The Fluency Illusion

Video Summary

If you’re a beginner (or any level, really) in a foreign language, up to what point are you able to judge someone’s language ability? The answer to this question is simple: You can only judge ability up to your own level. Any further than that, and you can’t perceive the mistakes. You don’t know what you don’t know.

The Fluency Illusion

If you’ve been following so far, you already pretty much understand what the fluency illusion is. Basically, it’s whenever someone appears to be much better at a foreign language then they actually are. This is very likely to occur when you’re listening to a foreign language speaker who is much better than you.

When Laymen Try To Judge Language Ability

The most clear example of the fluency illusion happens when a layman (in this case, someone who doesn’t speak the language of concern) tries to judge another speaker’s ability. Now, for the past few years I’ve dabbled in Mandarin Chinese. I’m still god-awful at it—I can hardly understand anything. But, if I went to a Chinese restaurant with my family—and started speaking in Chinese with a Chinese waiter—I’d appear totally fluent to my family. The reason for that, of course, is that my family has no way to perceive mistakes in the language. They can only judge the atmosphere of the conversation, and my own apparent ability to talk with the waiter without creating any misunderstandings. All factors that mean very little. I would be able to hide my own discomfort, and the Chinese waiter would also lower the difficulty of his speech to accomodate me.

Judging Language Ability At Higher Levels

As I said earlier, the fluency illusion can happen at any level. Thinking back to a few years ago, when I wasn’t as fluent in Japanese (but still quite fluent), there were some foreign speakers of Japanese that appeared perfect to me. However, now that I’ve improved, I can notice quite frequently when their speech—grammar, pronunciation, and phrasing—deviate from native speech. I can see now that they’re struggling at a very subtle level.

The Takeaway For Beginners and Intermediates

There are a lot of people out there who say they’re at a very high level in a foreign language. Maybe they have a lot of videos too. To anyone below their level, they will sound really good—maybe even perfect. But in reality, they could easily be using words wrong, making grammar and pronunciation mistakes left and right—and you won’t be able to tell at all. Never trust your instincts when it comes to how good someone is in a language. If you can’t perceive mistakes, it doesn’t mean there aren't any mistakes being made.