What does it mean to be fluent in English?

Mike Mayor
Mike Mayor
A young man sat in a library, he has a pen in hand and is looking at the camera; a stack of books are next to him

What do we mean by English fluency, and how can understanding competencies across the four skills provide a more realistic picture of communicative English ability?

What is fluency?

As someone who worked in dictionaries, the meaning of words has always interested me – and fluency is a particular case in point. Language learners often set themselves the goal of becoming fluent in a language. Job adverts often specify “fluent in English or Spanish” as a requirement. But what does being 'fluent' in a language actually mean? If we look in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, we see that fluent means “able to speak a language very well”. Fluent speech or writing is described as “smooth and confident, with no mistakes”. In general, fluency is most often associated with spoken language – but is that the goal of all language learners? And what does being able to speak fluently show about the other language skills?

Describing English proficiency

Before entering the world of dictionaries, I taught English as a foreign language in France. At that time, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) had not yet been published and learners were described in very general terms – beginner, intermediate, advanced – with no agreed standards on what learners at each level were expected to know. As well as establishing standards, the CEFR also shifted the focus of language assessment from knowledge of grammar and vocabulary to functional competence, i.e. what can a student actually do with the language they’re learning across the four skills:

  • listening
  • reading 
  • speaking
  • writing

Interestingly, while calling out specific objectives for each skill, almost two-thirds of the information in the CEFR describes spoken language. This seems to imply that spoken fluency is indeed the most important goal for all language learners.

Mapping out a personalized path to proficiency

As a global publisher, Pearson English recognizes that all learners are different – in their backgrounds, learning environments and learning goals. This is why we have undertaken new research to extend the set of learning objectives contained in the CEFR to account for learners who need detailed information about their level in all four skills, not just in one (typically, that of speaking).

No learner will be equally proficient in all four language skills – in the same way that no native speaker is equally proficient in all skills in their first language. Some of us are better at writing than speaking, and many are illiterate in their first language. A true measure of language proficiency needs to take into account all of the skills. Equally, not every learner of English will need to be 'fluent' in spoken communication.

Many researchers need to read papers in English and attend conferences in English – but will only ever present and write in their first language. Is 'fluency' a good way to describe their goal? And if it isn’t, does that somehow diminish their language achievements? By acknowledging proficiency in individual skills – rather than catch-all terms such as 'fluent' – we gain a clearer understanding of goals and outcomes, and with this knowledge, we are in a better position to tailor learning to the individual.

Interested in learning more about the English language? Check out our post How using jargon, idioms and colloquialism confuses English learners and our post on strange English phrases.

If you're looking to improve your own fluency (in any language) make sure to check out our language learning app Mondy. 

More blogs from Pearson

  • Business people sat and waiting in a row

    Boost the quality of your hires with English proficiency testing

    By Samantha Yates
    Reading time: 6.5 minutes

    Hire quality is top of the agenda for recruiters and talent acquisition leaders. Discover the impact of English skill testing on hiring fit-for-role employees.

    The results are in… thousands of recruiting professionals and top talent acquisition leaders say that sourcing high-quality candidates is their number one objective in 2024 and beyond.

    54% of recruiters are now prioritizing quality of hire above all else, according to LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions report The Future of Recruiting 2024. The report also highlights that 73% are using a skills-based approach to find top-quality hires, faster, with skills that fit the business both now and in future.

    Getting recruitment right can drastically impact productivity. In the UK alone, effective recruitment boosts productivity by £7.7bn each year, according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC). Conversely, the direct and indirect costs of mistake hires are a constant concern to organizations, not just in the UK but around the world. According to a survey of 400 hiring decision-makers by CareerBuilder, 75% have hired the wrong person and say that one bad hire costs them nearly $17,000 on average. It’s no surprise then that skills-based quality hiring is such a top priority for recruiters.

    It’s harder than it might seem to systematically increase the quality of your hires, especially when you’re recruiting at scale. But the rewards are high when you get it right and a skills-first approach increases your chances of success – particularly when you focus on core skills like English proficiency that underpin communication. As an added bonus, skills-based testing can speed up the recruitment process significantly.

  • A woman teaching adults stood in front of a interactive board pointing at it

    A decade with the GSE: Reflections and insights

    By Belgin Elmas
    Reading time: 3 minutes

    Prof. Dr. Belgin Elmas is the Head of the Department of Foreign Languages at TED University Faculty of Education and Pearson GSE Ambassador for Turkey. In this post, Belgin discusses her teaching journey with the GSE over the last ten years, including the key lessons and experiences from this remarkable journey.

    In 2014, our rector presented me with the opportunity to be the director of the School of Foreign Languages at Anadolu University. Overwhelmed by the prospect of managing a thriving school with 3,500 students, 220 teachers and 220 staff members, I was hesitant. Despite the challenges I would face from training pre-service teachers at the Education Faculty, I was persuaded to take on the position.

    The Global Scale of English: A framework for success

    I remember my first day as the director, feeling overwhelmed by the workload and unsure how to manage it. While I won't delve into the details or the emotional roller coaster in this blog, I will share how the Global Scale of English (GSE) became my lifesaver. Faced with the challenge of creating a robust system to teach English to new university students who struggled in their initial year, I discovered the GSE. This detailed system guides learners throughout their language learning journey and I immediately knew, “YES, this is exactly what we need.”

    The GSE came to my rescue as I grappled with the task of establishing a robust system to teach English to university students. The GSE's detailed framework was exactly the tool we needed. Our team deliberated on how to integrate this system seamlessly into our curriculum. From deciding on the specific learning outcomes our students required, to choosing methods of teaching, creating materials and assessing outcomes, each decision was carefully considered. This process fostered growth, collaboration and enriched our teaching experiences as a team.

    A key resource

    The GSE played a crucial role in shaping curriculum development. The collaborative preparation with the GSE was invaluable for everyone, especially for me as a new director. We spent long hours enthusiastically shaping our new curriculum.

    Determining the entire curriculum, including materials and formative and summative assessment components, became more straightforward and with a clear understanding of what to teach and assess. Explaining the lessons to teachers and students became straightforward, thanks to the solid foundation provided by the GSE. This framework made curriculum development and implementation much smoother.

    Adapting to feedback and continuous improvement

    When we introduced the new curriculum in the 2014-2015 academic year, we received extensive feedback from both students and teachers on nearly every aspect – materials, midterms, quizzes, pace and more.  During my five-year tenure as director, we continually refined our curriculum and targeted specific facets of the curriculum each year for enhancement. For instance, one year we focused on assessment methods, while another year was devoted to teacher professional development. We applied a similar strategy to our German, French and Russian language programs, ensuring they understood our rationale and adopted comparable approaches in their curriculum development.

    Sharing our experiences of using the GSE in our curriculum developed a lot of interest, as everyone was searching for a more effective way to teach English. Whether at academic conferences or informal meetings, our team eagerly shared their knowledge and insights.

    The GSE today and beyond

    Today, at TED University, I serve as the head of the English Language Teaching Department. A key part of my mission is equipping future language teachers with the latest advancements and GSE forms a crucial part of this preparation. By incorporating the GSE into our pre-service teacher training program, we are ensuring that all teaching materials, lesson plans and assessment products include specific learning outcomes. This serves to build our teachers' confidence in their practice.

    Personal growth with GSE

    My 10-year journey with the GSE has profoundly influenced both my professional and personal life. The principles of the scale serve as a guide in every aspect of my daily life. For instance, during conversations, I often engage in an internal dialogue: "Belgin, what you're trying to explain is at a level 70, but the person you're speaking with is not there yet, so adjust your expectations." Or I might tell myself, "Belgin, you need to read more on this topic because you're still at level 55 and need to learn more to fully grasp what's happening here." As you can see, the GSE functions as a compass guiding every area of my life.

    If I were the Minister of National Education, I would unquestionably integrate the GSE into our national language education system. I would explain the rationale behind the scale and strive to implement a similarly detailed educational framework. This system would guide learners and teachers by indicating their current level, where they need to go and the steps required for each lesson in the curriculum. I hope that in the next 10 years, the GSE will serve as a guide for even more people around the world.

    Here's to the GSE – I am grateful for its existence; it’s made a huge impact on my life. Happy birthday!

  • A group of women celebrating with confetti

    The Global Scale of English: A decade of innovation in language education

    By Pearson Languages
    Reading time: 4 minutes

    This month marks 10 years since the launch of the Global Scale of English (GSE) and what a journey it has been. As we celebrate this important milestone, it’s time to reflect on everything that has been achieved over the past decade and to take pride in the work that has contributed to the advancement of language learning, teaching and assessment around the world.