flu·ent (flōōƏnt) adj.
a. Able to express oneself readily and effortlessly: a fluent speaker; fluent in three languages.
b. Flowing effortlessly; polished: speaks fluent Russian; gave a fluent performance of the sonata.
I find the concept of fluency fascinating. The term “fluency” is most often used to describe someone’s familiarity with a language. In fact, it denotes an ease in expression; an effortlessness as our good friends at dictionary.com describe it. The interesting part to me is that as with any logical construct, you are either fluent, or you are not fluent. We all know what it feels like to be fluent, seeing as we all speak at least one language. We all know what it feels like to be non-fluent; to be in over your head in a conversation, whether linguistically or in the subject-matter. So what is the line we cross that takes us from non-fluency to fluency?
For me, the simplest answer to the question is at the synthesis stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is the point in learning in which we are able to take the individual components of what we have learned and combine them in such a way to create something new. I find this is also often the moment(s) when the learning takes a decidedly self-directed and self-motivated turn. Once we can create new things with our knowledge, the joy of discovery takes over and we can spend time exploring the boundaries of our knowledge and expanding those boundaries. Often our eventual goal is to break down those barriers so we can have free reign over the creative processes.
Once we are fluent in a language, it does not always mean we have mastered it. I consider someone to be fluent when they are able to express themselves and comprehend the language with consistency. Once we reach that base level of fluency, there are many more gradations we pass through before we master the language.
Today I want to talk about fluency in a variety of contexts. Certainly we’re all accustomed to fluency in language, as that’s the immediate way dictionary.com and our culture as a whole interprets the word. However, just about any discipline we study can be performed or conceptualized with a sense of fluency. Some are more analogous to language, but some are more abstract.
On the more linguistic side, we have music, as there are many parallels between learning to read/speak/write/improvise within a language and music. The most exciting part about teaching a musical instrument is watching the student become fluent. Suddenly they are able to pull from their reservoir of knowledge and technique produce new work. Fluency in music almost always involves improvisation, as improvisation is one of the few times in which musicians are able to create something new from what they have learned. A familiarity with the common forms of music is also a part of fluency. For instance, knowing that a phrase will probably repeat itself and being ready for it when it comes indicates fluency. Being able to hear what a fellow musician is playing and match the style/content is also a good indicator. At a wedding gig recently, during one of the songs the trumpet player quoted Rhapsody in Blue in his solo. As a joke, the saxophone player did it at the same point in his solo. Then the melodica. Then the trombone. When my turn came around, I played it on the sousaphone. We were each demonstrating that we were listening and had the fluency to mimic the trumpet solo.
Also on the linguistic side is computer programming, or writing in code. Using HTML as an example, we learn the individual components of the language to create content for webpages. There are many tools to do this for us, such as Adobe Dreamweaver or WordPress, and there are many resources out there for learning HTML, such as w3schools and, well, Google. At first the process of using HTML involves a lot of trial and error, as well as checking reference manuals for proper usage. Eventually we stop needing so many references and can begin coding by memory. Fluency comes once again, when we have a goal in mind and can use the different pieces of information to cobble together a webpage or component that matches that vision. For example, I recently had to create an online schedule for a conference, and I combined my knowledge of how content can be structured on a page with the types of content that can be added. As the client asks for modifications, I am able to keep up with her and pull from obscure HTML knowledge to get it done.
A little less like language is something like culinary skills. At some point we move from being slaves to the recipe to embarking on our own food journeys. Naturally, improvisation plays a role here; we need to be able to experiment to get the flavors and textures that we want. Like music, however, we need a sound understanding of the principle “forms” of cooking. Making cookies almost always involves a combination of dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, cocoa, etc.) and wet ingredients (butter, oil, eggs, sugars, vanilla extract, etc.). Once we’re aware of the overall function, texture, and composition of the different components, we can start to freely experiment. Maybe we try more oil when we’re looking for a crispier cookie, or more butter for a cakier cookie. Or, by knowing what provides the consistency of a particular sauce type, we know we can achieve that with different flavors by adding similarly textured spices (try dill instead of thyme) or liquids (what would it be like with Tamari instead of Worcestershire sauce). The point at which we can freely play with our food (ha!) to achieve the desired outcome is the moment we reach fluency.
Let’s get meta for a second. What would fluency in fluency look like? I suppose it would be the ability to examine any subject and pinpoint the important components of it. As with music and cooking, we would need to understand the common forms that would lead to ease of understanding and communication. We would also need to be able to improvise to piece together our understanding of what it is to learn and what will help us to learn this other subject. Being able to do this in a variety of different contexts would make us fluent in the ability to produce fluency.
I urge you to examine your many skills. Try to pinpoint the moment in each when you went from broken, piecemeal understanding of the subject into fluency. It’s almost impossible to nail down the exact moment, but understanding what it takes to do it provides you information that brings you ever closer to the coveted fluency in fluency. At that point, we’re free to find a subject of interest and excel. We can all get there too! We all have the capabilities of learning, once again proven by the fact that you are already fluent in something, probably many things. The more we understand what it is to learn and what it is to truly know, the more we can develop, explore, and enrich our lives that much more.