Fluency versus Accuracy – Some Thoughts

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What is more important: fluency or accuracy? I’m aware of the artificiality of the opposition. It makes no sense to set the two against each other. There is no either – or.

However, the two concepts do sometimes seem to linger in the minds of foreign language speakers. Every once in a while there are participants in class who hardly say anything. Now this may just be due to the nature of their personality: they are less imposing or more laid back, prefer to listen to others before they utter their own opinion etc. It is not always possible to assess what moves an individual to participate in a discussion or not – it might just not be a topic of his or her interest and – as teachers or moderators – it is not easy, (and not always necessary), to analyze why a group member at any given time is not willing to contribute orally to whatever the others are talking about.

However, as leaders of the group, we teachers feel responsible for the well-being of all. We want everybody to be happy, enjoy themselves, get something out of the lesson, the topic, whatever. The session shall not be wasted time. That’s the pressure teachers sometimes impose upon themselves.

At other times, an individual’s reason for not contributing, though, is simply for being afraid of making mistakes, and this is where the accuracy-versus-fluency dichotomy becomes meaningful.

There seem to be two general types of second or foreign language learners. The two are extremes along the line of a continuum. The first of the two is a person who loves to speak and join in the discussion  He or she does not care whatsoever if the adverb position is correct, or if they added an –ed to the verb; the basic form is just sufficient for expressing whatever he or she wants to express. Sometimes it’s amazing how this still works from a communicative point of view. And its interesting –  sometimes – to see in practice which grammatical forms are indeed essential for successful communication and where a language issue is in dire need of some further attention.

In this respect, the ‘past tense’ or second form of the verb always pops up as one of the winners. Leaving the verb uninflected for past time, for instance, and instead using it in its basic form definitely leads to confusion: are we talking about a past trip or your next holiday plans?

A request for clarification is often necessary with basic form users. These speakers are on the far end of the fluent but not accurate side of the fluency versus accuracy continuum. The occupant of the other end is easy to describe: they don’t speak. So afraid of making mistakes and thereby not fulfilling the quest for total accuracy, they never open their mouths. How do I know then that that’s their problem? I don’t, but I suspect.

Every once in a while we talk about these issues, and it is not so difficult to find out whose silence is based on exactly this problem: the fear of making mistakes. I haven’t conducted any surveys, I don’t know how many of today’s learners of English are still inhibited by this problem. Where it comes from seems clear and needs no broader mention here. The topic will come up again in blogs about language concepts, concepts of grammar and how they influence how people learn. In other words: language attitudes and their effects on the language learning process.

Suffice it to say, (excessive) accuracy as a language learning goal seems more trouble than it is worth. I prefer a  semantic and pragmatic approach to language form. There is always a pragmatic reason for the use or preference of any given structure over another based on the semantics of this form. Every form has a certain meaning or range of meaning, and a  certain degree of (non-random) semantic flexibility.

In the area of verb structures, meanings are, in most cases, clearly definable (if not, it’s the problem of the describer, not the form), but also wider or more general than e.g. the meaning of a specific highly infrequent lexical item – let’s take for example….’hyperdermic’.  The more restricted the semantics and the pragmatic domain of a lexical item, the less applicable it is in communication.

In comparison, the semantics of verb structures need to be much more flexible than e.g. words denoting objects, as verb structures are needed in various contexts. This their semantic nature might make them more difficult to learn or understand and readily apply appropriately in accordance to what a learner wants to express. The aim of the language class is or should be to help learners of the language understand these semantics as best as possible, and not become intimidated by some false concept of accuracy. And to learn and accept that sometimes there are options of choice instead of rights or wrongs.

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