The HUGE Difference Between Proficiency and Fluency

By OptiLingo • 5 minute read

becoming proficient vs fluent is an achievement

The Core Difference

Every language learner wants proficiency or fluency. Despite what you may think, the two are very different. Luckily, you won’t need to choose between becoming proficient vs. becoming fluent. You can achieve both if you understand how these two concepts interact.

  • Proficiency is mastering a language. You understand the logic, sentence structures and grammar to the full extent. Forming sentences is just as easy as understanding them. You can easily take a test and achieve great results.
  • Fluency is speaking a language comfortably. Although you don’t know or use grammar correctly, you can form sentences and make yourself understood by natives. This confidence is key.

You can achieve fluency without being proficient. And you can reach proficiency without the confidence to become fluent. But to achieve both, you need to find out how you can organize your studies and your immersion to be exposed to progress.

Should You Be Proficient vs Fluent First?

Fluency means that you can talk with a flow. It’s smooth and continuous, like a stream. The sounds and syllables flow into each other in harmony. You need a certain amount of confidence to achieve that in a fluent language. But you definitely don’t need to know grammar.

If you want to achieve both proficiency and fluency, becoming fluent is your first step. Making fluency your initial goal will help you speak comfortably faster that proficiency.

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

proficient vs fluent speech flows like a stream

Mistakes Are Not a Sign of Failure

Language learners often delay trying to speak because they fear mistakes. They’re worried about embarrassment or failure. That’s not the right mindset for success. You’re learning a foreign language. There is nothing embarrassing about being bilingual. It’s a great accomplishment, and you’re working to become even better.

Mistakes are an opportunity to learn from and progress. You’re bound to make them. Every language learner is. While you’ll certainly do it more frequently in the beginning, you’ll make fewer as you progress.

That’s why you need to practice fluent speech as soon as you can. The more time you spend on speaking, the sooner you’ll know your mistakes. The failure is when you quit trying to communicate in the language.

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’re wrong. If you’re in a store buying a blue shirt and you point at it, the person helping you will give you the words you’re missing. Do make sure to say what you think is the correct answer. If you’re wrong, they will correct you. That is better than pointing and not saying anything (and is far politer as well).

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Speaking Vocabulary in a Second Language

Not all your words in your vocabulary are equal. To achieve fluency fast you need to identify active vs passive vocabulary.

  • Active vocabulary: words you know how to use.
  • Passive vocabulary: words you can recognize when they are written but not when spoken.

For fluency, active vocabulary is much better than passive. You need to develop that knowledge to be able to speak smoothly.

Focusing on high-frequency words and phrases is the best way to learn useful vocabulary. Greetings, introduction, and basic everyday conversations are a good starting point. It’s important you don’t cram. Forcing yourself to study won’t help you achieve fluency. Instead, use the Spaced Repetition System to commit vocabulary to your long term memory. By leaving some time between lessons you allow your brain to process. Then you revisit that information to maximize your success.

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.

proficient vs fluent doesn't matter as long as you can talk

Becoming Proficient

There are many levels of proficiency you can achieve. If you complete a standardized test it’s easy to distinguish where your progress is. But to work on your proficiency, you need to have a clear goal and strategy in place.

Language learning is built on 4 principles: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. You need to master all four to reach proficiency. Whether you do that through studying or immersion is up to your strategy.

Reaching proficiency is a question of dedication and discipline. And you need the right motivation to carry you across the finish line. Setting time aside to study in your schedule is often a requirement. But studying and learning are very different things. You can acquire a language passively as well. Learning through fun activities such as films or games can benefit your language learning success.

When it comes to the decision of becoming proficient vs fluent, the right answer should always be both. Mastering a language is just as important as speaking it comfortably. Proficiency and fluency aren’t synonyms, but they rely on each other in your language learning journey.