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Most of us heard about such levels as Beginner, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, Advanced.

As I understand "Fluent" is the highest level when describing someone's English.

But how would you describe it? Some people think that "Fluent" is just when you speak very good (relative to other non-native speakers). But I think this is not enough. I think that you can say that you speak fluently when it is hard for native speakers to understand (based on your speech, accent and grammar) that English is not your native language. And if a native speaker can quickly (matter of seconds, or a minute) understand that your are a foreigner - you don't have a fluent level.

What do you think?

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For me personally, a fluent speaker/writer is someone who is thinking in the very language he is speaking/writing. He might have a thick accent, and his grammar might be off, but as long as he's not pausing even for a split second to translate words from his mother tongue, that's fluency. This is, of course, hard to measure (how would I know what language you are thinking in right now?), but I usually apply that metric only to myself anyway. –  RegDwigнt Jan 27 '11 at 18:52
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4 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

For an answer to this question, I will refer you to Jack Seward, who covers this topic specifically in his book Japanese in Action. Although he is talking about Japanese, the same things are true of any language, including English:

To be accurately judged fluent in [a language], I believe a [non-native speaker] should have the following qualifications:

  1. He should be able to conduct all his daily affairs (business, visits to the doctor, TV-ing, bar-hopping, lovemaking, etc.) completely in [the language] without strain.
  2. His accent may not be perfect, but it should occasion no confusion or merriment among his listeners.
  3. He should be able to read [publications in the language] (newspapers, weekly magazines, and letters in the [cursive] ... style), with only an occasional reference to a dictionary.

He goes on to propose that a test for fluency in the language should require the test taker to:

  1. Translate a newspaper article
  2. Speak in [the language] on the telephone, as a test of accent.
  3. Write a letter in [the language].
  4. Interpret a taped conversation between two [native speakers of the language].
  5. Comprehend a newscast.
  6. Identify five major dialects.
  7. Read a letter written in [cursive handwriting].
  8. [Not applicable]
  9. Give the meanings of one hundred technical words or phrases ... from the fields of medicine, law, economy, science, and the arts ... [which are readily understood by the average native-speaker who is a college graduate].
  10. Walk down the street and [read and interpret] the first twenty signs to be sighted.
  11. Give a ten-minute, impromptu talk about an everyday topic of conversation (sports, politics, travel, traffic, etc.), the topic to be selected [at random].
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Nice list. However, I'm not sure an average native speaker would do particularly well on #9 or #11 (at least when it comes to English). –  dbkk Feb 25 '11 at 6:54
    
In the initial criteria, I wonder why he limits passive fluency to reading fluency: I would also add a (4), that 'fluency' generally implies understanding with ease practically all utterances in the language spoken by native speakers as though they were speaking to another native speaker. –  Neil Coffey Apr 23 '12 at 4:14
    
@NeilCoffey: What do you think Nos. 1 & 2 are about, then? Both seem to me to be all about speaking. –  Robusto Apr 23 '12 at 12:49
    
@Robusto, IMO they don't fully cover understanding of what is being said between native speakers around you (or indeed understanding, say, a radio programme), which I would also count as being part of fluency. I think 'conducting your daily business' is an unnecessarily narrow notion. –  Neil Coffey Apr 23 '12 at 15:05
    
@NeilCoffey: How does "TV-ing" fail to cover things like "a radio programme" nicely? In fact, I think it's ironic that you're calling something narrow while complaining that it hasn't listed your issues specifically. "All his daily affairs" is about as general as you can get, IMO. But if you want to go into this in more depth, log into ELU chat and we can discuss it. –  Robusto Apr 23 '12 at 15:12
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Strictly speaking 'fluent' in relation to speech means only that it flows smoothly and easily. There is no implication that you shouldn't be able to detect the non-native status of the speaker, and I think this is a perhaps too high a standard.

If someone speaks English as well as the average Englishman, but has a slight accent that betrays his foreign origins, does that mean he isn't fluent? I'd consider someone fluent if they didn't need to pause to think of a word any more than a native.

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I agree with this. Even a very competent foreign speaker of English will likely have an accent that can be recognised as "foreign" by a Brit/Englishman, say. –  Noldorin Jan 27 '11 at 19:15
    
I agree. Fluent does not necessarily mean perfect. –  Pete Jan 27 '11 at 22:05
    
@Noldorin: Which is why Seward's second criterion which I cite above is given as follows: "His accent may not be perfect, but it should occasion no confusion or merriment among his listeners." –  Robusto Dec 5 '13 at 1:39
    
@Robusto: Never said yours was wrong, so not sure why you're defending yourself. :P Who is this Seward guy anyway? He writes in an amusingly archaic style. –  Noldorin Dec 5 '13 at 16:29
    
@Noldorin: Jack Seward –  Robusto Dec 5 '13 at 17:09
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You can define "fluent" semantically however you wish to set a standard for yourself or others. Awesome, semantics are cool!

In practice, I think "fluency" is generally used in the sense of "having the ability to reciprocally communicate naturally without miscommunication", and to that extent alone. It's not exactly a rigorous term from the get go, just a 'nation' if you will. After all, "fluency" is often used to describe even domain languages within English. I might be "fluent" in computer technology, but not be "fluent" in Biology terminology. I may even be "fluent" in a technical field that crosses languages such as scientific latin or mathematical notation.

Heck, we even use "fluency" to describe ability in things that don't even relate to language, because the concept is sort of broad from the beginning.

It's more important to set a specific goal and achieve that than to rely on the definition of a word validating your ability.

And as a funny philosophical comparison, if you never /notice/ a speaker make a mistake, is he still fluent? That is, if a tree falls in an empty forest, does it make a sound?

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I would propose that a "fluent" speaker is one who can learn the language in the language.

This of course needs some clarification, as newborns are not fluent in their regional language even though they primarily learn to speak in their regional language. I would argue that everyone learns their first language in info-graphic association (or equivalent for those with disabilities).

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I am a living counter-example: I learnt Japanese in Japanese from day 1. –  Nicolas Raoul Jun 2 '11 at 1:22
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protected by RegDwigнt Apr 23 '12 at 9:26

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