Can you be fluent with a small vocabulary?

Agreed, this video is bordering on deceptive. Almost in the same ball park at that Irish guy who says you should speak when you don’t know any words.

As for me real fluency must involve a really large vocabulary that is used actively. I agree with Luca and Anthony that you don’t really need a lot of words when talking about simple everyday things but I’d not describe this ability as being fluent in a language.

I believe real fluency means something more - a fluent user of a language must be aware of the culture and traditions and even the socio-political reality of the country where the language is spoken. Many a time I watched Conan O’Brian or Jimmy Kimmel’s programs or stand-up comedians’ performances and even when I understood what they said I didn’t find it funny like the audience. I just wasn’t aware of the context - jokes, puns, latest news etc. so I often just could not be as amused as the native speakers and I felt I was missing something.

This is what being fluent means to me - the ability to understand not only the spoken language but also the culture. Without a massive amount of words and phrases it is just impossible to get to this point though. So I agree with Steve’s viewpoint.

The answer is yes, so long as you exclusively communicate by asking people how they are, how much things cost, and commenting on the weather. I

Here is a question. Your stats show 8000+ words in Mandarin and Japanese. Do you feel like you are fluent in those languages?

I know about 2500 words in german and I feel like I’m not even close, can hardly understand most media and real conversations.

I’m not really taking sides here, but it seems to me that Anthony and Luca were trying to say that you can become comfortable speaking the language without a lot of pauses, yet without much vocabulary. In other words, it may be more beneficial to continue having small conversations than to spend time increasing vocabulary, and in this way increase your comfort level and the flow of the language. Or they could be saying if you are struggling to communicate, it might not be due to lack of vocabulary? Either way, I think both sides of the argument here have something valid to say.

I like to take sides. I like to say what I think and respect others who do the same and are prepared to defend their positions.

I don’t think you can become comfortable speaking a language with a small vocabulary because you have no control over what your interlocutors are going to say, and what words they are going to use. If you don’t understand the words they use, you can’t converse…

The best way to prepare for conversations, and to develop the ability to be comfortable in conversation, is to increase your vocabulary, at least up to a reasonable level. A large vocabulary will not guarantee that you will be comfortable speaking. That still requires you to speak and to speak a lot. But without a large vocabulary you can’t be fluent in a language.

I have seen Luca speak many languages. i recently saw a video of him speaking Japanese. He is awesome. In all of his languages he has a wonderful vocabulary. This enables him to be articulate and fluent. I really don’t understand the point that Luca and Anthony are making. I have seen no evidence of genuine interactive fluency with small vocabularies.

Thank you, Jos and Steve for your useful comments. My original goal was to obtain at least 20,000 words before I tried to engage in meaningful conversations. I have had requests on Lingq to engage in conversations, but I just do not feel that confident yet. I agree with Jos about the difficulty of speaking with my wife, because we inevitably fall back on English. I will try your suggestion Steve about recording conversations and studying them in Lingq - an excellent suggestion!

And what do you do when your lack of vocabulary halts a basic conversation? If you don’t know words, how can you speak properly to someone who you can’t control? They’re not going to read from a pre-selected list of words and talk only about a specific topic. Just last night a conversation i was having went from global warming to how leopards hunt to how mothers protect their kids.

You can’t be fluent without many thousands of words.

Also, they certainly did mean ‘fluency’ and not just ‘speaking without a lot of pauses’. The comments section on the video prove this.

The word “fluent” means so many things to so many people, it’s meaningless. So sorry, but I can’t answer your question. Am I B2? Yes. Can I give you a list of things I can or can’t do? Sure. But please don’t ask me if I’m fluent without giving me a definition of what you mean by that.

The video by the 2 polyglots is basically just to let people know it’s ok to start conversing early. I think they even say in there that when you start speaking depends on your goals. Reasonable advice, given the caveats. Useless to me because I’m experienced, but beginners might find it helpful.

Did they make a mistake by saying you can be “fluent” with a handful of words? Sure, but what’s the point in arguing about something that has so many unique definitions? Steve’s arguments for why he prefers to wait are relevant, but all the talk about fluency on both sides is meaningless.

Great response! Because “fluency” means so many different things, I think you clarify well that the argument here is really about “what is the most effective way to use your time in language learning?” or something like that. Obvious to everyone is the fact that vocabulary by itself does not lead to fluency, and lacking vocabulary will lead to incomprehension. Nobody would disagree with either of those things. So regarding methods, I initially agreed with you in that input is the way to go. I was so excited to find Lingq I made a video for you here: Steve - YouTube. But now I’m going to use my limited time to use the little vocabulary I have in French to work on the other side of language learning- putting words and phrases together and trying to communicate. Incidentally, I recently gave a talk at my university on language learning and gave an overview of Lingq. Language Fluency at Home - YouTube I meant to say how much listening helped my Italian, but I simply forgot!! My talk is more on motivation than anything else. Any feedback is appreciated.

I think the issue is that regardless of Anthony’s clinging to this ‘flow’ idea as ‘fluency’, if you ask anyone, 99% will think of the word ‘fluent’, and will picture someone who can bowl up to anyone and speak that language, about anything, at will, in complete comfort, and understands everything.

You can be ‘fluent’ in getting your point across of course you can, but putting this in a language learning video without clarifying the difference is just shoddy. Nobody doubts someone can say ‘A pint and a packet of crisps please’ totally at will and with ease. If you hear enough opinions in French ‘Je pense que…’ will just come out of your mouth without you thinking about it. This isn’t ‘fluency’ though.

This is what Anthony in particular has done. He knows full well that when people speak of fluency they picture someone who is totally at ease. Has the language on command, at will. Understands all. But he’s decided to pretend it’s not that for the sake of being able to slap labels on people who don’t deserve them.

I agree that it is pointless to debate the meaning of “fluency”. Anyone who has doubts about the meaning can consult a dictionary. But in current usage it refers to the ability to use a language effectively, articulately, smoothly, comfortably.

We can, however, debate, how many words we need to be fluent. Is it 10,000 or 30,000? In any case it is not 500. We can debate whether someone who reads at a 30,000 word level but struggles to speak is fluent. Probably he or she is not, but potentially is, if enough effort were put into output based on this vocabulary.

We can debate the most effective way to spend one’s time in order to achieve fluency. Some think it is important to speak a lot from the beginning. Some prefer heavy grammar study. Some prefer to focus on input with less time spent on grammar and output. Others have different strategies.

Obviously I believe in the value of LingQ and create lots and lots of LingQs. That to me is a measure of the fact that I have read and listened to a lot of the language. I believe that will lead to fluency once I start using the language more and more. But that is just me and other effective language learners take a different approach. Comparing our approaches is interesting.

But there is, in my view, no point in debating the meaning of fluency. For most people it is understood. Or we can consult the dictionary.

the quality or condition of being fluent, in particular.
the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately.
“fluency in Spanish is essential”
the ability to express oneself easily and articulately.

the quality of being fluent, esp facility in speech or writing
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014
ThesaurusAntonymsRelated WordsSynonymsLegend:
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Noun 1. fluency - powerful and effective language; “his eloquence attracted a large congregation”; “fluency in spoken and written English is essential”; “his oily smoothness concealed his guilt from the police”
eloquence, smoothness
expressive style, style - a way of expressing something (in language or art or music etc.) that is characteristic of a particular person or group of people or period; “all the reporters were expected to adopt the style of the newspaper”
2. fluency - skillfulness in speaking or writing
skillfulness - the state of being cognitively skillful
disfluency - lack of skillfulness in speaking or writing
3. fluency - the quality of being facile in speech and writing
fluency - the quality of being facile in speech and writing
articulateness, volubility
communicativeness - the trait of being communicative
Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2012 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.

  1. ability to speak or write, good command, articulateness To work as a translator, you need fluency in at least one language.
  2. ease, control, facility, command, assurance, readiness, smoothness, slickness, glibness, volubility, articulateness He was praised for speeches of remarkable fluency.
    Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. 2002 © HarperCollins Publishers 1995, 2002
    Ready skill in expression:
    facility, fluidity.
    The American Heritage® Roget’s Thesaurus. Copyright © 2013, 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
    TranslationsSpanish / EspañolSelect a language:
    fluency [ˈfluːənsɪ] N
  3. (in foreign language) → fluidez f, soltura f
    she speaks French with great fluency → habla francés con mucha fluidez or soltura → domina bien el francés
    you need fluency in at least one foreign language → necesita dominar al menos una lengua
    I was impressed by his fluency in English → me impresionó su dominio del inglés
  4. (in speaking, reading, writing) → fluidez f, soltura f
  5. [of movement] → soltura f
    Collins Spanish Dictionary - Complete and Unabridged 8th Edition 2005 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1971, 1988 © HarperCollins Publishers 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2005
    fluent (ˈfluənt) adjective
  6. (of a language etc) smoothly and skilfully spoken. He spoke fluent French.fluido
  7. (of a person) able to express oneself easily. He is fluent in English.elocuenteˈfluency noun
    ease in speaking or expressing. Her fluency surprised her colleagues.fluidezˈfluently adverb
    He speaks Spanish fluently.con soltura

Despite your examples, there is no agreed upon single definition of fluency. It means so many different things to so many different people, debating how many words it takes to achieve it is meaningless.

There comes a point in every circular discussion where everything people wanted to say has been said a few times, and then the discussion simply fades away with people retaining their original points of view.

This is good timing. I am going to Germany next week and my German vocabulary is around 2300-2400 words or so. To me, when I listen to podcasts, tv shows, newscasts… I still feel like I am long way away. I will be trying to speak as much as I can. I will let you know how fluent I feel when I get back.

I’d be interested to hear how you get on. It’d be good (IMHO) if you also gave a quick self-assessment of where you feel you’re at right now. That way it’ll form a nice “heres my ‘stats’, heres what i thought it’d be like, and heres what happened”.

If you’re up to it, of course :slight_smile:

Here in the US a lot of my friends are children of parents who immigrated from foreign countries so they can usually speak English + Their Native Language. Many of them have never studied their native languages, so their only exposure to it is at home. As a result, they have relatively small vocabularies in their native tongues but they are still able to converse perfectly fluently at an (obviously) native level of fluency, until you ask them about Social Darwinism or comparisons between communist party policies and republican policies in Chinese. So the question then becomes, are they fluent?

It always comes back to this ‘they can’t talk about [insert random topic that most natives don’t even care about much less have the vocabulary for]’. There’s a middle ground. If they have a ‘small’ vocabulary but can converse on any normal topic then they’re fluent.

If however they can’t understand when someone says something about some totally normal, every day thing that they don’t understand, then no, they’re not fluent.

If it turns out they’re not fluent up to this adult standard then they are only fluent to a childlike level which is not acceptable for adults.

Language learners claiming fluency and us tagging bilingual people with fluency is a different thing.

I agree fluency means a fairly high level of proficiency (B2+) and it requires a broad vocabulary.

However, this was not the core message I got from the video. The message I got from the video is that you can have basic conversations in a language without having a large vocabulary and that is very exciting and motivating. So if you have the opportunity you should keep doing it and this will keep you motivated while you continue to develop your language skills. And this is much better than traditional language classes.

This is not necessarily the way I would approach language learning. I am very much aligned with you on how I am learning languages. But some people do seem to find it very rewarding to have basic conversations with others and if that gives them the motivation to keep having exposure to the language, then it should help them eventually reach a higher level of proficiency.

I agree with you!.. Be fluent in some basic conversations and be fluent generally - two big differences.
But without the achievement of the first fluent stage we never can reach the second one.
And for this first stage we needn’t have a large vocabulary, but we need a lot of praxis.
And without such praxis you will stumble in a conversation having in your head even 100,000 words.

During my teacher work the most difficult students for me were the students from Switzerland.
They were hardworking and maybe they knew words better that students from Spain or Italy.
But the people of this small but proud country are afraid of making mistakes!..
And that’s why they kept silence whenever the Spanish and Italian students could have quite fluent everyday dialogues.
But the Swiss were waiting and waiting for the general fluency until it was time to go back to the native country!..