Fluency vs Mastery: Can You Be Fluent Without Being Good?

One of the things that surprised me the most during the year without English, was how quickly it became fairly easy and natural to live your life completely in a new language. In Spain, for instance, after a month of speaking only Spanish, it didn’t feel much more effortful than speaking English.

However, after just one month my Spanish was decidedly not good. Perhaps good for having studied only one month, but bad in an absolute sense. I didn’t know many basic words, I couldn’t understand movies, overhear conversations or read most books.

My perception before that experiment was that “Spanish feels easy” would roughly correlate with “I’m good at Spanish”. However, the two seemed to be fairly disconnected, as the feeling of easiness came much earlier than anything resembling true proficiency.

I find this phenomenon—that you can have ease without proficiency or vice versa—to be very interesting. Although languages is an obvious place to start, it seems to pop up in other areas too.

Can You Be Fluent Without Being Good?

A common definition of fluency is simply mastery of a language. If you say you’re fluent in X, that usually means you have a high degree of proficiency. This is the standard I typically use (and why I hesitate to claim I’m fluent in any language other than English). However, the word fluent itself shares a root with fluid and flowing—suggesting that an alternative definition of fluent could simply means general ease of speaking rather than native-level proficiency.

By this (admittedly non-standard) definition, my Spanish was fluent far before it was good. I could speak quickly and easily, without much hesitation or thinking for common topics. Of course, my lower level of skill in Spanish would quickly become apparent when pushed into novel situations, but for 95% of my day, that incompetence was invisible.

I compare this situation, fluent yet unmastered, with the much more common language learning situation—knowledgeable but disfluent. This happens when I see students who have studied a language for years, but have rarely exercised it in an immersive situation. On paper, their knowledge may be quite large, but they tend to fumble when they speak.

Fluency vs Mastery

Obviously in most cases fluency and mastery go together. However, it’s also clear that sometimes one can run ahead from the other depending on the learning approach used.

Fluency seems to be best seen as ease of processing. If you learn a vocabulary word one time, you may “know” it in some sense, but it is not easy to recall immediately. If you learn it five times, you may unequivocally “know” it, but still not say without hesitation. If you use it a hundred times, however, it’s probably very easy to use that word.

Mastery, again to the extent that it’s a separate phenomenon from fluency, could be described as the breadth of knowledge. Knowing a lot of words, even if your fluency with any particular word is low.

How do these fluent but unmastered or mastered but disfluent situations arise then?

My guess is that they come when a small minority of words or situations comprise a large proportion of the useful situations. In that situation, having a small vocabulary, but having mastered it very deeply will result in apparent fluency much of the time. Whereas having a large vocabulary, poorly mastered, will result in disfluency, but technically have broader functional coverage or usefulness.

Fluency/Mastery Distinction in Other Subjects

This isn’t restricted to language learning.

Programmers can have fluency/mastery discrepancies. I’ve met programmers that can quickly output simple programs to do things, but have a poor underlying knowledge of how the language works or the algorithms behind certain functions. I’ve also met programmers with extensive knowlege, but who are slow to write actual programs.

Of course, these differences tend to be exaggerated because mastery and fluency tend to go together. Broad knowledge correlates with deep knowledge, so finding extreme cases is difficult. Still, you can often quickly assess when someone is relatively more mastered or fluent compared to those with similar averaged skill.

Another might be art. Sketching seems to be an act of fluency more than doing an extremely accurate, time-consuming piece. In this sense, I feel like my drawing skill is more mastered than fluent.

You could see a fluency/mastery discrepancy in mathematics. Some people have broad knowledge of math, while others can quickly work the algebra or calculus, even if their knowledge is more limited.

Which is Better Fluency or Mastery?

Ultimately I think you want both fluency and mastery. Learning in general tends to improve both, so if you learn a lot you’ll probably become both fluent and masterful in a particular skill.

However the short term matters too. For some skills, focusing on a learning style that emphasizes fluency first will make it easier to get into later learning opportunities that can accelerate further learning. For others, mastery might be the way to go as a starting point.

For language learning, it seems clear to me that fluency is more important than mastery early on. Being highly proficient, even in a smaller box of environments, opens up avenues for further immersion better than having moderate proficiency across a larger range.

Programming too seems to benefit more early on with fluency than mastery. If you’re fluent, adding +1 to your skill is easy within the context of existing work and projects. If it’s mildly frustrating for you to do anything, then it might be harder to get started.

I can’t think of a specific situation where mastery-first makes more sense, but I suspect that’s just because I haven’t thought about this long enough yet.

How to Use This Distinction to Learn Better

My feeling is that this distinction should play into how you think about learning in two ways:

  1. Recognizing that certain learning activities will bias more towards fluency and others more towards mastery. I feel like book studying tends to lean towards mastery. Immersive use tends to lean towards fluency. In languages, I’d wager that reading/listening lean more towards mastery, conversations lean more towards fluency.
  2. Understand that a fluency/mastery discrepancy can at least partially explain why you can feel bad at something you’ve actually spent a long time learning, or (the rarer) feel like something is very easy even though you’re objectively quite bad.

What are you learning? Is there anything where you feel more fluent than mastered or vice versa?

Read This Next
Paradoxical Virtues
  • Alessandro Stamatto

    I found your post pretty interesting!

    I’m a Brazilian, with Knowledge on the english language – but have low fluency since I do not practice conversations.

    I can listen, and read, very well. But I have trouble writing, and I’m slow in speaking (and I have terrible pronuciation and accent).

  • Alessandro Stamatto

    I found your post pretty interesting!

    I’m a Brazilian, with Knowledge on the english language – but have low fluency since I do not practice conversations.

    I can listen, and read, very well. But I have trouble writing, and I’m slow in speaking (and I have terrible pronuciation and accent).

  • Interesting thoughts on fluency and mastery. I liken it to studying karate. Mastery would be having very sharp and clean katas, whereas fluency would be more focused on sparring and practical self-defense techniques. I agree that ultimately, you need to work on both.

  • Delmania

    Interesting thoughts on fluency and mastery. I liken it to studying karate. Mastery would be having very sharp and clean katas, whereas fluency would be more focused on sparring and practical self-defense techniques. I agree that ultimately, you need to work on both.

  • Andromeda

    Excellent distinction, which helps describe often competing strategies in my own language learning (sometimes focused on quick albeit shallow conversational ease, at other times on broader vocab, more thorough understanding of language). And I’ve always been intrigued by how we Americans love to use the loosely defined word fluency more than others. In Mexico, I believe an English- proficient job seeker would more like claim to “dominar” (dominate/have mastery over) English.

  • Andromeda

    Excellent distinction, which helps describe often competing strategies in my own language learning (sometimes focused on quick albeit shallow conversational ease, at other times on broader vocab, more thorough understanding of language). And I’ve always been intrigued by how we Americans love to use the loosely defined word fluency more than others. In Mexico, I believe an English- proficient job seeker would more like claim to “dominar” (dominate/have mastery over) English.

  • I’ve definitely experienced this distinction particularly in formal education (at least in the west) which seems to focus more on mastery, not fluency (especially with regards to language learning). I also feel like most people tend to lean towards either mastery or fluency. Great post, Scott.

  • Harrison Alley

    I’ve definitely experienced this distinction particularly in formal education (at least in the west) which seems to focus more on mastery, not fluency (especially with regards to language learning). I also feel like most people tend to lean towards either mastery or fluency. Great post, Scott.

  • Shawn

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think maybe the use of the “mastery” might not be the right word. From what I’ve read, maybe you’re comparing breadth vs depth.

    Bruce Lee once said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

    Depth: practicing one kick 10,000 times
    Breadth: Practicing 10,000 kicks once.

    I think the key thing is to be able to apply what you have learnt. Sometimes, like in the case of law or medicine, learning enough breadth is necessary because you can apply (before you can have depth).

    In the case of learning language, I think a certain level of breadth is important, like learning the first 1000 most frequently-used words in that learning. After that, however, is how you use these words that makes a difference.

    The author Gabriel Weyner of the language book Fluent Forever said that fluency in speech is not the ability to know every word and grammatical formation in a language; it’s the ability to use whatever words and grammar you know to say whatever’s on your mind. When you go to a pharmacy and ask for “That thing you shallow to make your head not have so much pain,” or “The medicine that makes my nose stop dripping water” — That is fluency. As soon as you can deftly dance around the words you don’t know, you are effectively fluent in your target language.

    So to that end, fluency is a learnt skill and can be practiced. Immersion and practice conversations are excellent ways to practice that. When you try to say something, you don’t know the words to say it, and you force yourself to say it in your target language anyways. After all, the goal of learning a foreign language is being able to communicate what you want to communicate effective. Whatever means or words you use doesn’t matter as much if you can get the point across.

  • Shawn

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think maybe the use of the “mastery” might not be the right word. From what I’ve read, maybe you’re comparing breadth vs depth.

    Bruce Lee once said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

    Depth: practicing one kick 10,000 times
    Breadth: Practicing 10,000 kicks once.

    I think the key thing is to be able to apply what you have learnt. Sometimes, like in the case of law or medicine, learning enough breadth is necessary because you can apply (before you can have depth).

    In the case of learning language, I think a certain level of breadth is important, like learning the first 1000 most frequently-used words in that learning. After that, however, is how you use these words that makes a difference.

    The author Gabriel Weyner of the language book Fluent Forever said that fluency in speech is not the ability to know every word and grammatical formation in a language; it’s the ability to use whatever words and grammar you know to say whatever’s on your mind. When you go to a pharmacy and ask for “That thing you shallow to make your head not have so much pain,” or “The medicine that makes my nose stop dripping water” — That is fluency. As soon as you can deftly dance around the words you don’t know, you are effectively fluent in your target language.

    So to that end, fluency is a learnt skill and can be practiced. Immersion and practice conversations are excellent ways to practice that. When you try to say something, you don’t know the words to say it, and you force yourself to say it in your target language anyways. After all, the goal of learning a foreign language is being able to communicate what you want to communicate effective. Whatever means or words you use doesn’t matter as much if you can get the point across.

  • How I see it is because mastery is the understanding of how something works and fluency is how you act out that knowledge, you can lose fluency, but still be a master at it.
    Let’s take sports for example. If you were an NBA legend, but you haven’t played in a while, you’re still going to be a basketball master. If Charles Barkley gave me basketball advice, you bet your ass I’m listening even though he can’t play well at the given moment.
    Thanks for the article. I never thought about it as fluency vs. mastery.

  • Alex Liang

    How I see it is because mastery is the understanding of how something works and fluency is how you act out that knowledge, you can lose fluency, but still be a master at it.
    Let’s take sports for example. If you were an NBA legend, but you haven’t played in a while, you’re still going to be a basketball master. If Charles Barkley gave me basketball advice, you bet your ass I’m listening even though he can’t play well at the given moment.
    Thanks for the article. I never thought about it as fluency vs. mastery.

  • I love the distinction – currently I’m tackling Korean and I feel that I’ve always favoured mastery over fluency for French and Japanese in the past. While there are online partners you can get to practice, unless you’re in an environment that demands that you speak a language, I find it’s really hard to become fluent. So in my case, I’m settling for getting a lot of passive words and structures, in order to be able to reproduce it when I eventually get the opportunity to be in such an environment.

    With regards to programming, I think that it depends on what you’re doing. A lot of programmers can afford to not understand what goes on underneath the hood because (1) Abstractions like programming languages, frameworks usually do such a good job at abstracting away implementation details that you don’t make a lot of mistakes even without knowing the reasoning behind some of the design decisions; (2) Programming itself is a practical activity, I think we learn to program by building apps and other meaningful stuff, and so we usually learn in a top down manner; (3) When learning, we rarely get to build a program, on an application level, (of course, it’s less true the lower one goes the hierarchy) large enough (by ourselves) where bugs that are on a scale where we need to look underneath the hood, so that knowledge is either passive (maybe we did it in uni and forgot about it), or it requires a bit of research.

    I strongly resonate with your view that both is necessary, and I think that they’re simply different stages in the learning process and that the order should be properly observed. It’s probably more desirable to have fluency without mastery than vice versa, because having a lot of knowledge without an applicable context seems to lean heavily, as you mentioned, towards academia, yet I’ve always felt it’s strange to shoot for mastery without the commensurate experience of having used that skill first, when the majority of the populace probably lies at the other end of the continuum. Mastery should sit upon experience built upon fluency, to be truly meaningful, in my opinion.

    Anyhow, thanks for the excellent post as always Scott! Your advice and thoughts greatly appreciated.

    Baggio.

  • Scott Young

    They’re both non-standard definitions, so I’m not claiming to be using the “correct” word, as I’m trying to promote a novel distinction.

  • Mosbie Chiweza

    I loved this article. My favourite one yet. Got me thinking a lot.

  • Arka

    I’m glad you reposted this article – somehow I missed it the first time around, and I liked it quite a bit for its simple, concise terminology. I tend towards fluency over mastery professionally and in the past I’ve tried to explain it with “I only know easy things, but I know them very well” – which has caused more confusion than it’s solved.

    In the article you mention, “I can’t think of a specific situation where mastery-first makes more sense, but I suspect that’s just because I haven’t thought about this long enough yet.” I would argue that mastery (as opposed to fluency) is mainly useful as a driver of learning for the way it sets others’ expectations. When dealing with folks who have no skill in the domain, it prompts them to treat you as a resource not just for the narrow skill you’ve mastered but also for any skills they assume are related. Some fraction of those times, you’ll make an attempt at the related skill, and each time you do your abilities will improve. Ask anyone you know who’s a practicing mathematician, actuary, or really anything related to math. I can guarantee they’ve been asked to help balance more checkbooks and calculate more tips at restaurants than you can imagine – and over time they’ve gotten better at it as a result!

    I’ve also noticed that when dealing with folks who do have skill in the broader domain, it will bias their expectations of you – they’ll hold you to a higher standard through the assumptions they make. This can likewise serve as a driver for learning more because it increases both the breadth and depth of your exposure to the domain.

    I have a hypothesis that whether it’s better to start out with fluency versus mastery depends on the shape of the learning curve for a subject. If what you’re doing when you do something shallow is closely related to what you’re doing when you do something less shallow, the exposure you gain through fluency will directly translate into later mastery; if there’s a qualitative difference, mastery will still contribute to fluency but the other direction won’t hold. This needs more thought before it goes beyond the “half-baked idea” stage to become a useful theory, though.

AS SEEN IN