Proficiency and fluency are words that you’ll hear a lot in the world of language learning. They’re especially hot topics in setting language goals and measuring how far along you are.
What do they mean? Are they the same thing? Which one is more important for language learners?
Read on as we break down all this and more!
Table of Contents
- What is language proficiency?
- What is fluency?
- Proficiency vs. fluency
- Tips for achieving proficiency
- Tips for achieving fluency
- Common mistakes to avoid along the way
What is language proficiency?
Proficiency is about the mastery of a language. A person who is proficient in a language understands the grammar, knows the vocabulary for a variety of topics, and can effectively listen and communicate.
How can you measure language proficiency?
The most well-known measure of proficiency is the Common European Framework of Reference (CERF). The levels are:
- A1 (Beginner)
- A2 (Elementary)
- B1 (Intermediate)
- B2 (Upper-Intermediate)
- C1 (Advanced)
- C2 (Expert)
These levels are determined by the learners skills in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Other common language proficiency tests include the Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) and the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale (ILR). Most language learning websites and apps also have their own tests to help experienced learners decide where to start.
Advantages of achieving proficiency
Achieving proficiency in a language and being able to demonstrate it can open up a lot of new doors. For example, you could get the most out of a study abroad program, work with speakers of the language, or even live and work abroad with a solid technical mastery of the language.
What is fluency?
Many new language learners are focused on becoming fluent, but what does fluent mean? Merriam-Webster defines “fluent” in the context of language as “capable of using a language easily and accurately.” Fluency is less about a skill level and more about speaking a language comfortably.
Many people achieve this before they’ve reached expert proficiency. Being fluent in a language is a bit like being a good writer or good public speaker. It’s not about using the right words, but about being easy to understand.
How can you measure fluency?
Fluency is more subjective than proficiency, but it can be measured. Speech rate, accuracy, and utterance rate are quantifiable traits of fluent speech.
Speech rate refers to the speed with which the learner speaks the language.
Accuracy refers to pronunciation and choice of words and phrases that are appropriate for the situation.
Utterance length is the length of speaking words and phrases between hesitations.
Advantages of achieving fluency
The more comfortable and confident you are speaking your target language, the more you’ll enjoy it. Being able to easily and smoothly carry on a conversation also makes it easier to connect with native speakers.
Proficiency vs. fluency
You can be both proficient and fluent. In fact that’s the goal in most cases. You can also be one but not the other. If your vocabulary and grammar are strong but you don’t speak smoothly, you’re proficient but not fluent. If you sound convincing but your vocabulary and grammar limit what you can talk about in the first place, you’re fluent but not proficient.
Which one should you focus on – proficiency or fluency?
Both fluency and proficiency are important for learning languages. Which one you should focus on depends on what you struggle with.
For some language learners, learning vocabulary and grammar comes easier than speaking smoothly and convincingly. For others, the opposite is true.
You can avoid these discrepancies by working on speaking out loud right away and using listening practice tools with authentic accents.
Tips for achieving proficiency
To improve your quantifiable language skills, study smart and follow these tips.
Use spaced repetition
Cramming in everything you can all at once isn’t an effective way to become fluent or proficient. If you don’t make an active effort to review what you’ve learned, you won’t remember it. Spaced repetition is a method to keep learners from forgetting older material as they learn new material. The more you learn, the further apart the review questions get. Over time, the review material becomes part of your long-term memory.
This is the principle behind many language learning apps and websites including Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, Anki, and more.
Focus on vocabulary you’ll use in your life
Neither fluency nor proficiency are about learning as many words as possible. Most people can’t talk about every subject under the sun in their native language because everything has its own lingo. A more realistic goal is to learn the vocabulary you need to talk about your life, job, and interests comfortably.
There’s a reason the earliest lessons for any foreign language start with words that everyone uses. It’s not necessarily because they’re easier than other words, but because you can’t get by without them.
Stick to a schedule
Getting good at anything requires motivation. The best way to keep motivation alive is setting a routine that’s easy to follow. To become conversational in a year, educators recommend studying seven hours per week. How you split that up is up to you. For the best, most pleasant results, study when you are awake, alert, and productive.
Tips for achieving fluency
Read out loud
Speaking a new language out loud doesn’t come easily right away, especially when you’re still working on forming sentences organically. Reading out loud is a great way to practice reading and speaking at the same time. Over time, you’ll get more and more comfortable with it and that will transfer to real life conversations.
Avoid translating literally in your mind
Thinking out what you’re going to say in your native language and then translating into your target language may make sense as a beginner. But when you’re reading a book, having a conversation, or writing pretty much anything it will just tire you out and ultimately hold you back. When you’re speaking or writing, focus on expressing what you want to say using the words you know. Though occasionally looking up a word you don’t know is fine.
This way, you’ll stumble less and learn to use the language as it is without forcing it into the framework of your native language.
Listen to native speakers
While proficiency can be about how the language “should be,” fluency is about speaking it the way other speakers use it. There are some quirks about how a language works that you can only learn from listening and interaction with native speakers. Imitating native speakers will also help you have a more convincing accent.
If you can’t meet native speakers in real life, connecting through sites for this purpose, watching TV and movies in your target language, and using language programs that use authentic voices (for example, Rosetta Stone’s TruAccent speech engine) can give you a similar experience.
Common mistakes to avoid along the way
No matter what skills you’re focusing on, avoiding these mistakes can help set you up for success.
Setting vague goals
Setting goals is important for setting yourself up to build the skills that matter to you and use your time effectively. “I want to be fluent” isn’t going to cut it. To set effective goals, it’s important to know your motivation, be specific, remember that it takes time, set short and long-term goals, and connect them to how you want to use your new language in addition to any proficiency level you want to achieve.
Using an approach that doesn’t match how you learn
There’s more than one answer to “how to learn a language”. From the tools you use to the way you structure your study time, your approach can be as unique as you are. Just because your friend loves Duolingo or practicing first thing in the morning doesn’t mean you will. If any of your language learning activities aren’t working for you, don’t slog through it out of a sense of obligation. Find a replacement that works better.
Giving up when it gets hard
Most things that are worth doing aren’t easy. Though learning a language shouldn’t feel like a daunting slog, you will have moments when it’s hard. You’ll struggle with pronouncing something. You’ll forget the words. You’ll say the sentence in the wrong order. You might even feel like you’ll never get it right. But you will. And when you do, it’ll feel great! And before you know it that thing that just wouldn’t stick before will become second nature.
Getting too tied up in grammar
This is where one of the differences between fluency and proficiency comes in. Proficiency, especially if you’re taking a test to certify it, does require understanding and correctly using grammar concepts. Fluency isn’t about grammar beyond what you need to communicate clearly. Either way, there’s no need to stress out about being perfect every time. Even native speakers aren’t grammatically “proper” all the time.
Not giving yourself enough time
Reaching advanced skills in a new language takes time no matter what you plan on doing with it. Don’t trust anything that promises anything like “fluent in 2 weeks, guaranteed.” How long it takes to learn a language depends on a variety of factors, including:
- Similarity between your target language and native language
- Your memorization skills
- Your self-motivation
- Which tools and strategies you use
- When you consider yourself “done”
Proficiency and fluency are two different sides of a language learner’s skill level. Proficiency is the technical side and fluency is the confidence side. Though they are not the same, they feed into each other. Which one is more important will depend on your goals.
Rosetta Stone is a property of IXL Learning, Inc.
Rosetta Stone is a property of IXL Learning, Inc.