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Fluency vs Mastery:

Can You Be Fluent


Without Being
Good?
By Scott Young

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 didnt 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 didnt
know many basic words, I couldnt understand
movies, overhear conversations or read most books.
My perception before that experiment was that
Spanish feels easy would roughly correlate with Im
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 phenomenonthat you can have ease
without proficiency or vice versato be very

interesting. Although languages is an obvious place to


start, it seems to pop up in other areas too.

when pushed into novel situations, but for 95% of my


day, that incompetence was invisible.

Can You Be Fluent Without Being


Good?

I compare this situation, fluent yet unmastered, with


the much more common language learning
situationknowledgeable 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.

A common definition of fluency is simply mastery of a


language. If you say youre 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 Im fluent in any language other than English).
However, the word fluent itself shares a root with fluid
and flowingsuggesting 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

Fluency vs Mastery
Obviously in most cases fluency and mastery go
together. However, its 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, its
probably very easy to use that word.

Fluency/Mastery Distinction in
Other Subjects

Mastery, again to the extent that its 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.

This isnt restricted to language learning.

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.

Programmers can have fluency/mastery


discrepancies. Ive 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. Ive 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, timeconsuming 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 youll 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 youre fluent, adding +1 to
your skill is easy within the context of existing work
and projects. If its mildly frustrating for you to do
anything, then it might be harder to get started.
I cant think of a specific situation where mastery-first
makes more sense, but I suspect thats just because I
havent 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, Id
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 youve actually spent a long
time learning, or (the rarer) feel like something
is very easy even though youre objectively
quite bad.
What are you learning? Is there anything where you
feel more fluent than mastered or vice versa?