English fluency is more than just words

Last Updated on February 12, 2022 by Estrella

English fluency is not the sum of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation

Many ESL learners think that if they just have more vocabulary, if they could just pronounce English words better, they would be mastering English.   Actually, English fluency goes beyond these factors.   They are less tangible.    Let me give you a few examples.

Communicating with a housekeeper in Vienna without knowing her language

One summer, I visited Vienna.   It turned out to be the hottest summer in 200 years!   My hotel room had a mini refrigerator right next to the windows.    Even though the room had air condition, the afternoon sun was turning the cold drinks in the mini refrigerator into warm drinks.

I called the front desk and told them the situation.   A few minutes later, a young housekeeper knocked on my door.   Right away, I could tell that we weren’t able to communicate in English.   And I did not know any German!   Not a problem.   I am an ESL teacher.   I can use gestures to explain.    And she understood me.

I was not surprised that she understood me.   I communicate this way with some beginning ESL students.   What surprised me was that I understood HER!    She was not using gestures, and she spoke German to me.   So how was I able to comprehend her explanation?   This puzzled me.

Another strange incident

The next day, I went to downtown Vienna.   When I got on the bus to return to the hotel, I was unsure if I was on the right bus.   I asked the bus driver in English, but did not get a clear answer.

A very loving old woman heard the conversation.    She came over to me, took my hand, got off the bus, and walked me to the other side of the street through the underground tunnel!   My savior!

We talked as we walked.   She in German, and I in English.   Again, the same thing happened as with the housekeeper.    She was not gesturing at all, while I was gesturing the whole time.   It’s possible that she understood English.   But I only knew one word in German.   Somehow, I understood her!   We had an engaging conversation.

This is an interesting phenomenon.    Without knowing the words of her language, I was able to understand her meaning.

An interesting phenomenon

These two instances led me to re-consider language learning.    I have experienced verbal communication without knowing the language.   There was no non-verbal communication cues for me because those 2 women did not use any gestures or facial expressions to convey their message.   But there was one thing in common—the intent to communicate with me.

I shared these stories with a client who was beginning to learn English.   When she first arrived Seattle, she understood and spoke very little English.   Yet, our topics of conversation were quite complex.    She told me that she experienced the same thing when visiting another country.

So there is something intangible about this aspect of communication.   No visual cues.   No exposure to the language beforehand.   Only the desire to be understood by the other person.

Communicating with a co-worker

When my family first moved to Central America, my father and I went to night class to learn Spanish.   I was also taking Spanish in school, using tapes and grammar books.   My grammar and spelling were perfect.   My father’s, not so much.   Yet, he was conversing within 6 months in Spanish, and I was not.

One evening, my parents hosted a party for my Dad’s co-workers.   I observed as my father spoke with one co-worker in Spanish.   Suddenly, I heard him speaking a Chinese word.   I watched his co-worker’s face.   He looked as if he understood my father’s meaning.   And I know he did not know any Chinese.    There was no lapse in understanding.

I observed over the years that my father enjoyed making new friends.    He had an assumption that people understand him.   It’s almost an expectation on his part.   I think that has something to do with people understanding him.   The assumption and expectation might have drawn out something in the listeners.

Can communicating in another language be THIS simple?

If you enjoy this article, here’s another one on How to learn word order in English.


If there are topics you would like me to write about, please email estrellachan@gmail.com

If you wish to increase your English fluency, presentation skills, interview skills, and other career advancement strategies, please email estrellachan@gmail.com

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email estrellachan@gmail.com

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