Almost everybody who learns a foreign language says the same thing: “I studied for many years but I still can’t speak very well at all, and I still can’t understand when native speakers are talking.”
This is what most people say when they study English or any language. It’s the same when English speakers try to learn French or German: they study for many years but they still can’t have a basic conversation in the new language.
I have met hundreds and hundreds of students who study very difficult English in IELTS and TOEFL classes- but they can’t tell me what they had for breakfast this morning.
And there is another kind of person. These people DO learn to speak a foreign language very well, but they don’t study at all! They seem to magically just “pick up” the language without any work.
They can have a conversation in a foreign language, and they understand when they listen to native speakers.
What’s going on here? In this article I will explain these two kinds of people to you.
The first kind of person I described is the typical English student. I have talked with hundreds, probably even thousands of English students from all around the world, and 99.9% of them are like this.
Maybe you are the same: you have studied English for many years, but you still don’t understand when you hear native speakers talking, and it’s very difficult for you to have a conversation in English.
In all those years of English classes, you did every exercise and you passed all the tests. You continued to the next level, and the next level after that. Maybe you even studied Advanced courses in English. You probably know a lot of words in English, you may even have a large vocabulary.
But I am the opposite. I speak Vietnamese as my second language, and I speak it pretty well. My wife doesn’t speak English and we talk 100% in Vietnamese at home every day. I live in Vietnam and I’m very comfortable speaking Vietnamese when I’m out in the city. I can shop, tell a taxi driver where to go, chat with a friend in Vietnamese and usually understand what native speakers are talking about.
However, I could never pass a grammar exam in Vietnamese. I can’t read very much at all; my vocabulary is very small.
And I’ve never studied. I’ve never had a class, never had a teacher and I very rarely look at a book about learning Vietnamese.
So these are the two different ways that people can learn a language: one person can read and write and do grammar exercises but they can’t have a conversation, another person can have a conversation but they can’t read or write or do grammar exercises.
Person #1 is proficient, but their fluency is low.
Person #2 is fluent, but their proficiency is low.
These are the two different kinds of learning and the two different kinds of skill in a foreign language: fluency and proficiency.
“To be proficient” means you can do something well. If you are proficient in golf, you can play golf well. In language learning, we are using this word a little differently. We are using “proficiency” or “to be proficient” to talk about this kind of skill in a language: the ability to read and write and do exercises on paper.
Now you know the two different kinds of skill and their names: proficiency and fluency, so let’s talk about them some more. I don’t need to explain proficiency very much because that’s what you already know about.
Proficiency is what you learn in school. Nearly every school, teacher, class, book, course, video, audio course, etc. ONLY teaches proficiency.
That’s the big problem: everybody teaches proficiency, but not fluency! And everybody spends years and years on proficiency, but then they wonder why they have no fluency.
Proficiency and fluency are very different. They are learned in different ways and they use different parts of your brain.
You already know how proficiency is learned, it’s what you are always doing: learning grammar rules, doing grammar exercises, repeating after a teacher, memorizing vocabulary, memorizing dialogs, taking tests… All of those things are for learning proficiency.
Fluency CAN’T be “learned”. It’s not possible! You can’t do those things and become fluent- it just doesn’t work that way. Fluency is completely different.
Fluency can only be “acquired”. (This idea and this term come from Stephen Krashen.)
When you ask someone fluent in a foreign language how they learned it, they say something like, “I don’t know. I didn’t study very much, it just came naturally.”
They are talking about the experience of “acquiring” fluency.
Fluency only requires a very small vocabulary. In your normal daily life you only use a very small vocabulary, just 600 or 800 words.
But to be able to use those words fluently, you have to repeat them again and again, hundreds of times. You have to use them in many different ways, in many different contexts.
Sometimes people talk about learning a language “like a child” and this is what they are talking about. A small child becomes fluent in their native language BEFORE they become proficient.
But as adults we try to learn proficiency first and THEN acquire fluency. It might not be the best way. It might be better to learn like a child, to acquire fluency first and then learn proficiency later. (This is the method used in the Automatic Language Growth method.)
A child acquires fluency, they don’t learn it. They don’t sit down with a grammar book at two years old and try to learn their native language. Instead, they acquire it naturally. They use a very small vocabulary and repeat it again and again every day, hundreds and hundreds of times until it becomes natural.
Adults study Lesson One in their English book and they think that they “know” those words. They think they have learned those basic words already so now they can go ahead to the more difficult words.
But knowing the meaning of a word doesn’t mean you can use it fluently. Do you REALLY “know” that word? Can you use it in dozens of different ways? Do you know all of the feelings that native speakers have about that word? Do you know every idiom, collocation, slang phrase, phrasal verb, joke and proverb that includes that word?
That’s what a child knows about basic words before they are five or six years old and go to school to learn more difficult words. That’s “fluency”.
“That’s the big problem: everybody teaches proficiency, but not fluency! And everybody spends years and years on proficiency, but then they wonder why they have no fluency.” Tweet This
Unfortunately these ideas are still new and the whole ESL (English as a Second Language) industry is built around proficiency, while ignoring fluency.
Every student says to me, “I need more practice speaking English!” What they mean is that they need more fluency.
Most students already have good proficiency and “practice” is the best way to increase fluency. Fortunately, your fluency will improve quickly with practice because you already know the vocabulary and you just need to use it.
Think about your own skills and experience with proficiency and fluency. What do you need more of? If your fluency is very low, then stop “studying” because it won’t help your fluency! Instead, find somebody to practice English with. Watch movies and read easy novels you enjoy.
For me it would be the opposite. I already have good fluency but I need to study for proficiency. I should read textbooks and do exercises on paper to increase my vocabulary and proficiency.
To really learn how to speak English, you need balance; you need to learn proficiency AND acquire fluency. They are very different!
Do you have any questions? Please ask in the comments below!