Debunking the fluency myth: how Lingo Flamingo helps relocate the joy in language learning

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Debunking the fluency myth

How Lingo Flamingo helps relocate the joy in language learning

As the Volunteer Coordinator at Lingo Flamingo, I am lucky enough to witness first hand the joys of language learning. A social enterprise with the primary mission of delivering accessible and multi-sensory language lessons to older adults, Lingo Flamingo teaches Spanish, French, Italian and German in care homes and day centres across Scotland, and believes, contrary to popular wisdom, that it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.

This sentiment epitomises Lingo Flamingo’s forward thinking ethos. It understands that older adults living in care homes are individuals who are able to learn new skills, and it views language learning as a powerful tool for education and enjoyment.

These ideas are genuinely radical, and are especially important in light of the abundance of myths which surround language learning, and which act as barriers to language learning for so many people.

What does language learning mean to you?

What do you consider the goal of language learning to be?

During the past 11 months working as the Volunteer Coordinator at Lingo Flamingo, I have asked and been asked these questions and have been surprised to have my own preconceptions about language learning challenged in the process. 

Admittedly, before working at Lingo Flamingo I considered language learning as something to be celebrated. I’d absorbed notions of multilingualism ‘opening doors’ to allow greater understanding of other cultures, even bringing with it greater employment prospects. More importantly, I’d seen language learning as offering necessary protection against the embarrassment of fulfilling the stereotype of the Brit abroad, whose lack of foreign language skills has not dissuaded them from seeking a holiday under the sun. This isn’t to say that I ever succeeded in avoiding this label; but when I was stumped for the Catalan for ‘where are the toilets, please?’, I’d definitely felt self conscious and acutely aware of my own shortcomings. 

So while I saw language learning as a useful endeavour, I also felt consistently inadequate with my shoddy school French, and practically non-existent Spanish, and privately felt that it was probably worth giving them both up for good.

I recently received an email enquiry from a volunteer, who described her passion for languages, and then railed against the most harmful myths she’d heard about language learning. Her third bullet point (it was a long list..) stuck out at me for its simplicity, and read: ‘Fluency as a concept’. This bullet point encapsulated perfectly what it was that I felt I had unconsciously absorbed, as well as describing a significant barrier to people ‘just giving it a go’. As well as being naive and unrealistic for the majority, the focus on linguistic fluency is something I had inherited from an educational system in which attainment mattered above all else. What I realise now, is that my defeatism and willingness to give up learning French and Spanish was informed by a mistaken belief that the real end goal of learning another language is to become fluent.

What even is fluency?

Fluency itself is a shaky concept, as providing an uncontested definition demonstrates. If fluency is about being able to speak about any topic on demand, and the topic we are discussing is stock markets, I’m not sure I’d be able to claim fluency in English. Or maybe fluency is about the ease with which you speak – a view that seems equally challenging considering folk who have speech impairments of any kind. Maybe fluency is simply about how large a person’s vocabulary bank is – although we would struggle on this definition to classify children, who speak quickly and on all sorts of topics, but only by using a narrow pool of words. Fluency then, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. The ways in which people use the word ‘fluent’ are so varied and inconsistent that it has become an effectively meaningless placeholder for a desired state of linguistic proficiency so unattainable so as to be debilitating.

Through watching older adults engage with the material in our multi-sensory language classes, I have seen the value in language learning simply for learning’s sake. When we subtract the focus on fluency from learning a language, we enable tutors to explore novel teaching ideas, and students to enjoy the process of being immersed in a different culture and context: perhaps through sampling traditional Spanish churros or by listening to some of Germany’s finest Schlager.

Celebrating the work of our volunteers at Lingo Flamingo’s Volunteer Awards Evening

Celebrating the work of our volunteers at Lingo Flamingo’s Volunteer Awards Evening

My time at Lingo Flamingo has led me to reconsider the importance of fluency, and focus instead on the ways in which language learning is a tool for enjoyment and fun. 90% of students who take part in our language classes enjoy the experience, and 70% say it offered them an opportunity to socialise with someone new. We find that our classes offer students a much needed chance to actively engage with something new that is completely outside their normal routine. 

And my message to you, dear reader, would be to rid yourself of the idea that the point of learning another language is to become fluent. Try a new language or brush up on one you used to know, you might just enjoy yourself, and what better reason is there to do anything in life?