Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Striving for Fluency: Crafty Tricks, Inevitable Pitfalls, and Productive Approach

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com
As a beginning language learner, I remember knowing many classmates who seemed able to talk indefinitely in English without pausing. If they paused, it was not because they had to, but to extend some measure of courtesy to other students. After all, it was only fair to let everyone contribute to our conversations.

But how many of us did, in fact, speak up regularly, without embarrassment, with pure abandon, pushed by the heavy thought that we would never be fluent unless we practiced? Not too many. We were shy by nature and rather inhibited by what we thought were flawless performances of our fluent classmates. But, still determined to speak up, many of us developed crafty tricks in order to sound more fluent and more skilled. How many of these do you recognize?

  • Learn a word which sounds quite sophisticated and “plug it in” whenever possible (I had a friend whose sentences always included the word appreciate. He seemed to be grateful for lots of things.)
  • Learn a few longer phrases, even sentences, and make them fit whatever topic is being discussed
  • Use abbreviations, clipped forms, and contractions (Cause was quite popular at the time)
  • Instead of boring the listener with an unending chain of “umm” and “ahh,” use phrases such as “Now, let’s see,” or “How can I put it into words?”

A Pile of Pitfalls

While the last trick on the list seemed to work quite well, the others turned out to be nothing but pitfalls, making us more nervous and, in fact, less fluent. Finding ways to make the “big” word or “the perfect sentence” fit the context of the conversation was not just exhausting, but certainly unnatural. Intertwining piles of abbreviations and contractions with long pauses didn’t seem to serve any communicative purpose, except for irritating the listener, perhaps. “It’s … ‘cause…umm… they’ve… ahh… well, …no…. they’d… umm…” would test any listener’s patience.

Most of those tricks did not work well. The idea of creating those, however, testified to our serious, maybe obsessive, interest in becoming truly fluent. We wanted to reduce our number of pauses and repetitions, create undisturbed runs of words, and use connected speech naturally.

The Real Secret of Becoming Fluent

Interestingly, what did help many of us reach higher levels of fluency was exposure to tasks focused on accuracy. Because of our concern with the quality of language we produced and, consequently, with the effectiveness of our communication skills, some emphasis on accuracy allowed us to develop greater fluency. Knowing that we were using appropriate structures and words, we were much more willing to speak up, explore, and experiment with the language.

And so, in our case, accuracy seems to have been not just any component of fluency, but its foundation. Focusing on communication skills is crucial in language learning; being able to use language appropriately is also a part of meaningful and successful communication for both native and non-native speakers.

I’ll end by encouraging you to read an article by Fangyuan Yuan and Rod Ellis “The Effects of Pre-Task Planning and On-Line Planning on Fluency, Complexity and Accuracy in L2 Monologic Oral Production.”

Their findings suggest that a balance between fluency and accuracy can be achieved when students are given time, even brief moments, to conceptualize, plan, articulate, and monitor their oral performance. What I found particularly interesting about this study was the exercise the authors used to research the effects of planning on fluency and accuracy in learners’ oral performance. I think that the task, which involved participants in narrating a story, would work very well as an activity promoting both fluency and accuracy in many EFL/ESL classrooms.

Do you know of any useful strategies for teaching fluency and accuracy in tandem?

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