What is fluency? How can you become 'fluent' in English?
Flow: Image: Cea. via FlickrAs a teacher in Japan, I was surprised by how many people want to be able to speak English like a native speaker. Tetsuya 'Ted' Yasukochi of 東進ハイスクール has noticed it too:
"Strangely, almost everybody learning English in Japan, even beginners, wants to be like a native speaker, and some people are ashamed of speaking English which is even a little bit short of that of a native speaker."
According to Yasukochi-sensei, most people in Japan spend their English lives waiting for a day that will never come — the day they speak English perfectly. Most people will never be able to speak English like a native speaker. Even Mr Yasukochi himself admits that he will probably never be able to speak English like a native speaker. It's an impossible dream. David Thayne of AtoZ English agrees:
"If a Japanese person aims for "perfect English," I think he or she will become disappointed and discouraged."
Because the goal of native-level English is impossible, it creates a mental barrier for most Japanese people when they speak English. However, it is possible to be fluent in English, but before we talk about that we need to think about what "fluency" is.
What is fluency?
Being fluent and speaking like a native speaker are not the same thing. Speaking like a native speaker is, more or less, speaking perfectly. That's probably impossible. So let's think about what it means to be fluent in English — something that anyone can be.
According to Mr Thayne, the basic answer is that you are fluent when you are able to speak freely and smoothly:
"The world "fluent" refers to something that is free flowing. If you say, "He speaks English fluently," it doesn't mean that his English is perfect. I think it means that he is able to have a smooth conversation. He can express his feelings and opinions clearly."
Interestingly, Makoto Ishiwata and Keiichi Kato of Kaplan in Tokyo both had the same idea of fluency. For them, a person is fluent when he or she can think in English. When a person does not have to think in Japanese while they speak English, their English becomes smoother and easier. "Most Japanese people think of what they want to say in Japanese first, and then try to translate it into English. Needless to say, this hinders their fluency," adds Mr Ishiwata.
However, we must be careful: you can fake fluency with five simple techniques. If a person can speak quickly, but they still have a bad accent, very poor grammar and strange word choice, we cannot call them "fluent". Fluency must include naturalness and accuracy. If a fluent speaker is going to express themselves clearly, he or she must have a good understanding of grammar and syntax, plenty of experience of the language, natural responses, and a mastery of a wide range of sentence patterns and vocabulary.
How do you know when you are fluent?
There are many signs of fluency in language. It is important to understand the signs of fluency for two reasons:
- You can realise when you are fluent (and have reached your language goal);
- You can design your practice and language learning to improve fluency faster.
These are the skills of fluent speakers:
- Thinking in English— A fluent speaker will think to themselves in English just as they do in Japanese. When they speak or write English, they will not need to make a sentence in Japanese first, then translate it.
- Reacting in English — A person who is not yet fluent in English will react first (either in their mind, or out loud) in Japanese. Fluent English speakers will react in English first (if they are with English speakers), without thinking.
- Understanding from context — When a fluent speaker listens to, or reads, English, if they find a word they do not know, they can understand from the context two things: (1) if it is important to the meaning of the sentence; (2) what that word probably means. Fluent speakers are good at guessing and are more confident with words and phrases they don't know, whereas people who are not fluent will get stuck.
- Seeing English in chunks — People who are not fluent will read or speak word by word. Fluent English speakers will see words in groups that express one idea. For example, to an English learner "on the train" is three words: "on"; "the"; and "train". Each word is a challenge to them. What is "the"? Why is it not "in"? To a fluent speaker, "on the train" is one idea: "on-the-train".
- Ability to predict — Fluent speakers can see what is coming. For example, a fluent speaker can complete these phrases: "It's right there in black and _____"; "There is somebody at the d___"; "He's feeling under the w______"; and so on. They can also read between the lines.
- Knowing what language means, not how to define it — Learners often want to understand English in unnatural detail. However, fluent speakers have enough experience of a language to understand the word itself, as it is. For example, for a fluent speaker, "for" means "for" and "cat" means "cat". If you ask a fluent speaker what "for" means, they will have trouble telling you. Try it with Japanese. If I was your student, and I asked you, "What does 「ため」 mean?", or "What is 「ねこ」?", would it be easy for you to tell me in Japanese, without translating into English? You know what these words 「ため」 and 「ねこ」 mean, but defining them is not so easy.
- Listening in the present — A fluent speaker understands English as they hear it. When someone who is not fluent listens to English, there is a delay between the words entering their ears and their understanding of what they mean. They need time to think about it and process the words. If you read a simple sentence in English, I am sure that you can understand it without thinking in Japanese. However, the true test is if you can have a conversation, or read more difficult English, and not need to use Japanese to understand it.
How can I become fluent?
The first thing to know is that fluency takes a long time. Some people will claim you can be fluent after a few months. The problem is their idea of fluency. Anyone who is truly fluent in a language will tell you that it takes many years to reach true fluency. The second thing to understand is that fluency comes with practice. A large part of fluency comes from physical skills and reactions which require you doing things 10,000 times. Many students don't practice enough (if they practice at all). However, to be fluent, you need to move your English from your conscious mind to your subconscious mind. The way to do that is through practice. Remember that if you want to be fluent, English should not be something you think about; English should be something you do without thinking (like driving, balancing or breathing).
There are a number of things you can do to train yourself and increase your fluency in English:
- Talk to yourself: Make a habit of talking to yourself in English as much as you can. It doesn't matter if your English is correct or not, just start. You will improve with time.
- Tweet in English: Writing a few sentences a day in English on Twitter is a good way to practice communicating in English.
- Sing: Music is a great way to learn English, and learning the words to a song and singing it is great exercise for fluency.
- Memorise a speech: I went to an event in Tokyo and saw Mr. Makoto Ishiwata recite Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech. He was perfect: his intonation, his pronunciation, his accent and his rhythm were exactly like Dr King's. Choose a speech you like, and copy it until you are perfect. If you are as dedicated as Mr. Ishiwata, you will be fluent.
- Read: Reading will give you the experience you need to be able to predict language and see English as sets of words and chunks.
- React: Learn to react in English. If you hurt yourself, don't say ｢痛い！｣, say "Ouch!" When you watch TV, react to it in English. Copy the reactions of the characters in movies or shows you watch. Talk to your TV.
- Listen to English every day: just like reading, listening will help you get the experience you need. Make sure you try to understand things as you hear them. Don't analyse. Try to understand English when you listen to it as you would understand Japanese — naturally and without thought or effort.
- Think in English: Start simple. Name everything you see in English. Then make simple sentences. Imagine conversations. Do anything you like, but make sure you have English at the front of your mind as often as you can.
- Repeat everything: In your lessons, and when you are learning at home, use the 555 technique. Do lots of listen-and-repeat training. Say sentences and phrases until they are smooth.
- Shadow: Watch a movie or a TV show and shadow what they say. This is really difficult to do. You have to listen and talk at the same time. At first, you will find it a real challenge. But keep practicing!
- Write: You should write every day. This will help you express your ideas. Get your writing checked and you will learn from your mistakes. All areas of your English will improve when you practice writing.
- Paraphrase: Learn how to say things more than one way. You will deepen your understanding of English and variety of expression.
- Take grammar seriously: Grammar is the structure of language. Having good grammar means that all the right parts of English are in the right places. If you have good grammar, you will be able to understand new sentences and phrases you have never read or heard before. If your grammar is bad, your English will not be clear and even if you can speak quickly, you will not be speaking well.
- Expand your vocabulary: Learning more words will mean you can find the right word to express yourself. It goes without saying that you will be able to understand English quickly and smoothly if you know more words.
- Use English to learn English: If you are a beginner, then you will need to use Japanese in your English class. However, every day you should try to use Japanese less and less. Don't keep using Japanese to understand English. It will only hold you back. Try to use English or you will never be fluent.
- Don't try to understand everything perfectly: Nobody understands everything perfectly anyway. Even native speakers are not sure what things in English mean sometimes. If you want to understand perfectly, you will not be fluent. If you want to translate things exactly, you will never be fluent. It's really, really hard to translate well. Only a few people in the world are very good translators of Japanese to English. That's their job and it takes them years and years to be that good.
- Live in an English world:You don't need to live in the USA or Australia to use English every day. You can live in an English world in Chiba or Kagoshima or Wakkanai or wherever you are.
- Do fluency training: Fluency training works on brain speed. For example, choose a verb ("go") and then say all the forms of the verb you can out loud ("I go"; "I went"; "I don't go"; "I didn't go"; "I will go"; "I won't go"; "I have gone"; "I want to go"; "I am going"; etc).
- Stop thinking word by word: When you learn a new word, learn it in a phrase. For example, don't think "look" and "at" or "listen" and "to"; think "look at" and "listen to". When you learn English in sets of words, you will be faster and smoother.
- Never be afraid of making mistakes. As Paul Raine points out, you must balance mistakes with fluency. Speaking faster will mean that you make more mistakes, but that is OK in some situations. In other situations, like a business meeting, it will be very important to communicate carefully. In those cases, your English will not be so fluent.
You don't need to do all of these things. Just choose two or three and start doing them every day. Make them habits. Next week, choose two or three more and focus on them. Every week try a new technique. Keep doing it and never give up, and one day you will be an fluent English speaker.
Thanks to Michael Radich, Tetsuya Yasukochi, Makoto Ishiwata, Keiichi Kato, David Thayne and Paul Raine for their contributions to this article.