What does it mean to ‘speak’ a language?

My recent Duolingo “fluency” score.

I am now “38% fluent” in Portuguese according to Duolingo. But what exactly does this mean? Do I know 38% of the vocabulary of Portuguese? Have I completed 38% of Duolingo’s language-learning program? Can I respond to a Portuguese native speaker 38% of the time? Hey, I even have the option of adding this achievement to my LinkedIn profile — surely this must mean that I can use Portuguese for 38% of my work tasks, right? I’m confused…

The confusion doesn’t stop there, however. I’m equally perplexed when someone tells me they “speak” 6 (or 3 or 4, etc.) languages. If you’re a natural skeptic like me, you probably ask yourself to what degree they “speak” these languages. Can they have a philosophical discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of free trade? Or can they order lunch, but not much more? In the broadest sense, both of these tasks could be considered “speaking” — however, I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider the second task, in and of itself, proof that someone is proficient in a language.

Then, we have “speak’s” equally ambiguous cousin, “fluent.” What does it mean to be “fluent” in a language? Here’s what my trusty Merriam-Webster opines:

“able to speak a language easily and very well”

Hmm, okay. But this begs a host of other questions. Again, for example, what topics can a person “speak easily and very well” about? It’s certainly easier to describe the basic characteristics of your family than to describe how a car engine works.

Not even language teachers are immune from the ambiguity of the terms used to describe language proficiency: one teacher’s intermediate is often not equivalent to another’s, as “intermediate,” used in isolation, is quite vague. The same could be said of beginner, advanced, etc.

By now, you probably want to know where I’m going with all this. Why does this matter? What does it mean for language learning and teaching and for more general, everyday discussions about “speaking” languages? You don’t get in your car and drive without direction, do you? Well, in language leaning, as in driving, we need direction and a sense of location each step of the way. For that reason, language learners and teachers — and everyone else, really — should have a more precise definition of “speak” and “fluency.” Enter proficiency standards.

Proficiency standards are a collection of detailed descriptions of language proficiency, broken into various levels. They give us a more precise framework in which to discuss language proficiency — in other words, they disambiguate “speak.” There are several popular frameworks in use nowadays, including CEFR, ACTFL, and ILR. While the details and verbiage of each of these frameworks are different, they all share a few fundamental similarities. For example, though implemented differently, each breaks the continuum of language proficiency into a series of levels. At each level, the frameworks describe, at a minimum, what functions a speaker/writer can perform with the language, what topics s/he can talk about and in what contexts, the accuracy and comprehensibility of his/her language production, and the text type (words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs) s/he is able to produce.

Now, in a world where one (or more) of these standards is widely known, instead of (or in addition to) saying you “speak” a language, you can say “I’m AL (ACTFL Scale) in Spanish.” I would then have a very good idea of how well you speak Spanish. I would know that you have good control of time frames and that you can narrate stories, that you speak and write in paragraphs, and that you can speak about a wide range of topics, including topics of general interest. Much more precise, isn’t it?

This precision has many advantages in all sorts of contexts — first and foremost, when learning (or teaching) a language. Remember the driving metaphor above? Proficiency standards help us identify where we are (i.e., what we can currently do in a language) and where we need to go. As an example, let’s say I’m IL (on the ACTFL scale) in Portuguese and the next step is IM. Looking at the ACTFL proficiency descriptions, I know that, among other things, I need to go from using primarily simple sentences at my current level (IL) to stringing sentences together using conjunctions and other connecting devices in order to form more complex sentences, a hallmark of the next higher level (IM). Demystifies language learning and use a bit, doesn’t it? It’s certainly more satisfying and useful than the “38% fluent” Duolingo gives me!

It’s helpful in other contexts, too: in language programs among teachers and administrators to facilitate discussions about students and program objectives, in the workplace in making hiring and other decisions, and in daily life (to, e.g., disambiguate the “6-languages conversation” above).

So, what does it mean to “speak” a language? Unfortunately, there’s no good answer to that question because it assumes that proficiency is a point rather than a continuum. However, the reality is that there are many degrees of “speak,” and, as a result, it’s not a very good word to describe language proficiency. Rather, in our increasingly interconnected, global world where people are working, living, and studying in foreign countries more each day, we should look to a proficiency framework to facilitate these discussions, so as to avoid the ambiguity of words like “fluent” and “speak” and the relativity of words like “intermediate.”