Beyond Fluency: Is This All There Is?

Updated: Apr 29

Introducing "Fluidity," the New Pinnacle

in Foreign Language Mastery

by Angela Brumett PhD

Functionality and fluency are both worthy language-learning goals, but fluidity is the ultimate linguistic feat that differs in that it requires adding layer(s) to one’s own identity, a transformative process some are more open to than others. Functional, fluent, or fluid: What's the difference?


Functionality in a language is having a working knowledge of it.

Language in general is first a tool. A language is one means of communication; that much is obvious, and most of us can learn enough of any language to use it for that purpose and do that in a relatively short period of time.  You could forfeit any attempt to sound like a native speaker and even bypass much of the formal grammar and still make yourself very well understood.  You don’t need to know every word or phrase for everything, just the most useful words and phrases for the things you want to say and understand.  In this sense, another language is like a tool that you can add rather quickly to your toolbox much like the ability to type 60 words per minute.


Fluency is being able to get any message across without the use of a dictionary or phrasebook.

Achieving fluency in another language takes not only much more work, it takes real desire to communicate more than just messages—the real desire to express your thoughts and/or understand others when they express theirs.  You may not be able to express your creativity— even more rare than a great poet is a great poet who composes great works in a second language— but accuracy and sincerity are certainly attainable. All of us have met many people who speak English fluently who did not grow up speaking English outside of English class.  Fluency is the goal of language learners who want to use a language in one or more important major areas of their lives such as career or in forming new families with partners of differing linguistic backgrounds.  The language is still a tool and using it is still a skill more than core identity, except in the most extreme cases. Although through such extensive use it has far-reaching effects on the presentation of oneself.


Seamless fluency is the foundation of language fluidity.

Fluidity in a language other than your native language(s) or a natural-like command of a language and the ability to use it much more like a native than just a student of that language is a rare language learning accomplishment. Many people in the world can speak more than one language fluently, which is to say correctly and even very well, but not fluidly. You speak your native language fluidly. If you grew up speaking other languages, you may speak them fluidly also. If you speak any language fluidly under any other circumstances, you are a rare individual with a linguistic edge over— just about everyone, even most polyglots.  


By both tuning in to native speech and identifying with native speakers.

Fluidity is the subconscious or muscle memory level of foreign language mastery.

Imagine a chorus line.  Until you learn to become a great dancer among the great dancers already in the line, you have no business choreographing its next number.  You must learn not just the right steps in isolation but to put the steps to the rhythm at the right pace and, perhaps most importantly, to be indistinguishable from the others in the line— until it’s your turn to do a solo.  You must also be able to blend in starting at any point of the routine.  That’s what it means to be able to fully “tune in.”  Only when you’ve mastered that will you be able to successfully “author” new, original routines; only when you’ve not just mastered but internalized the rules can you “apply” them in original ways or “break” them meaningfully.  

Linguistic Fluidity is Language Nirvana

Linguistic fluidity is the only way master poets ever create great poetry in second languages, which is why so few ever do it, but they do it.  When creating original expression in the language becomes natural to you, you’ve achieved fluidity.  The result of having achieved fluidity may simply be your ordinary thoughts can and often do come to you in the other language first which, unfortunately, isn't anywhere near inspirational enough for epic poetry, but you will be far past just getting your thoughts across to an audience without ever making a linguistic mistake.  

When you are fluid, your thoughts will form organically in the language almost as if you are breathing it, not just thinking in it.  Your thoughts will be part of its flow instead of it just being part of your thoughts.  
The language will have transformed from your tool to another layer of your identity, and the more complete that layer, the more complete the fluidity.

Fluency and fluidity can overlap and exist simultaneously to some degree. Occasionally, you might still make the special mistakes that fluent individuals can make despite bonafide fluency. You may not have learned a specific term in a specialized jargon with which native speakers are generally familiar and if you guess, based on your admirable and vast knowledge of the language, you have a better than average chance of getting it right-- but not a guarantee. This can occur from time to time even after you have achieved a unmistakable level of fluidity.

Perhaps when startled, you now always utter something in the foreign language. Maybe you dream in it more often than not. You might even be able to make original puns and other jokes that impress the native speakers. It's all very satisfying, so don't be discouraged when, especially after a long time of not sticking out as much, you make a mistake.

What the situation boils down to is that the only real difference between you and the natives is the amount of exposure in context that many of them, but not all of them, have more of due to time spent in that language environment and the circumstances that put them there. It isn't a talent you don't have or a goal you can't achieve, especially with your keen enthusiasm and steady dedication push it forward. As long as you make fluidity, not fluency, your goal, you will gain complete fluency sooner than you imagine and fluidity will be the much deserved bonus of your journey in a foreign language until it is no longer foreign to you and becomes yours.

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