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Moshen

What is fluency? Listening vs. speaking

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Moshen

Chinese Zero to Hero has a new course called "Path to Fluency" that looks really interesting and helpful, explaining how to go from textbook/course learning to really being able to understand and use Chinese.  I will post a review here when I finish the course.

 

In its first lesson, it takes a position on fluency that I find highly questionable, though, and I'd love to get your reactions to it.

 

After demonstrating that people's definitions of fluency vary greatly, it points out that many Chinese learners reach a point at which they can speak reasonably well, yet when they turn on Chinese TV or listen to a podcast, they can't understand what's being said.

 

It explains that you need a much bigger vocabulary to understand than to speak.  Therefore, it posits listening comprehension of native material as the "Holy Grail" of foreign language fluency.  "If you can understand complex and specific messages, you should have no problem articulating your own ideas."

 

Here are my issues with the above.

 

1)What about the people who can understand quite well, but have trouble expressing themselves in the foreign language?  Aren't there an equal number of those?

As for me, my listening ability in Spanish (and French) is far ahead of my ability to express myself in those languages.  I've spent four years listening to Spanish audio material, podcasts and TV telenovelas, as well as reading Spanish novels and news reports, but not had that much practice speaking.  It feels to me like I have a hugely much bigger vocabulary when it comes to hearing the language than when it comes to being able to come up with the right words to express myself.

 

It also seems to me that when I travel, I meet a lot of people who can get by listening to or reading English, but can't express themselves in English.  This comes out as them saying they don't know English when in fact they can read a book in English or watch an American movie, yet can't speak.

 

Those of you who know linguistic terminology can probably explain and comment on this phenomenon intelligently, if you agree with me.  (Maybe passive vs. active mastery?)  Or if you agree with Zero to Hero, you can back that up.  What say you?

 

2)Does it make sense to you to peg "fluency" to listening ability rather than speaking ability?  I feel this goes against what most people think about when they assess someone's fluency in a language.  It would seem very odd to me to describe someone as "fluent in Chinese" who can understand native TV, podcasts and conversation extremely well but who stumbles horribly when speaking.

 

When you think about reaching fluency, are you thinking about being able to listen and understand, or being able to speak well - or both?

 

Well, that should get a good discussion going.  I also have questions about native-language mastery vs. acquired language mastery prompted by this course, but we can get to that in a separate thread, if there's interest.

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abcdefg
13 hours ago, Moshen said:

I feel this goes against what most people think about when they assess someone's fluency in a language.  It would seem very odd to me to describe someone as "fluent in Chinese" who can understand native TV, podcasts and conversation extremely well but who stumbles horribly when speaking.

 

 

I'm no scholar, but I agree with you. Even more strange would be for someone who can just read well to describe himself or herself as fluent. 

 

For many years I strove to have a "balanced skill-set." Reading always lagged behind the "live stuff" (conversation) and still does. I know how to improve it but don't really care enough to invest a lot of effort. My listening and speaking are pretty evenly matched. Both are spotty, but I get by OK most of the time and do it at full native speed, use slang and local expressions. 

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mackie1402

I see languages like working out at the gym. You're only as strong as your weakest link. I also believe everything should be balanced. I would understand if someone said "I'm pretty fluent when it comes to speaking and listening, but my reading and writing aren't too great." But for someone to say they are fluent just based on listening to native materials, I'd be skeptical. Of course, being able to understand native materials is already a fantastic level when it comes to language learning, people just have to careful how they use the word 'fluent'.

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Dawei3

When Europeans learn other European languages, it's quite reasonable to expect listening ability to be stronger than speaking because of shared vocabulary.  However, grammar varies much, so speaking is a different challenge.  Many Dutch colleagues note they can understand German, but they can't speak it well because they get their cases wrong.  As an English speaker, I can often understand bits of conversations in other languages, particularly when I know the context, but I'd have no way to respond.  

 

In contrast, when I started learning Chinese, I could speak more readily than I could understand.  When I wanted to say something, I knew what I wanted to say.  However, when listening to others, if they didn't use words I knew, I'd have no idea.  Overtime, my level of comprehension has grown to be closer to my speaking ability, but my speaking skills are likely still stronger.  Often I have trouble understanding the meaning of a word when it is used in a context different from what I'm used to.  Yet, I could easily use this word in a sentence I construct.  Similarly, I can type better than I can read.  When I type, I know what I want to use and the software is superb at picking the right characters.  In contrast, reading text is far harder because of the characters themselves and a lack of spaces between words.

 

On 5/22/2019 at 7:52 PM, Moshen said:

to peg "fluency" to listening ability rather than speaking ability?  I feel this goes against what most people think

 

I agree that this goes against what most people this.  When we say a person is "really fluent", it usually about their speaking ability.  Even when a person speaks well, we may have little idea what they actually understand.  I heard a non-Chinese Toastmaster in China give a superb talk in Chinese;  I thought "he's very fluent."  Later, I learned that he was much less fluent than I.  

 

I realize there are many definitions of fluent;  I see fluency as having functional skills.  Being able to get around in the country and handling basic tasks as well being able to hold a conversation to me is a base level for "being fluent."  Fluency always has levels/limits, even in ones' native language.  i.e., As a native English speaker, a high school grad may not understand much of the terminology of neurosurgery and may struggle to discuss the topic, yet they're still considered to be a fluent English speaker.  My fluency in Chinese is topic dependent.    

 

Moshen - Thank you for your well-developed question.  And yes, I hope it develops a good discussion.  A later one on native- versus acquired language would be good too.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lu
23 minutes ago, Dawei3 said:

In contrast, when I started learning Chinese, I could speak more readily than I could understand.  When I wanted to say something, I knew what I wanted to say.  However, when listening to others, if they didn't use words I knew, I'd have no idea.

This is an interesting way to view it, because you are basically saying you could speak 2 minutes of Chinese better than you could understand 2 minutes of Chinese. Where I always calculated it in number of words: my understanding is better than my speaking, because I can understand more words than I can speak (I can understand all the words I can speak, but I can't speak all the words I understand). So, different approach. In that sense, being able to understand everything you hear is indeed a more advanced skill than being able to express everything you want to.

 

25 minutes ago, Dawei3 said:

Even when a person speaks well, we may have little idea what they actually understand. I heard a non-Chinese Toastmaster in China give a superb talk in Chinese; I thought "he's very fluent." Later, I learned that he was much less fluent than I.

That's the thing with speeches you practice: you learn all the difficult bits by heart and then you can roll out the whole thing fluently. But take one wrong turn and you're completely lost. I give guided tours in Chinese, and especially in the beginning I was very careful to stay on script, because just a little improvisation could bring me into uncharted territory where I could not be sure if I could make it back to the track without getting stuck somewhere.

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Flickserve
7 hours ago, Lu said:

This is an interesting way to view it, because you are basically saying you could speak 2 minutes of Chinese better than you could understand 2 minutes of Chinese. 

 

Same happened to me at the beginning. 

 

Going back to the original question, I think you can be fluent in listening and speaking (which have to be together) yet still be illiterate.

 

You don’t have to read or write very well to be fluent do you? Just thinking of native speakers of any language who may have not have had access to school.

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abcdefg
2 hours ago, Flickserve said:

Just thinking of native speakers of any language who may have not have had access to school.

 

Agree. The auntie 阿姨 who cleans my house once a week can't read or write at all but is fluent in Kunminghua 昆明话 and to a lesser extent in Putonghua 普通话。 

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imron
11 hours ago, Flickserve said:

I think you can be fluent in listening and speaking (which have to be together) yet still be illiterate.

While this is true, native speakers who are illiterate likely have a poorer grasp of their native language than their literate compatriots - especially when it comes to any topic outside of their immediate daily lives.

 

I also find it strange that a surprising number of people who are well educated in their own language, are happy to settle for being illiterate in another language.  That was one of the first things that bugged me about being in China - stepping off the plane and instantly becoming illiterate.  It took a number of years to remedy that, but the effort has definitely been worthwhile.

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Flickserve
3 minutes ago, imron said:

While this is true, native speakers who are illiterate likely have a poorer grasp of their native language than their literate compatriots - especially when it comes to any topic outside of their immediate daily lives.

 

I don't disagree but it is more from the lack of education rather than a problem with listening or speaking skills per se. 

 

 

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NinjaTurtle

An important aspect of being “fluent” is being able to speak on an acceptable number of topics at a “fluent” speed and ability.

 

I am reminded of a Chinese lady at a nearby souvenir shop that gets a fair number of foreign customers. Her English-speaking ability about her souvenirs is actually not that bad. Her English is not super good, but she can handle a pretty good number of questions about her souvenirs, so I would say she is approaching fluency on this one particular topic.

 

But ask her about something on any other topic? I’m afraid it would not go well.

 

I have thought deep and hard about what it means to be fluent (as well as what it means to be able to "speak English"). I have come up with a list of over 40 topics a “fluent” person should be able to discuss comfortably — shopping, music, sports, pets, getting sick, history, pollution, etc. I have decided that a “fluent” person must be able to discuss all of these topics comfortably. If they cannot, then I do not consider them to be fluent. (And at a lower level, I expect a certain level of ability on all of these topics before I will say a person can “speak English”.)

 

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Shelley

To be truly fluent you must be able converse in the target language in exactly the same way you do in your own language. Any topic in one language should be possible in the target language, there should be no distinction between the two.

You need to be able to speak, listen and comprehend, read and write to the same standard as your own language.

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Zbigniew
23 hours ago, NinjaTurtle said:

I have thought deep and hard about what it means to be fluent (as well as what it means to be able to "speak English"). I have come up with a list of over 40 topics a “fluent” person should be able to discuss comfortably — shopping, music, sports, pets, getting sick, history, pollution, etc. I have decided that a “fluent” person must be able to discuss all of these topics comfortably.

 

19 hours ago, Shelley said:

To be truly fluent you must be able converse in the target language in exactly the same way you do in your own language.

 

I think it's safe to say the definition of fluency is fluid.

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Shelley
40 minutes ago, Zbigniew said:

I think it's safe to say the definition of fluency is fluid.

Indeed it actually is - to be fluid in your conversation.:)

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Lu
On 5/25/2019 at 6:30 PM, NinjaTurtle said:

I have thought deep and hard about what it means to be fluent (as well as what it means to be able to "speak English"). I have come up with a list of over 40 topics a “fluent” person should be able to discuss comfortably — shopping, music, sports, pets, getting sick, history, pollution, etc. I have decided that a “fluent” person must be able to discuss all of these topics comfortably. If they cannot, then I do not consider them to be fluent.

Interesting idea, you're basically making a very checkable definition of fluency. Do you have the list somewhere convenient so you can share it here? (Perhaps in a fresh topic, because I forsee some discussion.) I like the idea of fluency = being able to talk comfortably about a fairly broad range of topics, but I'm not sure it has to be a set list for all languages. To use an extreme example, one of the topics for English or Chinese might be 'travelling by car', but that would not make sense as a topic for an indigenous Amazonian language.

 

On 5/25/2019 at 6:30 PM, NinjaTurtle said:

(And at a lower level, I expect a certain level of ability on all of these topics before I will say a person can “speak English”.)

I'm pretty sure that would mean a large number of native speakers of any language cannot speak the language. Interesting thought, but I think it makes your definition flawed.

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NinjaTurtle
On 5/26/2019 at 12:59 PM, Lu said:

To use an extreme example, one of the topics for English or Chinese might be 'travelling by car', but that would not make sense as a topic for an indigenous Amazonian language.

 

A fascinating idea. This is exactly what happens when I have my students translate 馒头 into English. Another is the use of the word "dumpling" to describe 餃子 (which I do not allow) . I am also reminded of when I tried to learn how to discuss cooking with 竹托盘. (I think those are the right Chinese characters. "Bamboo steaming tray"?) One concept that is very difficult to work with is the idea that "Spring Festival" is not a festival, and how the term "Spring Festival" is not even understood in America (which comes as quite a surprise to my students). Or translating 闲逛 as "hanging out". Concepts which do not translate easily into the other language present a challenge. But I still present these types of challenges, because my students need them.

 

My list of intermediate-level topics:

Self-intro
Family
Friends

- My friend who has a 'weird' personality
My house/apartment/dorm room
My dream house (This topic is very popular with Chinese students.)
Shopping
Cooking
Eating out
Getting sick
Getting injured
Hanging out – free time
Typical day, typical weekend
Chores, cleaning, laundry, etc.
Sports, doing and watching
Exercising
Music – listening and playing
Watching movies
Watching TV
Traveling in China
Traveling to foreign countries
Transportation (bus, train, etc.)
Car
Money
Weather

- Getting caught in the rain while waiting for the bus

- Dealing with a pickpocket on the bus
Pets
Animals
National holidays
- Summer vacation, etc.
My life story (includes high school life)
- The first thing I remember in my life

- An injury I had as a small child (scraped my knee, etc.)

- I stole some candy when I was a child.
College life

- I flunked a test or class.

- The Gaokao was a nightmare.
Studying English

- My parents force me to study English.
Work
My life plan
My career
Fashion
Getting my hair cut/done
Generation gap

- Arguments I have/had with my parents (especially a girl who argues with them about clothes/money)
Chinese culture
- Food
- Language
- Chinese characters
- radicals
- Chinese art and paintings
- Chinese ‘dance’ and stage
- Chinese music
- KTV
- Games – cards, “Elephant Chess”, etc.
- Chinese history
Pollution
- Air pollution
- Bus exhaust
- Water pollution
- Supermarket plastic bags – good or bad?
- My hometown’s environment
Religion
- Buddhism
- Islam
- Christianity, etc., as they are practiced in China

Philosophy

- Confucianism

- Tao

 

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abcdefg
6 hours ago, NinjaTurtle said:

I am also reminded of when I tried to learn how to discuss cooking with 竹托盘. (I think those are the right Chinese characters. "Bamboo steaming tray"?)

 

Steamer basket = 蒸笼 or 竹蒸笼 

 

 

459863044_steamerbasket-70.thumb.jpg.8c16d5e2e47c042a4739bed09f76cbc8.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

托盘 is a serving tray. Can be made of bamboo. 

 

tuopan.thumb.PNG.c141be41a7680bff9780d222448494b3.PNG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dawei3

For those of you with access to youtube, this video has some good insights on fluency, what it is, & how to achieve it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLRErYYk4J8&feature=youtu.be

 

He discusses 4 types of fluency.  One of his topics I really like is "conversationally fluent, domain specific" fluency (at 7:19)  

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DavyJonesLocker

Personally I never understood why the definition fluency gets so much attention. If your fluent in a language its obvious as the nose on your face. You don't need a check list, exams, certificates, in depth analysis etc. You can speak read etc just like the average Joe on the street on all sorts of topics. And that's it.

 

Has anyone ever even considerer discussing whether someone is fluent in their native language despite the large variation in education, life experience, interests, intelligence etc? I'll bet never. 

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Lu
8 hours ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

I'll bet never. 

I'll bet you can find at least two different discussions of that very topic on these forums alone.

 

I think the reason 'fluency' is so often debated is that people, especially monolinguals and people who do not speak a word of the language discussed, keep abusing the term. I've once seen it defined as 'I don't understand a word you're saying!!' and in many cases that seems to be the definition for many people who use the term. Which is annoying for people who actually do speak more than one word of said language. Hence, debate. But feel free to bow out of it, I can absolutely see the appeal of not discussing it and just going about your day.

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