Long-term language learning

One of the questions learners come up with a lot is ‘how long will it be till I am fluent?’. This is quite natural question for beginners – people generally perform better if they have a target to shoot for. However, the temptation for the trainer is to respond with a specific amount of time. The reality, of course, is quite different. Here are some facts which are better to accept sooner rather than later:

Language learning is not linear
There is no finishing line
Living with English is a life-long project
Fluency is relative

So, a more sensible way to look at the question of fluency is to divide language into functional and lexical parts

The functional components of English are finite. We can say that there are around 350 functional words which make up the grammar of English. If we can quantify how many of these words a student is aware of and how many they can use effectively, we can reach a reasonably accurate conclusion as to where they are. The other part is more of a challenge; there are in excess of a million words in the English language. On top of this, English morphs much faster than the languages due to the number of people using it. This means that, really, there is no finishing line that anyone can reasonably be expected to reach.

A fluent speaker can, instead, be judged as one who has a range of tools at their disposal beyond their robust foundation of grammar. One tool may be a specialist lexis with which they can work capably. Another may be a sizable passive awareness of the language through exposure to written materials. They may have a range of idioms which afford them cache in a certain cultural environment. They may be superb story tellers with a gift for describing and sequencing situations and events. However, the one skill which should be held above all others is paraphrasing. It is the abilty to make oneself clear despite a lack of vocabulary which will ensure that, no matter who one is talking to, one can communicate an idea of any complexity. This is at the very heart of what it means to communicate.

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About benjamin meredith

Ben has 12 years of experience as a language teacher. He has degrees in Applied linguistics and Critical theory and is a certified examiner for various leading English-language exams. Ben has a background in editing, proofreading, investor relations, grammar, and etymology.

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