How to Know if You’re Fluent in English (Part I): Emerging Fluency

know if you're fluentDo you ever wonder if you´re fluent in English or not? Do you even know what fluency is, or how it should feel?

Whether you’re fluent or not, this is your chance to discover, check and define English fluency in your life, as a current reality, or as a vision of what to expect and work for.

This article will contemplate the very idea of fluency, explore an understanding of it, and fortify your path to higher and higher levels of English proficiency.

After all, if you have some idea of where you’re going and what to expect along the way, it’s a heck of a lot easier to get there.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article maps out the experience of the various levels of fluency, intentionally avoiding the complicated and often abstract descriptions of the many standardized certificates that exist, all valid on their own terms, but nevertheless limited to theory. This is my perception as a native English speaker talking with countless non-natives from all over the world, in addition to several years of teaching and language learning.

Before defining fluency, let me say that there are way too many misconceptions about fluency in the world. To compliment this article, we recommend a recently published RLE article: 8 Myths About Fluency.

What is Fluency?

There are countless definitions, and I’m a firm believer that you should start evolving your personal definition. Here’s the OXFORD DICTIONARY DEFINITION OF FLUENCY:

1 speaking or writing in an articulate and natural manner. 2 (of a language) used easily and accurately.

The above definition is sufficient, but my personal definition of fluency is a bit more flexible and inclusive.  For me, at least with respect to basic/emerging fluency, you don’t have to sound great or necessarily articulate yourself in the most beautiful way, but you do have to communicate well enough to have meaningful interactions and perform functions that are important in your life.

Before describing these levels, I would like to briefly mention three important aspects of fluency that don’t get nearly enough attention. Give the following articles a read when you get a chance.

Low-Level/ Emerging Fluency

There comes a point in your process, usually after struggling for an indefinite amount of time (depending on your situation), when you start to finally taste what fluency is like.

This is an extremely beautiful, but precarious stage of your process.  I consider this to be “low-level fluency,” or emerging fluency, and depending on the person and the situation, it usually happens in the intermediate part of most programs.

These may come randomly in a moment of need, or after a beer or two at a bar. They can happen in an English exchange experience or in your home country. If you are fortunate to study at a school that creates opportunities for you to use your English, this may also happen in a class.

Exciting Times Discovering English 

creativityOn the one hand, it’s an exciting time because you start to have authentic glimpses of fluency in its real-life application, experiencing natural and meaningful communication, even if it’s not perfect, comfortable, or permanent (yet).  You realize that the hard work is paying off.

This is a HUGE step for your learning process because you can, if you are courageous, start exploring the English speaking world and building your skills in authentic situations. The abstractness of the English language dissolves as you discover what it feels like to speak and communicate, even if for just short periods of time.

The Struggles of Emerging Fluency

On the other hand, for a lot of people, this stage can be very frustrating because these moments of effective communication are often followed by moments of struggle and doubt and depending on how strong you are psychologically, you might be your own worst enemy. You communicate well one day, but then the next day (or even the next moment) you can’t, and you think there is something wrong with you or your process.

emergingRemember that progress comes in ups and downs, you are not at a fixed level, but at a range of abilities at any given moment. Let’s imagine that low-level fluency requires your English to be at 60% (arbitrary number), but your current English level is between 50% and 60% (you are just starting to taste 60%– only on your best days). This means that unless you are having a good day, you probably won’t speak that well.

It isn’t until the lower part of your range reaches 60% (and your English is between 60% and 70%) that you are permanently okay speaking (at which point your upper limit would be much stronger too).

Another difficulty that learners at this stage often have is that their listening ability is a lot worse than their speaking.  For this I recommend making English a part of your daily life through native speaking media channels, and a competent use of survival phrases: Sorry?/ Can you repeat (slower) please?/ What does that mean?/ How do you say?

Confidence & Emerging Fluency

The delicate and up and down nature of fluency is why confidence extremely important at this stage.  Celebrate the positive moments, and accept the frustrating moments as part of your process.

Remember that your process has taken you this far, and the best thing you can do is relax and open your mouth and make lots of mistakes. The struggles are natural, and the good moments will become the norm, but you need to be gentle with yourself. With practice you’ll have more and more days where you feel fluent until you are permanently on this level.

Confidence gives you the positive attitude that is favorable for learning in authentic situations. Confidence gives you the patience with yourself to make mistakes, and it gives you the courage to risk putting yourself into these situations. Without confidence, you have an unrealistic expectation of what speaking should be like, and your emerging fluency doesn’t get the patience and support it needs.

People who interpret their experiences like this have difficulty moving past this stage because they expect to be perfect (these are awesome excellent students at school, but horrible learners in real life).

When you are comfortable and consistent with “low-level” fluency, you gradually or quickly move from emerging fluency to the point where your practice and knowledge consolidate once again for another “breakthrough” or improvement to what I call “mid-level fluency.”

Call to Action

Dreams Don't Work Unless You DoA good part of our readers and the RealLife English Community are obviously well beyond this level of “emerging fluency,” and for you we will discuss mid-level and advanced fluency next time.

But for those who are just starting to emerge into fluency, remember that you have come far, that you’re in a very favorable place, and that the best thing you can do is embrace your situation and practice as much as you can, make as many mistakes as you can, and not take yourself so seriously.  7 Things Not to Do When Speaking English is an excellent read for people at this level.

Read Part II of This Article 

No matter what your level, remember that fluency is a personal experience, and nobody else can give you the confidence and cultural understanding to speak in a natural, relaxed way, or tell you how well or poorly you speak. This is something you have to earn through your own experience, which is often painful, but IT IS rewarding. Get support from people who have been through this.

We hope this article was helpful, and if you enjoyed it, we would really appreciate it if you could like, share, and we would love to know what you think in the comments below. Your feedback, experiences, and thoughts on the subject are really important not just for us, but also the rest of our readers.

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Return from How to Know if You’re Fluent in English: Emerging Fluency to Fluency Essentials

  • laetitia says:

    Hey Justin, what a wonderful article! So eye-opening, haha, you are a really good psychologist. I am learning brazilian portuguese and find all your language learning tips very useful. Thank you!

    • Justin says:

      Hey Laetitia, I appreciate your feedback, and I’m glad you found it useful. How are you learning Portuguese? Are you in Brazil or living abroad? Where are you from? Here’s an article I’ve found useful in my Portuguese learning:

      Take care and I hope to hear from you!

  • laetitia says:

    Hey Justin! I apologize for my late response. Wish I could say I was busy improving my Portuguese, but… it’s not an easy task to stay consistent when learning a language on your own, haha!

    I am from Latvia, and I came to Brazil few months ago. I have a copy of “Falar, Ler, Escrever” Portuguese book, but lately I combine it with some interactive language learning websites as well. My biggest struggles, unfortunately, are speaking and vocabulary…
    Once again, a big thanks for your advice! The site you recommended is my new favourite.

  • boboty says:

    Thank you for this helpful article among others you have already shared. I red all of them despite of my low level. In this article, I have particularly appreciated when you state” progress comes in ups and downs………………………. at any given moment.” As a learner, I experience this every day. I can’t describe that feeling when you think you have made a progress but on the ground that sound no natural if it sounds at all. We need a strong mental and and a real will to overcame this situation. In this step many people chose to give up. Obviously that isn’t the way to forward. Repeat until it sink in should be. For those they have to meditate this saying ” Sometimes the harder you fall, the stronger you rise”.

  • Thien Khanh says:

    I can't agree more with you