A couple of months ago, an ex-CELTA trainee of mine posted this on Facebook:
“Recently I spent a bit of time in the UK and on a few occasions told people (not language teachers) I live in France. The question they always seemed to ask is "Are you fluent in French?"
I find myself unable to answer this question(…)
In my teacher training I don't think we used the word "fluency" much. (This isn't a complaint - just an observation.) So my question is - what IS fluency? Does it exist?”
The post got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about fluency in a language, and the slight differences in definition between what the layperson and EFL teachers mean when they say someone is fluent.
In my first post, I explored what the layperson often means when they ask, ‘Are you fluent?’
While many dictionaries define the term ‘fluency’ using concepts of fluidity and smoothness in language production, namely speaking and writing, the layperson seems to associate ‘fluency’ with an overall competency and proficiency of a language. This includes the ability to understand films, television programmes, newspapers, stand-up comedians, which undeniably also requires a certain level of cultural competence.
This of course comes with the assumption that one is learning the language so as to communicate mainly with native speakers of the language, and assimilate into the native speaker culture. Whilst this might be true for those learning Italian or Japanese, the same cannot be applied to English language students who are very likely to be using the language to communicate with other ‘non-native speakers’ and using English as a lingua franca.
In fact, communicating using ‘native speaker’ cultural norms can sometimes become a hindrance to communication.
(For more about this, see this blogpost about teaching English versus teaching English culture.)
There is also a common misconception, especially amongst those who have never learnt a foreign language before, that ‘fluency’ means knowing every word in that language, and that when one is fluent there is no longer a need to learn any more.
In today’s post, I’m looking at the concepts of ‘fluency’ in the world of English language teaching.
The English Language Teaching a.k.a. ELT world
The term ‘fluency’ in the world of EFL refers to the measurement of the ability one has to speak smoothly and freely without the need to pause and think about the grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation one needs to communicate.
The concept of ‘fluency’ is often used in conjunction with ‘accuracy’. One could speak fluently (smoothly without pauses) but be extremely inaccurate, making lots of grammatical or lexical mistakes throughout. (Notice the difference here between the layperson’s definition of fluency and the EFL definition.)
In a typical English proficiency test like IELTS, the speaking part sees candidates being marked on their fluency separate from their accuracy.
Did you just pause?
According to the British Council Learn English webpage, being fluent means you speak easily, quickly and with no pauses.
It is perhaps a little odd to suggest that a person who speaks a language well does so without pausing. After all, natural pauses occur in our daily conversations for several reasons: the speaker is thinking about what they are saying; the speaker is thinking about how they are saying it in order to best achieve their communicative aims; the speaker is using an intended pause to create effect (a dramatic beat, an emotional moment, a moment of suspense, etc.).
But seeing that we are evaluating foreign language learners, we seem to be only penalising pauses that are taken to formulate an accurate sentence. We have all met language learners who are so concerned about formulating the most accurate sentences in their heads that we end up waiting all day for just one sentence to be uttered.
But the reasons behind a speaker’s pauses can sometimes seem difficult to call. Was that a dramatic beat or did the speaker pause to formulate the present perfect in that sentence? Or perhaps the speaker paused to formulate the present perfect but was cleverly disguising it as a dramatic beat?
Do we perhaps need to consider the discourse norms and patterns in the relevant discourse community in order to judge whether the pauses taken by a speaker are out of the ordinary for said community and whether it indeed affects his/her coherence.
The use of the current definition of ‘fluency’ as a yardstick for proficiency thus seems vague, unreliable and possibly unscientific.
What are fluency activities and accuracy activities?
Naturally, as a logical consequence, I have several issues with labeling speaking activities as ‘accuracy’ or ‘fluency’ activities (which the CELTA course promotes).
‘Accuracy activities’ are controlled activities that focus on a grammatical structure, ignores the need for meaningful communication, and practises the language out of context. And activities that encourage the natural use of language in context and requires the use of communicative strategies are ‘fluency activities’.
It might be due to my attitudes and beliefs and my background in Task-Based Learning, Dogme and Business English teaching, but I find any activity that ignores the need for meaningful communication and encourages the practice of language out of context highly questionable. I have no doubts about the benefits of some drilling to help learners get their tongues (and heads) round new language items (words, phrases, structures). But the moment students are put into pairs or groups for any kind of activity, both spoken accuracy and fluency are being practised.
In my classroom, apart from the occasional drills, every activity is an accuracy AND a fluency activity, and perhaps the attempts to separate ‘fluency’ and ‘accuracy’ could well be futile. After all, shouldn't every classroom activity serve to help our learners become better communicators?
So what then should we make of ‘fluency’ in our classrooms?
Applied linguists tend to use the term ‘fluency’ to refer to the achieving automaticity in language use, it is quite difficult to break down the cognitive mechanisms that lead from controlled processing to automatic processing. (Schmidt, 1992)
Translating what could be a rather abstract concept into practical classroom terms, the best way to encourage such automaticity in language use could perhaps be to:
- Allow for as much language use and language practice as possible. Make use of pairwork and groupwork whenever possible to maximize student speaking time.
- Allow for opportunities for meaningful communication. This can be done through providing motivating group tasks (that are not necessarily language-related).
- Ensure that language is learnt and used in context.
- Encourage the learning of lexical chunks. Make learners aware of common collocations and colligations. Give learners practice noticing such chunks of language in texts.
- Use drilling to help learners to get their tongues (and heads) around new phrases and sentences (not just single words).
- Expose learners to authentic material in the forms of magazine articles, YouTube clips, TED talks, films and TV programmes, songs, etc. Get students to notice the chunks of language that are used.
- Build your learners’ confidence by highlighting their new abilities and the things they now can do with the language.
And then one day, they might suddenly realise that they are no longer thinking of how they are saying something, but focused on what they actually want to communicate.
Then maybe we know that automaticity has been achieved.
Schmidt, R. (1992) Psychological mechanisms underlying second language fluency. In Studies in Second Language Acquisition. Vol 14, Issue 4, December 1992, pp. 357-385.
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com