The Difference Between Proficiency and Fluency

Learning a second language is not easy, and it takes a lot of effort. Some people can quickly master a second language, and some do not and needs more time and intervention. 

And this is where proficiency and fluency in the language come in.

Many will ask how fluent are you in using the language?

Or how proficient are you?

Yes, this is quite confusing to some who do not know the difference between the two. 

In this article, we will differentiate proficiency and fluency. 

  • Are these two the same? 
  • Or are they totally different? 
  • What does language proficiency mean? 
  • What is fluency? 
  • Are both important in learning a  second language?
  •  How to measure your proficiency and fluency in the language?

To know more about the differences between proficiency and fluency, we have a comprehensive article to help you understand more. 


What is Proficiency?

The term proficiency is characterized by having an excellent set of skills in a specific activity, work, topic, field, and more.

And also, proficiency indicates the individual’s abilities in using a foreign language, including English.

If one is proficient in the English language, the individual has an excellent set of vocabulary, grammar knowledge, and advanced English language skills.

And it also describes that the individual has mastered using the language in all aspects, such as reading, listening, speaking, and writing. 

Proficiency is also defined as one’s ability to use the language in day-to-day situations with spontaneity and precision.

And most conversations of a proficient language user are non-rehearsed and are easily understood by native language speakers. 

What is Fluency? 

The word fluent is a Latin word that means “flowing”. And language fluency refers to the speed or smoothness wherein a non-native speaker speaks a foreign language.

Fluency also implies that the second language user can use the English language like they can with their own native language.

The term fluency in a language is often defined in a wider scope. Still, it does not particularly suggest accuracy wherein one can deliver grammatically correct language usage.  

However, there is no specific definition of fluent; nonetheless, the main point of being fluent is using the language efficiently and communicating in a basic conversation using the language.

And also, one can fully understand any topic that is based on the English language.

When a person is described as fluent in the language, their language ability is comparable to that of a native English language speaker.

Being fluent does not automatically mean you are proficient with the language and vice versa.

But to consider a non-native English speaker fluent in using the English language, one must be good in their speaking and listening skills and all the four primary English language skills, including reading and writing.  

Some individuals are excellent at conversing verbally using the English language in everyday communication but find it difficult to write and read in English.

This scenario does not describe the individual as fluent in using the language.


How Do You determine Fluency Levels?

Determining language fluency is quite hard and it is usually an abstract concept.

However, there are three reliable factors that can help determine the fluency level of an individual. 

Three Factors to Determine Fluency Levels:

  • Speech Rate
  • Accuracy
  • Utterance Length

It includes the individual’s speech rate, accuracy, and utterance length in English communication.

The speech rate of an individual determines the efficiency and speed at which one speaks or reads a context in a foreign language such as English. 

The accuracy indicates how well the individual pronounces with precision and can use different terms, phrases, and words that fit the sentence, topic, or situation given.

The next factor is the utterance length, which describes the individual’s average ability to produce phrases and sentences between pauses and hesitations in delivering a conversation. 


Different Levels of Language Fluency:

There are also different levels of language fluency.

It describes how one uses the language efficiently and conveys the message clearly in any given situation, such as in the university, workplace, business, and other social settings. 

And the levels of fluency mostly to the language abilities of non-native speakers or second language users. 

There are five fluency levels: 

  • pre/early production
  • basic fluency, 
  • intermediate, 
  • advanced, 
  • and native equivalent

Find out more about the Five Levels of Language Fluency below:

Pre/Early Production 

At this stage, the individual is just starting to familiarize themselves with the language. One is also slowly gaining an understanding of how the language is used. 

And also, the individual starts to practice pronouncing the newly introduced words. They also have at least 1,000 words in their vocabulary and learn the meanings of each.

Moreover, the individuals also use the new words they have learned while speaking but only in short and simple sentences. 


Basic Level of Fluency

This level of fluency is considered the lowest level since the first level describes it as only familiarizing and practicing using the newly learned language.

The individuals at this level only can form fundamental sentences and answer simple questions. 

Basic fluency also indicates using only around 10,000 very basic words. These words are usually used and encountered in everyday communication. 

It may involve topics such as talking about one’s likes, and hobbies, giving out personal information, and talking about familiar topics.

It may also include situations such as ordering in restaurants, giving directions, and other very basic usages of words. 


Intermediate Level of Fluency

The next fluency level is Intermediate which is suitable for individuals who establish communication reasonably well in a community and other social gatherings.

It includes discussions about describing certain people, things, and other situations. 

They also start to ask questions related to the discussion for clarification.

Also, the person who belongs to this level has around 6,000 to 20,000 working vocabulary. The individual also knows very few traditional communicative words. 

Moreover, individuals at this level are also starting to use and explore more complex sentences when speaking and writing.

One also starts to build confidence in using the language while expressing their opinions and sharing their thoughts about a subject or topic. 


Advanced Level of Fluency

This level indicates that the person has accumulated and learned over 30,000 active vocabulary words or more.

The person can also comment and express one’s opinions about political issues, academic topics, and other more complex subjects. 

And also, the individual at this level can grasp logical differences between various topics discussed.

One also has sufficient knowledge in using the language and has excellent conversation skills. 

The individual who belongs at this fluency level also has good grammar knowledge and can pinpoint errors in others’ grammar.

In relation, the individual can speak the language naturally and show a personal style. 


Native Equivalent Level of Fluency

The native equivalent fluency level indicates that the individual can fully control and twist the language.

And also, one can think and comprehend the context without any difficulty. 

In addition, the person can use the language easily as a second language with minimal to no errors.

And one is also capable of effectively using the language smoothly on any given topic and can establish a good discussion in any setting. 



How Do You Determine the Language Proficiency Levels?

Many English language proficiency exams are available to help you know your language proficiency levels, such as TOEFL, Duolingo English Test, IELTS, etc.

These standardized language exams evaluate the four core English language skills: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. 

Moreover, these language proficiency tests also assess one’s readiness and capabilities in using the language in real-life situations, whether in the community, workplace or in everyday communication. 

And to deliver an accurate assessment of an individual’s language proficiency level, these language tests utilize two widely used language proficiency benchmarks.

These benchmarks provide standardized descriptions of an individual’s language proficiency level.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB), and the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) Language Proficiency Scale are standardized language benchmarks mostly used by educational institutions and other organizations for them to have standardized descriptions and to know the proficiency levels of their students and applicants specifically. 


Different Levels of Language Proficiency

There are different levels of language proficiency descriptions depending on the standardized language proficiency benchmark you will use, either the CEFR, CLB or the IRL

However, these language descriptors usually describe the individual’s highest proficiency level as a proficient language user which indicates that one’s language skills are comparable to or similar to a native English language speaker.

And for the lowest proficiency level, is described as a basic to the elementary level of language skills.

The lowest level also indicates that the individual has very limited language skills and may still learning to grasp the language fully.

CEFR: Overview

The CEFR Scale contains six proficiency levels which are categorized into three, A for basic language users,  B for independent language users, and C for proficient language users. 

CEFR ScaleDescriptors
The A-Levels: Basic User
A1 Beginners Proficiency Level
A2 Elementary Proficiency Level
The B-Levels: Independent User
B1Intermediate Proficiency Level
B2Upper Intermediate Proficiency Level
The C-Levels: Proficient User
C1Advanced Proficiency Level
C2Proficient Proficiency Level

CLB: Overview

Aside from the CEFR Scale, we also have the Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) which is also one of the language proficiency benchmarks used by different institutions, especially in those educational institutions and organizations based in Canada. 

The CLB contains three stages that describe the language proficiency of an individual

It includes Stage 1 which is the basic language ability, Stage 2 which indicates an intermediate language ability, and Stage 3 which is the advanced language ability. 

These three CLB Proficiency Stages contain four benchmarks or levels that describe the language ability of an individual including writing, reading, listening, and speaking. 

CLB Three Proficiency StagesDescriptors
Stage 1
Language Benchmarks:

CLB 1
CLB 2
CLB 3
CLB 4
Basic Language Ability
Stage 2
Language Benchmarks:

CLB 5
CLB 6
CLB 7
CLB 8
Intermediate Language Ability
Stage 3
Language Benchmarks:

CLB 9
CLB 10
CLB 11
CLB 12
Advanced Language Ability

IRL: Overview

Another standardized language proficiency benchmark used to describe the different English language skills is the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale (ILR).

It uses a based scale of 0 to 5 and it also contains plus scales in each of the base scales. 

The plus scales are additional indicators and provide a description for those individuals whose language proficiency level exceeds one level but does not qualify for the next proficiency scale. 

IRL Based Scale with Plus Scales Descriptors 
5Functionally Native Professional Proficiency
4+Advanced Professional Proficiency
4Advanced Professional Proficiency
3+General Professional Proficiency
3General Professional Proficiency 
2+Limited Working Proficiency
2Limited Working Proficiency
1+Elementary Proficiency
1Elementary Proficiency
0+Memorized Proficiency 
0No Functional Proficiency


Proficiency vs. Fluency: How do they differ?

In this section, we will compare the difference between proficiency and fluency. 

You can check the table we have provided below for a more comprehensive detail of the differences between the two.

ProficiencyFluency
It defines the ability of a person to fully use the language with an understanding of the proper sentence structures, grammar rules, and the logic of the contexts given. It describes the individual’s flow of speech with minimal pauses and hesitations.
It describes the individual’s ability in using the language with mastery of all language skills. It also cannot be defined as a more fluent or less fluent individual.

The definition of fluency is in a wide spectrum. 
One shows excellent accuracy, delivers great comprehension, and precision, and produces quality contexts with no errors. The individual can be described as little fluent, moderately fluent, and very fluent. 
Proficiency is one of the requirements for admission to any educational institution and also required for work. One can be fluent but not proficient in the English language, there are noticeable grammatical errors and only uses simple vocabulary. 
And also, it does not imply that if you are proficient in using the English language you are automatically fluent in it. The speaker with fluency can speak the language well without proficiency but can be fully understood by native speakers. 

Should You Be Proficient or Fluent First?

Having a high language proficiency level is a good achievement if you plan to continue your studies in international universities or colleges or if you want to work abroad.

Since it is one of the top requirements for these English-based institutions, especially if you are a non-native English speaker. 

However, it is also good to be fluent in using a language since learning a second language is difficult and requires more time and effort.

Being fluent also gives you an edge over those who are not because you already know how to speak or write confidently. 

And you already know the differences between these two since we have provided a comparison earlier. Thus, it is advisable to be fluent first rather than proficient in a language.

However, it all depends on your language abilities and your learning a second language. Note that you can be fluent but not proficient and vice versa. 


How to be Proficient and Fluent in a Language?

There are many ways to improve your fluency and proficiency in using the English language. Some individuals enroll in language courses or English language centers to enhance their skills. 

Aside from the many available language centers and short language courses that you can take or enroll in, there are also simple and effective ways for you to achieve fluency and proficiency. 

In this section, we will provide you with different ways to fully develop your language skills and help you ace this area.

To improve your fluency and proficiency in the English language, you may follow the guidelines presented below. 

Read Aloud 

Whenever you read or write something, try reading it out loud.

Do not hesitate and be afraid of committing mistakes, especially when it comes to pronunciations and intonations of the words.

 It is part of the process if you are trying to improve your fluency, so continue reading out loud the words, sentences, or phrases that you read or write every day.

For example, if you are making a grocery list, you can practice reading out loud the different products you are writing. 

Or perhaps, whenever you are traveling to a new place you can try to read out loud the different signages, directions, billboards, and other written contexts that you encounter along the way. 

These simple yet effective daily practices will help you learn how to use certain words, phrases, and English terms in conversations.

It will also boost your confidence in speaking which is one of the ways to improve your fluency. 


Avoid Mental and Literal Translations

This is one of the common mistakes that non-native English speakers commit whenever they try to speak a foreign language.

Literal translations are not effective in understanding the language you are trying to learn, thus creating more confusion. 

And this is not suitable for every word or phrase you encounter, especially idiomatic expressions and slang that native speakers commonly use.

To fully understand and improve your fluency and proficiency with the language, try to imitate how native speakers communicate.

What are the words or sentences they specifically used in a given situation?

For example, when ordering a drink at a coffee shop, what do they usually say when looking for someone over the phone? How do they greet each other?

Knowing and understanding these simple sentences that are used in daily communication is an important factor that will help you improve your language skills.

You also need to research the different conversational phrases or sentences used by native speakers in any setting.


Watch Films with Subtitles

This recommendation may not appeal to everyone, especially those individuals who find reading subtitles unnecessary.

Unless you are determined to improve your fluency and proficiency in the English language, you should try this one. 

Watching movies, documentaries, or tv series with subtitles is also an effective way of learning a foreign language.

Watching and reading the subtitles will expose you to their English conversational terms, colloquial terms, etc. 

Aside from that, it will also improve and help you learn the pronunciations and intonations of native language speakers. You can also build your vocabulary and improves your word recognition and grammar.

It will also improve your reading comprehension and listening skills. So you are overall enhancing your language skills. 


Listen to Native Speakers

Listening to conversations by native speakers teaches you to listen to the sounds of each word and phrase and the patterns of the English language used by them.

You are also training your mouth to say the English terms by listening. 

Take the time to listen to fast conversations between native speakers. And also, this will help you improve your listening abilities and your comprehension of the language at the same time.

Can you easily understand the conversations of native speakers at a fast pace? If not, then you need more practice. 

Note that native speakers speak the language differently than second language users.

Do not overwhelm yourself by listening to long conversations; instead, go listen to shorter audio. 

In this way, you can still remember the conversation in your head after listening.

Choose the ones that interest you, so you avoid getting bored, and also, it is not a requirement to fully understand each word they say in the conversation. Let’s take it one step at a time. 


Speak English Always

It does not matter if your English is still not good as a native English speaker. What is essential here is to use the language whenever you can and as much as possible.

It is good to integrate the language into your everyday conversations either at school, at work, or community. 

Interact with people using the English language, which will definitely enhance your speaking skills and confidence.

If you are still doubtful of your skills and are too shy to talk to people, you can start talking to yourself in the mirror. 

It may sound awkward at first, but it will help you determine how fluent you are in using the language.

And also, it is best to start using and practicing speaking conversational English rather than those complicated terms. 



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