The many shades of contextual fluency

How literacy changes with context, why this matters, and what we’re doing about it with Leaf.

Philip Seifi
Mar 28, 2017 · 6 min read

The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘fluency’ as “the ability to express oneself easily and articulately”, but the real-world meaning depends on who you qualify with the word.

Consider Aisha and Sarah, both given the following task:

Discuss the Fifth Assessment Report on climate change.

If Aisha, a non-native speaker, fails to engage on the topic, she’ll automatically be considered ‘not fluent’.

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Levels of fluency of a foreign learner.

On the other hand, Sarah, a native speaker, will simply be seen as lacking the knowledge or interest in the subject.

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Levels of fluency of a native speaker.

Functional literacy

More seriously, it limits the discourse around social injustice to practical skills and background, which may not always be the primary cause of the problem.

Take the application for a bank loan as an example.

Most loan applications today still aren’t handled online, and the decision is in the hands of one person, who asks a few simple questions that could be summarized as:

  • Why do you need the loan, and how will you assure timely repayment?

No matter how similar their financial situation, credit history, and other risk factors, a less eloquent speaker will be at a disadvantage, which could make all the difference in the success of her application.

The difference in eloquence of the two applicants may have been due to their origin, level of education, overall interest in the banking world, or even a fever, lack of sleep, or inclement weather during the call.

Whatever the reason for the hesitance in their answer, what determined the outcome is the way they spoke, not who they are or how deserving they are of the loan.

Fortunately, more attention has been drawn to this phenomenon in recent decades, particularly in the study of functional illiteracy, defined by UNESCO as the “inability to manage daily tasks due to lack of sufficient fluency in the spoken and written language”.

Contextual fluency

Functional illiteracy is closely linked with low income, low education, and high crime rates, leading to the perception that it is a shameful problem that affects only a small group of people.

A good way to relate to the challenges faced by millions of functionally illiterate people around the world is to think of fluency not in binary terms (inherent in the assumption that native speakers are always fluent), but as a gradient.

Better yet, let’s combine the two graphs from before into a two-dimensional map:

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Looking at things this way, we can see that command of the language, and familiarity with the topic at hand have an equal influence on the fluency with which you communicate.

Going back to the bank loan example, Sarah and Aisha, two equally deserving applicants, might both get rejected due to their hesitant reply to the banker’s question.

Sarah, a native speaker, because she has never applied for a loan before, and doesn’t know ‘principal’ is the amount that is borrowed.

Aisha, a non-native speaker, because of her struggles with general English, even if she has worked as a banker in her home country.

Here is where each of them would fall on our fluency gradient map:

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This is where it gets interesting:

A single person, whatever their general command of the language, can have a varying degree of fluency in specific contexts.

Consider Bob and Ivan:

Bob is a born and bred Aussie. He only speaks English, but compensates for his monoglottism with half a dozen programming languages in his arsenal.

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Ivan immigrated to Brisbane five years ago. He speaks English well enough to get by in day-to-day life and excel in his job as a jeweller.

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Bob and Ivan first met at a local cheese tasting club. They both enjoy their slice of good brie, but Ivan spends more time eating than commenting, as his English is no match for Bob’s colourful explorations of taste and texture.

One day, Bob decides to make a proposal to his beloved Aisha, and asks Ivan to help him find the kind of diamond you can’t refuse.

Ivan, sparkles in his eyes, sets out on an eloquent monologue, and teaches Bob about carats, cuts, 4Cs and many more concepts Bob wasn’t even aware of.

English learner Ivan turned out to be more fluent in the specific context of jewellery than Bob, a well-educated native speaker!

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This is the power of what we call contextual fluency. You can be fluent in a narrow field such as jewellery, but it does you little good in a tapas bar — whether you’re a native or non-native speaker.

General fluency

But the vicissitudes of life brought him to Bristol, and to a wealth of new contexts he wasn’t even aware of.

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Majd may read Shakespeare for breakfast, and have a 90-page dissertation on Anglo-Saxon history to his name, but it does him little good when he’s faced with a British passport application form for the first time, or gets invited to a game of cricket.

This shows the limits of general fluency. You can be an eloquent and well-educated speaker, but you’ll still struggle to get your car fixed if you’ve never spoken to a mechanic before — again, independent on whether you’re a native or non-native speaker.

So what can we do about it?

First, this realization should make us treat discrimination of linguistic outsiders as a serious problem it is, whether it’s based on experience, accent, dialect, or other factors.

Second, it should make us see English speakers as individuals with nuanced needs, rather than resort to blanket policies aimed at ‘foreigners’ and other categories so broad they bear little relation to the linguistic challenges we’re trying to tackle.

Last, but certainly not the least, it should make us take a deep, new look at our educational system, life-long learning initiatives, and literacy programmes.

While long-term cultural and policy changes will need to take place for contextual fluency to be granted the attention it deserves, this does not mean we have to sit still and do nothing.


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