The Huntsman Fluency Imbroglio

Are you fluent in Chinese? This is a question that laowai often field from curious friends and relatives back home, the vast majority of whom being unable to judge for themselves. The question also arises when would-be job seekers formulate their resumes- while showing fluency in Chinese will look impressive, what happens when an interviewer says something to me and I stumble?

The issue has even popped up in the U.S. presidential campaign. Former U.S. Ambassador to China  Jon Huntsman claims fluency in Chinese, the result of a youthful stint as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. On the campaign trail- Huntsman is seeking the Republican nomination for president- the American media states his fluency as a matter of fact. But is it? This in-depth article in Slate shows why there might be good reasons to be skeptical of Huntsman’s claims.

In the American political context, who cares? It’s dubious whether fluency in a foreign language (especially Chinese!) is an asset in the Republican field, anyway. In the annals of U.S. History, “I speak Chinese” doesn’t quite rank up there with “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.

Of more interest to the Lost Laowai readership is this notion of “fluency”. What does it mean to be fluent? And is it a useful metric at all?

Technically speaking, no. For one thing, fluency refers only to spoken Chinese and doesn’t reflect skill level in reading, listening, or writing. Put simply, “fluency” refers to a speaker’s ability to speak without hesitation and self-correction. A person can be fluent in Mandarin without having a particularly good grasp of vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar. Likewise, I’ve met many foreigners with a deep understanding of the language who have trouble putting even basic sentences together. Language learners come in all different types.

Rhetorically speaking, “fluent” has come to mean “advanced” when referring to language ability. After all, nobody wants to go to the trouble of defining his Chinese skills with HSK-like precision, especially in conversation with someone who neither knows what he’s talking about or cares. What is lost in accuracy is gained in convenience.

How do you define fluency?