What is Fluency?

A Humbling Experience

How frustrating it was to have studied Czech for so long, and still not have a feeling of fluency in the language.

Sure, I could answer the kinds of questions asked in class: “Where is the pencil?” “The pencil is on the table!” and so on. But I couldn’t say much that was useful in real life.

So, I kept hitting the textbooks and going to classes. I kept saying to myself: “I just need to study more. If only I had more vocabulary, and learned more grammar, then things would finally click”.

Within a few months, I knew several thousand words, and was making headway in the notoriously difficult Czech grammar.

But even doing this, fluency never came. I still couldn’t hold a half-decent conversation.

It was a humbling experience.

So what was I doing wrong?

For the longest time, I couldn’t work it out.

Language Glue

Things changed during an ordinary conversation with Gina, an English friend living in Prague.

Gina said to me “Anthony, I have been studying Czech for two years, and I still can’t string together a sentence with more than six words in it.”

For some reason the way she phrased it kicked my brain into motion. The light bulb went on in my head. I started to wonder, “If you can string together six words, why can’t you string together ten, or twenty, or a hundred?”

I began to realise the problem isn’t that we lacked vocabulary or grammar; it’s that we couldn’t combine the bits of the language well enough to keep a conversation going.

We weren’t missing the pieces; we were missing the language glue to join the pieces together.

Conversational Flow

So, I started to listen to conversations. And I realized the most important thing in a conversation is keeping the flow going.

Anything that breaks the flow threatens to end the conversation.

If people have long gaps in their speech, you start to wonder if they have finished.

So, we tend to fill the gaps automatically as we try to keep the conversation going.

Now, if we are struggling with language fluency, we don’t know how to fill these gaps but we know we have to do something; so we say “urm” a lot:

"Hello ... urm ... my ... urm ... name is Anthony ... urm ... urm ... I am ... urm ... from England .. and I ... urm .... I am married ... urm ... urm ... my  wife is Czech ... urm ... and urm ... she is ... urm ... she is ... urm ... urm ... a journalist."

These “urm” moments are where we are trying to think what to say next. Our brains are trying to remember the words and grammar.

The problem is that when we realize we are saying “urm” a lot we panic. We become embarrassed, and our mind goes blank.

It becomes very uncomfortable for you, and also for the person you are speaking to, since they don’t like to see you struggling, and it is hard for them to work out how to keep the flow going.

Soon, each of you is anxious for the conversation to end.

Sometimes I think of it as a bit like swimming in a river, where you want to be able to swim in the language but find yourself frantically paddling for your life.

Thinking about conversations in terms of this smooth flow, then, I no longer think of language fluency in terms of having a vocabulary of 30,000 words or a complete grasp of grammar (although that can only help!).

Instead, I now think of fluency as being able to use the vocabulary you already have, in real conversations that flow naturally in a way that feels comfortable for everybody involved in the conversation.