The Difference between Proficiency and Fluency

By OptiLingo

The Difference between Proficiency and Fluency

Though many people think that being proficient is the same thing as being fluent, if you go to a country where a language is spoken naturally, you will quickly learn the difference. Just because you are proficient does not mean you are fluent.

You could argue that being fluent in a language is subjective. It depends on things like understanding heavy accents and different speeds of conversation. All you have to do is watch a film where the actors or actresses are speaking English with a heavy accent that you are not familiar with to understand this. You are fluent in English, but you don’t understand a word they are saying.

A Quick Lesson in the History of the Word Fluent

It is unsurprising that the word has Latin roots, and it means to flow. In terms of speaking, it means that you can talk with a flow, one that is smooth and continuous, like a stream. The sounds and syllables flow into each other, establishing a natural speaking flow.

You can actually be incredibly fluid in your words and still not be proficient, and vice versa. A person just learning a language can sound very fluent with just a few key phrases. It’s about learning the flow that fits the syllables and sounds together. You can take your existing knowledge and sound fluent because you make the sentences flow.

Ultimately, if your initial goal is fluency, you will be able to start talking much sooner than someone who has it as an end goal.

Remember, language is a tool. You use it to communicate. To do that, you need to establish a fluid speaking pattern. You need to sound fluent from early in the learning process. From this point, you will be able to integrate new words and phrases into your existing pattern.

Mistakes Are Not a Sign of Failure

You probably make mistakes with some frequency. You make fun of yourself, and try again. Sure you feel a little embarrassed, but it’s ok. No one thinks that you don’t know English.

It’s the same thing with another language. You are bound to make mistakes. While you will certainly do it with a greater frequency, over time, you will make fewer mistakes.

You simply need to keep in mind that mistakes don’t equal failure.

The only sign that you have failed is when you quit trying to communicate in the language.

Mistakes are the best learning device. Because you feel embarrassed, you are a lot more likely to remember the right response in the future. Use that tool to get better. Know that you will make mistakes, and seek to learn from them.

Native speakers are a great help when it comes to identifying mistakes. When you know most of what you want to say and are short a word or two, a native speaker can correct you where you are wrong. If you are in a store buying a blue shirt and you point at it, the person helping you will give you the words you are missing. Do make sure to say what you think is the correct answer. If you are wrong, they will correct you. That is better than pointing and not saying anything (and is far politer as well).


Speaking Vocabulary

Active vocabulary (words you know how to use) are better than passive vocabulary (words you can recognize when they are written but not when spoken). Fluency is about developing a greater active vocabulary.

The usual starting point is greetings and introductions. You should certainly know these phrases, but you also need to know how to do them when they are in a different context, not just the few specific contexts given in language books. Real interaction requires you to know how to talk to people in different situations. In an office, you will need to be able to greet someone. In a shop, knowing how to say your name isn’t as important as being able to ask for help.

Speaking vocabulary tends to use words that you use during real-world conversations (as opposed to written vocabulary, tech vocabulary, and business vocabulary). Your conversational vocabulary will translate into nearly every discussion you will have. That is its purpose.

Connecting through Conversation

One of the most striking things about conversations is just how much of what you say is in idioms and phrases specific to conversation. Yes, they work across many discussions, but they may also break some of the traditional grammatical functions.

They tend to be short phrases that keep the language flowing. Many of them acknowledge what the speaker said, and then you express your thoughts on the matter. For example, you may say “I agree with what you said, but….” or “Good question…” or “By the way.” These are all ways to acknowledge and build the conversation.

Ultimately, you want the conversation to feel connected. Without these kinds of phrases, you may as well be speaking different languages.

You need to identify the kinds of connectors you are likely to use and find the equivalent in the target language. Once you know them, memorize them and use them when speaking in the language. The more you practice them, the more fluid the conversation will be.

You will also find that these phrases give you time to help think through what you want to say. The established connector is there to help you get started, then the words should flow more smoothly because you are already comfortable. You will build up a faster speaking pattern and confidence.

If you need help coming up with these kinds of phrases, check out It can be difficult to think of these kinds of phrases on your own, so taking a peek will help you figure out what phrases are natural to your speaking patterns. You may be surprised at just how many of these phrases you already use in English. It is just a matter of getting them down in your target language.