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?

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