On Fluency and Accuracy

Although attempts to define ‘fluency’ and ‘accuracy’ when speaking a foreign language abound in the specialized literature, there still does not seem to exist a consensus regarding a single, ultimate definition of either one of the terms. One of the reasons which could partly explain the lack of common ground among authors is the very subjective nature of the two words in the context of learning/mastering a foreign language.

Any given language is a complex structural system whose components include, but are not limited to, rules, vocabulary and pronunciation. Several are the factors that increase or decrease the complexity – or mastery – of this system; however, that a language only exists if used for its primary purpose, that is, human communication, no one can doubt. If for some reason one loses the ability to use this system (e.g. in the case of brain damage resulting in aphasia), the system, though still there, may be entirely lost. Thus, the intangibility of the concept of language might be one of the key factors affecting definitions concerning some of its components (e.g. fluency and accuracy).

Within the scope of EFL/ESL teaching, however, most authors tend to concede that ‘fluency’ is the ability to convey meaningful, natural, reasonably lengthy messages to one’s interlocutor(s) in real time without undue hesitations, “…whether or not it results in native-speaker-like language comprehension or production” (Brumfit 1984). Here again, the subjective nature of the concept of ‘fluency’ comes into play. This said, our role as teachers of English as a foreign or second language is to help our students reach this level of ‘naturalness’ when communicating in the real world. Two crucial questions remain, however, concerning an important component of fluency: What is accuracy in language? What role does it play in aiding fluency?

Most scholars tend to agree that accuracy might be defined as conformity to the rules and standards of the target language so that the recipient of an oral message is not strained by the ‘unruly’ structuring of utterances. A native speaker of English might certainly have to struggle to understand, “She want coffee not.” The ‘unnatural’ absence of an auxiliary verb coupled with the (mis)placement of the negative adverb at the end of the sentence (informally accepted in Latin-derived Brazilian Portuguese) might result in a communication breakdown. Clearly, this is an example of how ‘accuracy’ – or the lack of it – can hinder communication. However, can the same be said of, “She don’t want no coffee.”, a statement which contains two structural inadequacies but which would easily be comprehended by native speakers of the English language?

In light of this, it becomes even clearer that the parameters used to define what is ‘fluent’ or not, what is ‘accurate’ or not are flexible and relatively regarded as a moving target. Learning chunks of language (e.g. “work in an office” and “far more significant”, depending on the level) – as opposed to isolating lexical items or looking at grammar structures through a magnifying lens – may be a much better choice if our primary goal as teachers is to help our learners become better users of the language. Providing them with the necessary tools (i.e. essential vocabulary and grammar according to their needs and expectations) and plenty of rehearsal opportunities might, in the end, result in successful language use and production.

Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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