situation that we don’t really know it.
Use Complex Vocabulary and Advanced Expressions
Lewis also makes the point that he, nor do many people, use complex vocabulary in their mother tongue, opting to communicate with the most frequently used words that we all use. In fact complex vocabulary can hinder rather than promote communication when those your talking to in your mother tongue may not know it.
Struggling To Understand
This is actually one I’ve added myself. My mother volunteers at the local food bank in France. We were having a conversation about fluency and becoming fluent in French and she brought this up as an example of her lack of fluency and Lewis’s points were brought to mind. There had been an occasion where one of the women who helped also received the food banks assistance and for her it meant the difference between keeping her head above water. On this occasion there had been a mistake and all the food, which was allocated through the computer, had been given away before she had received any.
My mum described it as her being unable to understand; that she knew it was to do with the the system, it had never happened before and she was struggling to know what had happened. But if the conversation was in English wouldn’t she have struggled too? Something which had never occurred before, so outside of her normal experience, had happened and it was to do with the computerised system that she had no knowledge of. In English she still would have struggled to catch up and understand.
If you speak with an American, and Australian, or someone from the other side of the country you live in accents and colloquialisms can suddenly make speaking your native tongue a challenge with another person. Is it really hard to think that the same thing would happen with our textbook French in relation to speaking it to a native speaker?
Lewis points out that the definition of fluency is being able to speak or write a specified foreign language with facility. However we can continue to raise the bar whilst not recognising we have realised a level of fluency. He refers to the CEF system as a better indicator of where your fluency level is in order to determine what your language learning goals are.
The CEF System – Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – uses standard terminology for specific language levels.
Level A Basic User
A1 Breakthrough Or Beginner
At these stage the language leaner can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type such as buying an everyday item in a shop. They can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. They can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
This to me is the basic level of French learnt at school up to year nine.
A2 – Way Stage Or Elementary
At this stage the learner can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). They can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. They can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
There seems little difference to me between A1 and A2 except for the speed at which these conversations are handled.
Level B Independent User
B1 – Threshold or Intermediate
The language leaner can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. They can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken. They can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest. They describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
B2 – Vantage or Upper Intermediate
They can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization. They can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. They can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Level C Proficient User
C1 – Effective Operational Proficiency Or Advanced
They can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. They can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. They can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. They can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2 – Mastery or Proficiency
They can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. They can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. They can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
Looking at this what level are you? What will be your focus to push you to the next level? I know in my tutor sessions (my second was tonight) I’m able to haphazardly communicate on a variety of topics, so I think I’m at B1. However having a tutor has meant I’ve been provided with feedback as to what I can work on – swapping from tu to vous and making sure I keep the verb conjugations consistent.
I know myself that I also need to focus on reflexive and reciprocal verbs as this isn’t something that has come up in the French conversations that I’ve had prior to these sessions. Primarily because you don’t tend to have the conversations with shop assistants, waiters etc.
These are now my targets. I’d love to hear any of yours.