All About Fluency

People talk a lot about fluency but they almost never define it. What we call fluency, is actually how skillfully a person commands language in specific circumstances. Let's look at the demands different situations present:

  • Oral fluency
  • Aural fluency
  • Compositional fluency
  • Translator fluency
  • Interpreter fluency
  • Domain fluency

Oral Fluency

- means a person can pronounce words correctly without stumbling or hesitations. The speaker can also speak in a natural cadence, using enunciation properly for emphasis. Long words are pronounced without difficulty. Minimum amount of words to demonstrate fluency: could be as low as several hundred words.

How to improve:

  • Read a text aloud,
  • Practice the pronunciation of long words;
  • Mimic the cadences of native speakers;
  • Go to a Stammtisch (German conversation hour) and participate in German conversation.
  • Speak a lot.
The more words you see and try to pronounce, the more orally fluent you will become.

Aural Fluency

- means a person can hear a word and know how it is spelled. Because German has WYSIWYG pronunciation (What-you-see-is-what-you-get), aural fluency in German is fairly easy to attain. However, more cosmopolitan German speakers will sometimes use Leinworter (borrowed words) and the rule is that they are to be pronounced according to the language they are borrowed from. Minimum amount of words to demonstrate fluency: could be as low as several hundred words.

How to improve:

  • Listen to a audiobook while following along with the text;
  • Listen to a movie without watching it; Listen to podcasts;
  • Listen to the news and keep count of every time you got lost or didn't understand what a word was--your accuracy will improve with practice and exposure.

Compositional Fluency

- means a person can compose sentences. The composition can either be written or oral. For most foreign language learners, there is no distinction. However, in the real world, one may encounter people who can speak a language but cannot read or write that language. At the higher levels of compositional fluency, users can use appropriate idioms in the target language, avoid the improper use of false cognates/faux amis. Minimum amount of words to demonstrate fluency: three to five thousand words.

How to improve:

  • Write passages in German, have a native speaker read the selection and comment if you have misused the sense of a word.
  • Read dictionary citations and pay attention to the context of the words.
  • Read a lot of German.
  • Study idioms and false cognates.
  • Write a lot of German.

Interpreter Fluency

- means a person listen to a native speaker and render the essential meaning into another language. Speed is of utmost importance; if the interpreter halts or stumbles, they will loose track of what the speaker is saying; if the speaker is aware that the interpreter is faltering, it may distract the speaker and make the speaker self-conscious. Minimum amount of words to demonstrate fluency: seven to ten thousand words.

How to improve:

  • Listen to a short news video and paraphrase it in English;
  • Read a German passage and paraphrase it in English;
  • Study conversational idioms;
  • Practice German conversation;
  • Listen to German speakers with regional accents;
  • Seek out and listen to real native speakers who do not speak like a textbook.

Translator Fluency

- means a person is able to render one language into another. Unlike an interpreter, a translator is not pressured by urgent delivery, a translator may take as long as necessary to discover the correct meaning, research an obscure word or reference, etc. Minimum amount of words to demonstrate fluency: about ten thousand words.

How to improve:

  • Read a lot;
  • Write a lot;
  • Study German idioms;
  • Study English idioms;
  • Read everything you can in German;
  • Use a German-to-German dictionary.
  • Study citations and contexts;
  • Study the author, the culture, and the influences.

Domain Fluency

- means a person specific vocabulary words about a subject. For example, legal language has special terms that only appear in legal documents or speech. Domain fluency is a primary reason that we can say "Nobody can be 100% fluent"--because nobody knows everything, and words and special meanings are always being added by subject experts. Also if you don't have any basic vocabulary about a subject, it will be much more difficult to use the context and surrounding words to figure out the meanings of an unknown word. Minimum amount of words to demonstrate fluency: several hundred words per domain.

How to improve: Make a list of all the words that you know are used to describe or talk about a particular subject--look up any words that you don't know in German.

How Many Words?

How many words do you have to know to be conversationally fluent? Basic conversational proficiency can usually be attained at around 3,000 words. The more words you know, the more fluent you become. Fluency is a matter of degree.

How many words to read without a dictionary? We can provide an exact number, if the person can specify which text they are measuring fluency by. However, in general, most people experience the beginning of fluency after they have acquired 5,000 to 7,000 words. Again, fluency is a matter of degree, the more words you know, the more fluid your reading will be, the more fluent you will feel.

Practical Tests of Fluency

In German conversation, can you describe in German a word you searching for, e.g.: "Wie sagt man auf Deutsch: 'Ich f├╝hle mich krank im Gehirn?'" (How does one say in German, "I feel sick in the brain"?) to which your German natives might say, "Kopfschmerzen?" (headache) or Wahnsinn (insane). Although this technique will not necessarily teach you any new words, it will keep you thinking in German, and allow you to keep conversation and thoughts flowing. When things are flowing, you are fluent.

Most people would say a fluent person:

  • Can read most texts without a dictionary;
  • Can understand the news;
  • Can engage in most conversations;
  • Can ask and answer questions in the target language.
But, as we have seen above, this type of fluency is actually a blend of the different language skills.

Written by Todd Cook. Language enthusiast, modern outdoorsman, software craftsman. Find him on or

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