Some thoughts about fluency in language

What does it mean to be “fluent” in a language?

What is fluency? There are many different definitions of fluency, so for example it can be “the property of a person or of a system that delivers information quickly and with expertise”, or “the smoothness or flow with which sounds, syllables, words and phrases are joined together when speaking quickly” (Bruce Harrell, 2007).

Usually we consider someone fluent in a language when he/she has a high level of language proficiency. But what would be a high level, and what makes you say that someone is proficient in a language?

When it comes to defining the level of fluency of someone in a foreign language or a learned language, fluency seems to determine the spontaneous, “flowing” language use, as opposed to slow, halting use.

But is fluency necessary or even sufficient to determine – or even define – one’s language proficiency?

A person can be a fluent language user (i.e. use the language in a quick, not-halting way) but with a narrow vocabulary, limited discourse strategies and an inaccurate word use. One may even be illiterate but a fluent speaker. In fact, native language speakers are often incorrectly referred to as fluent.

When one considers the term of fluency in correlation of multilinguals, fluency is the ability to be understood by both native and non-native listeners. And when one becomes native or nearly native in the other language – whatever native or nearly native means! – , he/she can be considered multilingual; no matter if the two or more languages were learnt simultaneously or subsequently (i.e. one after the other).

This definition of “bilingual” or “multilingual” is dated. Since the 80ies a bilingual is not defined by his/her level of fluency! In fact, to be bilingual – or multilingual for that matter! –, one should be able to use two (or more!) languages on a regular basis. This implies   that one is able to speak both languages to an extent to be understood and to make himself/herself clear in conversations.

A person would be an emergent bilingual or multilingual, if he/she is learning an additional language, starts understanding it and speaking it on a beginners’ level. 

In terms of proficiency, fluency encompasses some skills that can be related but also taken separately: comprehension, speaking, reading (reading comprehension), writing. These skills can be acquired simultaneously or separately.

That after age 11 it is “impossible” to acquire a language (i.e. in the more natural way, using memory based processes), is a myth!

Everyone can acquire another language also later in life, it just requires more effort to attain the same results, especially on a phonetic level. (more about this in another post)


BICS is the language that is necessary for day to day living, indulging conversations with friends and informal interactions. CALP is the language we need to understand and discuss content in the classroom. If we compare BICS and CALP: BICS is rather context embedded, which means that the conversation is often face-to-face, and offers many cues to the listener such as facial expressions, gestures and concrete objects of reference. CALP, on the other hand, is rather context-reduced. It is the language of the classroom in which there are fewer non-verbal cues and the language is more abstract.

On a cognitive level, the BICS is undemanding. It is easy to understand, deals with everyday language and occurrences and uses simple language structures. CALP is a more demanding language and relates to abstract concepts, has a specialized vocabulary and uses a more complex language structure.
If we look at Jim Cummin’s quadrant about the BISC/CALP, along two scales and with some school activities and subjects added in the quadrants of the chart:



The BISC/CALP can be used to describe the language proficiency of single language students, but it is primarily used as a way to understand and evaluate the language level of students learning an additional language; in Cummins’ studies: English as a second language. Cummins studies of second language learners indicates that children can develop BICS (social language) in 3 years, but it takes 5-7 years for a child to work on the same level as native speakers in CALP. 


If we consider BICS and CALP on an iceberg model, where BICS is the part we see on the surface and CALP what lies underneath the surface (the biggest part to be achieved in language learning!), in a bilingual person – with L1 and L2 – there is a common area of language proficiency which provides the foundation for the use of both languages, the Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP).

Fact is that our L2 or any additional language we learn, grows from the foundation of the L1 or the languages we have acquired and learned before. Therefore, the stronger the first language(s), especially the CALP level of it or them (!), the stronger the additional language can be. Our language ability can easily be over-estimated by looking at the BISC and not realizing the complexity and difficulty that second or additional language students have in acquiring CALP in the other language.


When talking about fluency or the linguistic competence of bilinguals or multilinguals it becomes even more complicated as “bilingual” is, in itself not a very clear-cut term.

In defining a bilingual, “the pronunciation, morphology and syntax used by the speaker in the language are key criteria used in the assessment”.

Also the mastery of the vocabulary is taken into consideration, but the lexicon can be easily learnt without knowing the proper use of it. – The proper use of vocabulary requiring a more in-depth study of the semantics.

Fact is, that testing or assessing the grammatical competence of a speaker is much easier than communicational competence.

Furthermore, we have to consider that we learn languages for different purposes and use them in different contexts, for what François Grosjean (1997, 2010) defines as the Complementary Principle, that “states that bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different aspects of life often require different languages. Some languages will cover many domains of life, others less, and some will cover domains along with another language(s). Rare will be the bilinguals who will have all domains of life covered by all their languages.”

The Complementary Principle impacts:

– the fluency : “since if a language is spoken in a reduced number of domains and with a limited number of people, then it will not be developed as much as a language used in more domains and with more people” (Grosjean, 2015)

– language dominance: “many bilinguals are dominant in a language (…) as opposed to balanced. Dominance is difficult to define and is based not only on language fluency and language use, but also on how the languages are distributed across domains of life” (Grosjean, 2015)

translation: “unless bilinguals have domains covered with two languages or have acquired the language they are translating into in a manner that puts the emphasis on translation equivalents, hence building a bridge between their languages, they may find themselves without the resources to produce a good translation” (Grosjean, 2015)

In order to have a clearer picture of ones communicational competence, multilinguals should be assessed through the use of appropriate utterances in different settings.
You can find countless articles and videos about “fluency” in languages…


Fluency, accuracy and complexity, in formal settings

Fluency can focus on the content and what the learner is communicating. It refers to how well learners communicate meaning in the target language. It is about with how much ease learners can speak and how well they can communicate without pauses or hesitations, without needing to search for words or phrases, without having to consider the language of what they are about to say. When learners are fluent, they might not necessarily be 100% accurate but they are generally comprehensible.
Examples of fluency activities are conversations, role plays, debates, and projects.

Accuracy refers to the form and focuses on how the learner is communicating. It is about how grammatically correct a learner uses the language system, if the use of tenses, verb forms, collocations, and colloquialisms are “correct” in the target language.

Important side-note: nobody (!) is 100% accurate all the time!

Accuracy activities focus on grammar exercises, gap fills, noticing activities etc. Usually this practice takes place in controlled and formal settings, like schools. Most of the time, these activities do not allow much variation and rather focus on “right” and “wrong”…
Teachers focus on correcting errors and that the highest level of accuracy is achieved. 

Complexity refers to how the language production and performance is elaborate and varied.

Accuracy-oriented activities focus on the linguistic form and on the controlled production of grammatically correct linguistic structures in the L2 (Housen & Kuiken 2019). Fluency, Accuracy, and Complexity, are equally important for a skilled communicator.

What does “fluency” mean to you? What level of fluency do you think you have in your first, second, third… language? And how do you think you can improve your language skills?

In my language trainings I focus on the individual goals the client wants to achieve in the given language and together we choose the way and method that works better.




What I read so you don’t have to:

Cummins, Jim, ‘Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters’, Working Papers on Bilingualism 19, 1979, 121–129.

Cummins, Jim, ‘Psychological assessment of immigrant children: Logic or intuition ?’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 1, 1980, 97–111.

Cummins, Jim, The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students’, in California State Department of Education (ed.), Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework, Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center California State University, Los Angeles, 1981.

Cummins, Jim, Teaching for Cross-Language Transfer in Dual Language Education: Possibilities and Pitfalls, 2005.

Cummins, Jim, BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction, in Brian V. Street and Stephen May, Literacties and Language Education,  2017, 59-71.

Grosjean, François, The bilingual individual. Interpreting: International Journal of Research and Practice in Interpreting, 2, 1997, 163–87.

Grosjean, François, Bilingual: Life and reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Grosjean, François, Bicultural Bilinguals, International Journal of Bilingualism 2015, Vol. 19(5), 2015, 572–586.

Housen, Alex and Folkert Kuiken, Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency in Second Language Acquisition, Applied Linguistics, vol.30, issue4, Dec. 2009, 461-473.

Noshik, Wartan, Complexity, Accuracy and Fluency in Second Language Acquisition: Speaking Style or Language Proficiency?, MA in UvL, 2019.

Michel, Marije, Complexity, Accuracy and Fluency (CAF), in Shawn Loewen & Masatoshi Sato, The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition, London, Routledge, 2017.

Benati, Alessandro, Focus on Form and Focus on Forms in Implicit Grammar Teaching Strategy, CUP, 2021.


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