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Let’s Bust Some Myths About Fluency

by Noah Harley

How, exactly, do we measure language fluency? The answer is not so clear-cut.

For all you fluent English speakers out there, don’t you think it’s interesting that “the Kronecker pairing on the homology and cohomology of a space should be thought of as an analogue (in fact it is a generalization) of integrating a differential n-form along an n-dimensional submanifold?”

This excerpt is from a lecture on algebraic topology, an advanced and (to some) obscure branch of mathematics. I imagine that most native English speakers reading this article did not understand it at all. That’s because fluency in language is a relative phenomenon. No one will ever be completely fluent in a language like English, which is spoken in so many different ways by so many different people, and is used to describe so many different spheres of activity. You may be a native English speaker, but that does not mean you will understand an 80-year old bus driver from Scotland describing the terrible weather they had 50 summers ago, or a professor in algebraic topology. This is not only the case with English, but with any of the world’s languages: Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, German, etc. I want to bust two popular, current myths about fluency which I have repeatedly come up against.

The first and central culprit is the idea that fluency is an absolute status, that the world of each language is divided into two groups: “fluent” and “non-fluent”. But here’s a brief example of how muddy these waters can actually be: if I am born in Moscow, but then move to Toronto at 14 and never speak a word of Russian again for the rest of my life, am I still fluent at 89? Language is a living thing; it always happens within a context and relative to that context, and those contexts often do not have any exterior criteria by which they could be termed standard.

A second, related myth is that fluency is purely linguistic, i.e. not cultural, physical, or contextual. Some countries have different gestures to signify “no” and “yes” - written fluency won’t help you to understand the meaning of a nod. Another example from my travels involves a cultural reference: I lived in Italy for a short time, and while my Italian was improving I kept hearing (and not understanding) the term “redot”, until I learned that was the Italian term for the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The above examples don’t mean that there are no standards, or that there is nothing to gain from study – there is always room for improvement. But they do show that one’s use of language changes and matures, it fades or grows, and the lines aren’t as hard as they may seem. The difference between beginner and advanced becomes much less clear once a language is used in the real world.

As a last example, let’s compare a graduate student who can read complicated mathematical texts in Arabic, but doesn’t know the word for grocery store, with a traveller who has learned Arabic on the fly – ­colloquially and imperfectly – ­but who can navigate the bus system in Morocco with ease. In your opinion, which of these two is more fluent?


Encourage your teens’ gifts. Whether it’s playing the violin, hacking or running 11 second hundred meter dashes, pat your children’s backs. They may just end up paying for their own college tuition. This is what California-native teenager Acacia Brinley is doing, according to a report on the Daily Breeze.

Related Story: [INFOGRAPHIC] Social Media Marketing—Is Your Business Keeping Up?

Brinley has a talent for using make-up and a flare for producing video tutorials sharing her craft. This potent mix of skill yields millions of views of her YouTube videos and followers on her Instagram feed. Brinley didn’t start producing her videos with the intent of making money, but with those kinds of numbers, it was only a matter of time before advertisers would come knocking.  

And this is where we get to the second part of our story. It is not traditional advertising companies that are approaching the Brinleys of the world.  This is because celebrities—and she is a celebrity now—like Brinley are not like their brethren in Hollywood who are slick and trained in public relations. It’s because of this that large corporations, who spend considerable resources on perfecting their messaging, hesitate to entrust their brands to these micro-celebrities. So it’s a new crop of advertising agencies that have jumped into the fray to coordinate people like Brinley and the brands willing to bank on them.

Related Story: [INFOGRAPHIC] How Safe is Your Personal Data on Social Media?

One of these brands is theAudience which understands that the appeal of Brinley-like personalities is that they don’t come off as spokespeople. They’re just in the business of creating videos about their personal lives and sharing them. So when an advertisement pops up, in the form of a product that the performer happens to be using it comes off as a recommendation from a friend instead of a pitch. It’s known as “native advertising.”

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    Our findings are based on many years of studying institutions that have sustained records of both efficiency and innovation. The writings of great thinkers in sociology—Karl Marx, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons—also inform our work. These classic figures were trying to make sense of broad economic and social changes during times when capitalism was mutating from small-scale manufacturing to large-scale industry. Our era represents just as momentous a shift, as we make the transition to an economy based on knowledge work and workers.

    A Shared Purpose

    Sociologist Max Weber famously outlined four bases for social relations, which can be roughly summarized as tradition, self-interest, affection, and shared purpose. Self-interest underlies what all businesses do, of course. The great industrial corporations of the 20th century also invoked tradition to motivate people. And many of the most innovative companies of the past 30 years—Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook—have derived strength from strong, broadly felt affection for a charismatic leader.

    In focusing on the fourth alternative—a shared purpose—collaborative communities seek a basis for trust and organizational cohesion that is more robust than self-interest, more flexible than tradition, and less ephemeral than the emotional, charismatic appeal of a Steve Jobs, a Larry Page, or a Mark Zuckerberg.

    Like a good strategy or vision statement, an effective shared purpose articulates how a group will position itself in relation to competitors and partners—and what key contributions to customers and society will define its success. Kaiser Permanente’s Value Compass, for example, succinctly defines the organization’s shared purpose this way: “Best quality, best service, most affordable, best place to work.”

    This shared purpose is not an expression of a company’s enduring essence—it’s a description of what everyone in the organization is trying to do. It guides efforts at all levels of Kaiser: from top management’s business strategy, to joint planning by the company’s unique labor-management partnership, right down to unit-based teams’ work on process improvement. In that regard, Value Compass is less a vision than a recognition of the challenges that every member of the group has the responsibility to meet every day. (See the sidebar “A Collaborative Dance at Kaiser Permanente.”)

    Leaders often have trouble articulating such a purpose, falling back on either lofty truisms (“We will delight our customers”) or simple financial targets (“We will grow revenues by 20% a year”). Indeed, the development of a common purpose can be a long, complex process.

    For instance, IBM, which needed to reorient its employees from a focus on selling “big iron” in the 1990s, spent a decade building a shared understanding of integrated solutions and on-demand customer focus that went beyond simplistic rhetoric. For many years middle managers and technical employees had found it difficult to frame these concepts in practical terms. They didn’t understand at an operational level what it meant for the company to offer not just its own products but those of other vendors—and to sell customers not simply what IBM offered but exactly what they needed when they needed it. Today these common purposes have become part of the language shared daily by people from different functions and at various levels of IBM as they face challenges together.

    Properly understood, a shared purpose is a powerful organizing principle. Take, for example, e-Solutions, a unit of about 150 people formed in April 2000 within the cash-management division of Citibank to address a competitive threat from AOL, whose customers were already banking, trading stocks, and buying mutual funds online. To meet this challenge, Citibank sought to boost the growth rate of its core cash-management and trade business from 4% to roughly 20%.

    But that was just the business goal. The common purpose behind that number was the aspiration to be a leader in creating new and complex online banking products that could be tailored rapidly to customers’ needs. To fully grasp this purpose required widespread discussion and a shared understanding of the company’s competitive position within the industry, the evolution of customer needs, and the distinctive capabilities of the organization.

    A shared purpose is not the verbiage on a poster or in a document, and it doesn’t come via charismatic leaders’ pronouncements.

    A shared purpose is not the verbiage on a poster or in a document, and it doesn’t come via charismatic leaders’ pronouncements. It is multidimensional, practical, and constantly enriched in debates about concrete problems. Therefore, when we asked managers at e-Solutions why they worked on a given project, they did not answer “Because that’s my job” or “That’s where the money is.” They talked instead about how the project would advance the shared purpose.

    An Ethic of Contribution

    Collaborative communities share a distinctive set of values, which we call an ethic of contribution. It accords the highest value to people who look beyond their specific roles and advance the common purpose.

    Paul Adler is a professor of management and organization at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California, where he holds the Harold Quinton Chair in Business Policy.

    Charles Heckscher is a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations and director of the Center for Organizational Learning and Transformation.

    Laurence Prusak is an independent consultant who teaches in the Information and Knowledge Strategy program at Columbia University.


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