18. Fluency Vs Accuracy OR Fluency AND Accuracy for Language Learners?

Abstract : This sem­i­nar paper indi­cates a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in objec­tives between lan­guage learn­ing for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and learn­ing for live use. Whereas accu­racy is an absolute goal within school­ing con­texts, its value on the street is highly vari­able. This dif­fer­ence is reflected in teach­ing per­spec­tives. // This is the out­line of a sem­i­nar on teach­ing method­ol­ogy given as a teacher inser­vice for Chi­nese Eng­lish teach­ers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, in Novem­ber 2009. 

1. Why do we teach Eng­lish?

  • Stu­dents learn a lan­guage sup­pos­edly to use it in their jobs, or other areas of their future life.
  • As teach­ers in schools, we mostly don’t teach lan­guage as it will actu­ally be used in jobs or other areas of real life.
  • As teach­ers in schools, we mostly teach lan­guage for exam results, or for tests like IELTS. We can’t avoid this. It is a fea­ture of mass edu­ca­tion.
  • Our dis­cus­sion will mostly be about teach­ing in this col­lege in Zhengzhou, China, for col­lege pur­poses. How­ever, I will begin by look­ing at the larger idea of how real lan­guage is used.

2. Good Gram­mar, Seman­tic Non­sense

Here is a mar­vel­lous and famous exam­ple of how “godd gram­mar” (mean­ing good syn­tax in this case) can be sheer non­sense:


by Lewis Car­roll
(from Through the Look­ing-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

Twas bril­lig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gim­ble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the boro­goves,
And the mome raths out­grabe.

Beware the Jab­ber­wock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jub­jub bird, and shun
The fru­mious Ban­der­snatch!”
He took his vor­pal sword in hand:
Long time the manx­ome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tum­tum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uff­ish thought he stood,
The Jab­ber­wock, with eyes of flame,
Came whif­fling through the tul­gey wood,
And bur­bled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vor­pal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumph­ing back.
“And, has thou slain the Jab­ber­wock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frab­jous day! Cal­looh! Callay!’
He chor­tled in his joy.

Twas bril­lig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gim­ble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the boro­goves,
And the mome raths out­grabe.

[credit: dshaw@jabberwocky.com]

3. Flu­ent con­fu­sion 

Direct exam­ples from the writ­ing of my stu­dents:

1. I think I’m a warm heart per­son. I often have a usual smell. I’m care­ful and angelic.

2. In the future, we are all may become a nurse.

3. When the ill peo­ple feel fall down, you should be encour­age them to stand up.

4. One can do any­thing if he doesn’t got a good per­sonal qual­ity.

5. She must know how to com­mu­ni­ca­tion with patients or their fam­ily.

6. Respon­si­bil­ity is the must thing for a nurse.

7. You maybe very hurry and busy in the hos­pi­tal, so you must have a good healthy.

8. [about learn­ing a skill … ] Maybe you could talk about any­thing, but the thing you take could help you nurs­ing is so per­fect and pretty?

9. A nurse should have patient and duty on patients.

10. Com­par­ing that* with our fact there have many dif­fer­ent in hos­pi­tal now.  [[  *the present sit­u­a­tion in hos­pi­tals]]
4. Intended mean­ing and con­structed mean­ing

  • A speaker INTENDS mean­ing. The stu­dents who wrote the “flu­ent non­sense” in 3) clearly intended some mean­ings.
  • A lis­tener CONSTRUCTS mean­ing from all the avail­able clues: sound, vision, the con­text, mem­ory, knowl­edge of the speaker, knowl­edge of the world ….
  • In real com­mu­ni­ca­tion we could con­struct a mean­ing from the “flu­ent non­sense” by the stu­dents in 3). We would have great dif­fi­culty con­struct­ing a mean­ing from the “cor­rect gram­mar” but word non­sense of Jab­ber­wocky.

5. Approx­i­mate mean­ing

  • All con­structed mean­ing is APPROXIMATE, even between native speak­ers.
  • Your mother is dif­fer­ent from my mother. The word ‘mother’ will mean some­thing slightly dif­fer­ent for each of us.
  • We all inter­pret events dif­fer­ently. Even when we share DENO­TA­TIONs, the CON­NO­TA­TIONs may dif­fer for us. The state­ment ‘There is  an H1N1 pan­demic‘ is a prob­lem for some but a busi­ness oppor­tu­nity for oth­ers.

6. Social mean­ing

  • All soci­eties con­struct SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC BARRIERS based on lan­guage.
  • Some bar­ri­ers are for­mal (e.g. legal lan­guage), while many are infor­mal (e.g. crit­i­cism of a speaker who mixes lan­guage reg­is­ters inap­pro­pri­ately, such as using curse words in a for­mal speech).

7. Sec­ond lan­guage speak­ing and writ­ing : for­mal errors

  • In prac­tice, the main bar­rier to a native speaker accept­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion from a sec­ond lan­guage speaker/writer is NOT for­mal errors.
  • Even a poor L2 user can usu­ally find a way to get his basic mes­sage (his deno­ta­tive mes­sage) across. There may be con­fu­sion at first. There may be rep­e­ti­tion. How­ever, the speaker and the lis­tener work­ing together will even­tu­ally estab­lish a con­text and nar­row down pos­si­ble mean­ings. With phys­i­cal sit­u­a­tions (e.g. shop­ping) this is espe­cially easy.
  • Note that an L1 speaker of Eng­lish might find it eas­ier to under­stand the GRAMMATICAL INTENTION of a poor L2 speaker of Eng­lish than another L2 user would. How­ever, two L2 speak­ers from the same or sim­i­lar cul­ture might under­stand SOCIAL INTENTION more eas­ily than the L1 lis­tener.

8. Sec­ond lan­guage speak­ing and writ­ing : social accep­tance

The real bar­rier to native speak­ers accept­ing L2 com­mu­ni­ca­tions is SOCIAL :

  • It is exhaust­ing to con­stantly have to strug­gle to under­stand the L2 user.
  • The L2 user is obvi­ously an out­sider and may be cul­tur­ally dis­liked.
  • All L2 errors will be noticed, and may add to prej­u­dice.
  • Two L1 users can com­mu­ni­cate mean­ing in a few words. L2<=>L1 needs many words to explain back­ground and inten­tions.
  • Com­pli­cated ideas will be avoided to save time and con­fu­sion, even if the L2 user seems to have a good con­trol of gram­mar etc.

9. L2 lis­ten­ing and read­ing skills & knowl­edge

a) Knowl­edge or skills required for both lis­ten­ing & read­ing flu­ently :

  • basic vocab­u­lary
  • basic syn­tac­tic knowl­edge
  • an abil­ity to find a frame or con­text for inter­pret­ing the mes­sage
  • an under­stand­ing of the speaker/writer’s pre­sup­po­si­tions

b) Knowl­edge or skills espe­cially required for flu­ent lis­ten­ing:

  • an abil­ity to rapidly decode the phonol­ogy & into­na­tion of the lan­guage; i.e. men­tal pro­cess­ing of the lan­guage at speed
  • an abil­ity to pre­dict what the speaker is likely to utter next from word to word (col­lo­ca­tion)
  • an abil­ity to inter­pret eli­sion (missing/changed/slurred sounds) and ellip­sis (miss­ing phrase frag­ments)

c) Knowl­edge or skills espe­cially required for flu­ent read­ing:

  • a relaxed famil­iar­ity with the script and spelling sys­tem of the lan­guage (or with the ideograms in the case of Chi­nese)
  • a far more exten­sive recog­ni­tion vocab­u­lary than that found in speech
  • an abil­ity to infer mean­ing (espe­cially of unfa­mil­iar words) from con­text
  • more com­plex and con­trolled gram­mat­i­cal forms than those nor­mally found in speech
  • the abil­ity to fol­low com­plex argu­men­ta­tion in some kinds of writ­ing; (the styles are quite dif­fer­ent between Chi­nese and Eng­lish)

10. Teach­ing L2 in mass edu­ca­tion set­tings

  • Schools are ter­ri­ble places to teach & learn lan­guages
  • Teach­ers and testers can’t eas­ily mea­sure how well a stu­dent can com­mu­ni­cate in a SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE WAY
  • Teach­ers and testers can’t eas­ily set up sit­u­a­tions where L2 learn­ers NEGOTIATE mean­ing until the speaker and lis­tener under­stand a mes­sage well enough. How­ever, this is what most lan­guage in real life is about, and it is the skill that learn­ers need.
  • Teach­ers and testers find it easy to make tests to iden­tify FORMAL SYNTACTIC ERRORS. This is what most school teach­ing focuses on. It is ter­ri­bly unpro­duc­tive.
  • Teach­ers are eval­u­ated on how well their stu­dents do in for­mal tests, not on how well their stu­dents learn to com­mu­ni­cate in real sit­u­a­tions. There­fore, reform is dif­fi­cult, per­haps impos­si­ble in most schools.

11. Prac­ti­cal class­room choices

  • All of you (teach­ers) are faced with a cer­tain group of young adult stu­dents.
  • They have par­tic­u­lar needs.
  • Time is lim­ited.
  • Deci­sions have to be made about what to attempt with them.
  • Our stu­dents (in Zhengzhou) are not begin­ners, although some have a very low level.
  • Most are at low inter­me­di­ate level.
  • Their aims are :

a) to obtain a diploma
b) in some cases, to obtain an IELTS 6 grad­ing for an Aus­tralian visa and over­seas study
c) voca­tional

  • For a) and b) a degree of lan­guage use accu­racy is required beyond that typ­i­cally needed for c)

12. A choice between accu­racy and flu­ency?

  • Can a user be flu­ent with­out being accu­rate?
  • That is a mat­ter for judge­ment in par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions.
  • Being ‘flu­ent’ at a party amongst friends might not require great coher­ence, for­mal gram­mat­i­cal accu­racy or lin­guis­tic com­plex­ity.
  • Being ‘flu­ent’ giv­ing evi­dence in a court of law does require great coher­ence, for­mal gram­mat­i­cal accu­racy and lin­guis­tic com­plex­ity.
  • With ZRTVC (Zhengzhou) stu­dents at their present level of Eng­lish, the teacher does have some choice about whether to encour­age free lan­guage use, or to insist that stu­dents respond within cer­tain fixed lan­guage frames (e.g. gap fill­ing, mul­ti­ple choices, restricted answers, and so on).

13. What is the right bal­ance between free and con­trolled lan­guage use?

As teach­ers in an insti­tu­tion we need to think about a) and b) below. What is your solu­tion as a teacher?

  • a) What is most pro­duc­tive for stu­dent learn­ing (given col­lege rather than life aims) ?
  • b) What is accept­able to teach­ers, given their own lim­i­ta­tions?

14. Do stu­dents need con­trolled lan­guage exer­cises?

  • The short answer is that our stu­dents at their present stage of learn­ing need a cer­tain num­ber of con­trolled lan­guage exer­cises to develop their accu­racy.
  • Con­trolled lan­guage exer­cises should never be more than part of a lesson. They should be sand­wiched between peri­ods when stu­dents can actu­ally use the lan­guage with a degree of free­dom and enjoy­ment.
  • The long answer is that writ­ten con­trolled lan­guage exer­cises are only really use­ful in the first stages of acquir­ing knowl­edge of a lan­guage rule or pat­tern.
  • It is almost impos­si­ble to acquire accu­rate flu­ency in speak­ing, writ­ing, lis­ten­ing or read­ing by rely­ing only on writ­ten con­trolled lan­guage exer­cises.
  • Spo­ken con­trolled lan­guage exer­cises, given with good humour (i.e. NOT bor­ing) and given with increas­ing speed DO build accu­rate flu­ency in all four skills.

15.  How can teach­ers plan their lessons?

Lan­guage lessons should rarely be lec­tures, espe­cially in a place like the Zhengzhou nurs­ing col­lege here.

  • A lec­ture means that the lec­turer just talks and stu­dents take notes.
  • Mini-lec­tures by teach­ers are occa­sion­ally use­ful for back­ground infor­ma­tion.
  • Some­times a cer­tain amount of inter­pret­ing is needed here in Zhengzhou for weaker stu­dents. In such cases, as a for­eign teacher I use a more capa­ble stu­dent to inter­pret. (Inter­pret­ing skills are extremely use­ful to develop, and often needed in hos­pi­tals).

Teach­ing (as opposed to lec­tur­ing) always depends on var­i­ous mixes :

  • a mix of activ­i­ties (usu­ally essen­tial to keep stu­dents inter­ested)
  • a mix of teacher talk and stu­dent talk or writ­ing; (the mix will vary with topic, lesson aims, and the Eng­lish level of stu­dents).
  • a mix of free lan­guage use and con­trolled lan­guage use; (the mix will vary with  topic, lesson aims, and the Eng­lish level of stu­dents).

16. Should stu­dent lan­guage be cor­rected?

  • Teach­ers should inter­fere as lit­tle as pos­si­ble in free lan­guage use by stu­dents.
  • Stu­dents can accept inter­rup­tions from the teacher to cor­rect errors in con­trolled oral lan­guage exchanges. This is a spe­cial game, and explained as such. Text books can often be adapted for this kind of oral work.
  • Teacher cor­rec­tion of stu­dent writ­ten home­work is mostly a waste of time. Years of expe­ri­ence have taught me this. Our stu­dents are liv­ing proof that it doesn’t work. Hours spent “mark­ing” stu­dent writ­ing does not prove that you are a “good teacher”.
  • I always tell stu­dents if there is an error in writ­ing, but not what the error is. I then insist that they find and cor­rect it them­selves. Nearly always they can do that, some­times with the help of a friend. Then they might remem­ber the cor­rec­tion.
  • Some errors are devel­op­men­tal. Chil­dren learn­ing their first lan­guage acquire struc­tures in a cer­tain order and cor­rect­ing them may have lit­tle effect. Some­thing sim­i­lar does hap­pen with L2 learn­ers, but the process is less clear cut and varies for learn­ers. There are com­pli­ca­tions such as the user’s L1, her age, and so on.

17. Last Thoughts

The points that I have raised in this sem­i­nar are not carved in stone. They are my per­sonal con­clu­sions as a pro­fes­sional lan­guage teacher with over three decades of expe­ri­ence. How­ever all kinds of stu­dents with all kinds of teach­ers do pass exams, and some even suc­ceed in becom­ing flu­ent in another lan­guage. I don’t know what your pri­or­i­ties are if you are a teacher, nor do I know your stu­dents. One thing that I am con­vinced of is that great teach­ers never stop look­ing for answers to the mir­a­cle of what hap­pens when a stu­dent learns a lan­guage. These sem­i­nar notes will be of some value if they can prod you into think­ing about that mir­a­cle a lit­tle more, even if you dis­agree with the writer.

© Thor May 2009


ref­er­ence (for fur­ther think­ing)

Krashen, Stephen (1998) Teach­ing Gram­mar: Why Bother? @ https://www.msu.edu/~sandinkr/grammarwhybother.htm

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