What if the pursuit of Spanish fluency was a fallacy? More specifically, is chasing fluency a waste of emotional energy that could easily be avoided?
The allure of fluency is one that almost every student of a second langue has in their head when they set out to acquire a second language. But are we setting ourselves up for failure from day one?
What can we do to improve our thinking and is there a better way to approach language acquisition?
The Build Up To Realization
Early in my pursuit of Spanish, I found myself often frustrated. I wasn’t improving fast enough. I wanted to be fluent and I wanted to be fluent instantly.
It only took me a few years to realize that I was never going to get there!
At the time, the fluency fallacy realization was depressing. I remember when it hit me – I was chatting to a French girl in a bar when she casually blurted out a massive piece of wisdom like it was nothing.
I asked her what her take on fluency was and she said: “You never stop getting better at a language… and that’s it!”
More specifically she was saying that you are either in a state of progressive improvement or you are not. It is not a case of fluent or not, it is that skill acquisition in a new language is a spectrum that you move along.
At the time it wasn’t what I wanted to hear but after a while, I got used to the idea and in the end, I found the idea enlightening rather than depressing.
It means I should forget about fluency and instead focus on how I can simply just keep improving my Spanish. I should stop focusing on achieving an end game and start focusing on how I can move along the spectrum and “that’s it!”
Instead of stressing about reaching an undefined target, I could just focus on what would make me satisfied – that is moving along the spectrum at a pace I could not only accept but be happy with.
It Starts With Definition
When I asked a bilingual friend of mine recently what his definition of Fluency was “he said, it’s when you can speak, write, read and listen in your target language with ease.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary seams to back up my friend’s statement that:
Flu·en·cy noun \ˈflü-ən(t)-sē\ “is the ability to speak easily and smoothly; especially: the ability to speak a foreign language easily and effectively”
I then asked, “what happens at that point when you dedicate another six months to getting better?” He said, “well … then you will be more fluent!”
And there lies the conundrum!
Fluency is poorly defined because you can always make something easier you can always be more and more effective.
Where is the point where you cross the line into fluency?
Is This Just An Argument About Definition?
The debate around the definition of fluency is much more than just a description. Hundreds of students set off down a language-learning path every year and it is sad to see some give up in frustration due to lack of progress.
I started Real Fast Spanish because I want to help other Spanish students achieve their goals. But my worry is that if the goal is fluency then it may be a target too difficult to hit.
If you can’t see the target then how are you going to aim?
How to Set Better Targets
Setting better targets is about choosing outcomes that are concrete and can measured by another human being.
For example, if you have been learning Spanish for a while and you ask three different people whether they thought you were fluent (after listening to you speak) you might get three different answers. Instead, if you set yourself a challenge of memorizing 25 verbs in a week and then at the end of the week you ask the same three people to test you, all three answers will be the same. If you only managed to learn 21 out of the 25 verbs all three answers will be 21.
When you can be specific and concrete about what you are trying to achieve you can know instantly that you have achieved the goal or you can quickly work out why you didn’t achieve the goal and adjust accordingly.
But I Want To Be Fluent
That’s okay. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be fluent.
All I ask is that if your goal is fluency, work out exactly what that means.
Once you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve you will be in a much better position of actually achieving it.
If you are at all like me then I hope this post can help you re-evaluate how you are going to measure your success and satisfaction in your decision to learn Spanish. Otherwise, you set yourself a long road of misery and heartache.
Raising the Bar
Once you have worked out a better way to set goals. Then it is simply a case of stringing them together.
As the French girl says “you just keep getting better and … that’s it.”
If you set yourself something concrete to get done by the end of the week or end of the month then when you get there you can set another task and keep going.
By structuring your approach in a way that always keeps little measurable tasks moving you forward you can keep raising the bar higher and higher and enjoying each step along the way.
I often believe that when language students say they want to be fluent, a better definition of what they actually want is to be conversational.
The best part about setting a goal of being conversational is that it doesn’t necessarily require a high degree of accuracy and a huge breadth of vocabulary.
Being conversational is much more clear and concrete than fluency because you can either speak with someone for half an hour or you can’t. Speaking in this context simply means sharing ideas, it doesn’t mean communicating with military precision.
Speaking with someone in a language other than your first is one of the most satisfying things that you can achieve in your life. Most of what we do as humans is centered around a strive for connection, it is part of being human. It’s why I believe being conversational is the best language goal. If you can now connect with someone in another language that you could never connect with earlier in your life then your time and effort will be worth it.
Let me know what you think, is chasing fluency a waste of your energy?