What Does It Mean To Be “Fluent” In A Language?

We have all heard how differently people in London, New York, or Baton Rouge speak English, but are those different speakers still fluent in English?

Where does accent stop and fluency begin?

What does fluency mean?

Fluency is defined as “being able to speak and write quickly or easily in a given language.” It comes from the Latin word fluentem meaning “to flow.”

What does accent mean?

Accent comes from the Middle French meaning “particular mode of pronunciation.” In the original Latin accentus means “a song added to speech.” Linguists define accents as only affecting pronunciation, not vocabulary or grammar.

What does dialect mean?

Rather, a dialect is “a version of a language that affects pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar and may interfere with comprehension.”

So why do these distinctions matter?

There’s a lot of reasons why there should be clear distinctions between fluency and accent, here’s one example:

In the 1990s, there was a big push for bilingual education in Arizona because of the large Spanish-speaking population. Bilingual classrooms have a dual purpose: to help non-native English speakers perfect their English and to teach native English speakers another language in an immersive environment. Arizona recruited teachers from Latin America to help expand their bi-lingual schools, but in 2000, the state reversed the decision and all schools became English-only again. For the last decade, those teachers recruited from Latin America have continued teaching across Arizona.

Then, the Arizona Board of Education decided that any teacher deemed not “fluent” in English cannot teach young, English-language learners. In this case, the state was interpreting an accent as disqualifying a teacher. The Board defined the changes in accent very minutely. For example, if a teacher says, “lebels” instead of “levels” that is determined to be an accent so serious that a teacher cannot teach.

Accent, obviously, can affect comprehensibility, but does it affect communication so much to make the teacher not fluent in English?

Think about it … across the country, accents vary dramatically. A Minnesotan sounds as different from a Bostonian or a Virginian as they do from some non-native English speakers who speak with an accent.

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