Using English: Fluency or Accuracy?

I got an e-mail few weeks ago from an ex-student who got an overseas scholarship last year. My eyes popped out reading her final remarks: Thank you ma’am, your my best teacher ever. Do you find any mistake in the sentence? Even after years and years of learning it in school and campus, English grammar is just one of the things that many people don’t always get right. Well, I can ignore my student’s mistake since she’s a non-native speaker of English (or, it could be a typo). But I also find several ungrammatical made by my native-speaker friends. A friend, James, once said on a phone call: “She really don’t know what she’s missing.” As I know that he is an ELT trainer, I teased him, “Sorry, shouldn’t you use doesn’t instead of don’t, James?” And his response is: “Well, Ef, grammar is a great tools for communication, but it can kill communication if we stress on it too much.”

Fluency or accuracy, guys?
Fluency or accuracy, guys?

I am not so obsessed by grammar. But what irritates me most is when someone is very fluent but demonstrates too many inaccuracies and errors. It seems that kind of person is not properly educated, like the majority of people think, too. My reaction to ungrammatical sentences is resulted from the way I got my English from schools years ago. When I was in my teens, English teaching and learning was almost entirely about accuracy, with a system called ‘Grammar Translation’. The whole emphasis in that system was on knowledge. Grammar was an end in itself. If I ended up being able to understand and speak using this approach, it was a matter of luck, or, as my friends told me, because I’m talented in language.

When I started my language teaching profession in the mid 90s, I realized that since 20th century, learning English language has been partly about knowledge and is mainly about performance. (I mean in the past, the mastery of grammar through translation was the main objective and communication was the lucky by-product.) Nowadays, the mastery of communication is the main objective and the grammar necessary for this is the by-product. This means grammar is the support system for communication, not an end in itself. But I think too much emphasis is given on fluency because of focusing on communication. Making mistakes when communicating is not regarded as being too important, just like my friend James thinks. For me, we should avoid making mistakes in using English and that is why we need to give a careful balance between accuracy and fluency.


What is accuracy? What is fluency?

Chris Cotter (2013) stated that accuracy refers to the mechanics of the language. Here, language learners improve on the following ideas:

  1. Clear and articulate speaking/writing.
  2. Language free from grammar mistakes.
  3. Words spelled or pronounced correctly.
  4. Language appropriate to the situation or context.

Fluency, according to Cotter (2013), focuses on the flow of language. Sentences must be spoken smoothly and with few pauses, learners respond to questions and information quickly, and it’s important that learners participate in a conversation, not simply react to it.

Let me make the distinction simple: if you speak English with a high level of accuracy it means you speak correctly, with very few mistakes. If you speak fluently it means you speak easily, quickly and with few pauses.

Now, as I said before, both fluency and accuracy are important and should be balanced in the usage. That is why, as a language trainer, I have to think of learning activities that provide our trainees with many opportunities to say things correctly and to understand the underlying grammar. At the same time, all the training practice is directed at inviting them to express freely without being at all concerned about 100% accuracy. The simple rule for my trainees is: they are not allowed to make mistakes when doing accuracy exercises (drills, etc.); but they are allowed to make as many mistakes as they like when doing fluency exercises (conversation practice). Doing this, I must first explain to them beforehand that I want my trainees to be successful language users; able to communicate in any situation; with full comprehension; confident and effective in their English. This requires that they are fluent and accurate in their language choice, and they should agree with my session planning for them.

But in the practice of teaching in my training center, Pusdiklat Keuangan Umum – BPPK, I cannot expect zero mistakes when teaching the language focus for accuracy. No matter how much practice occurs, mistakes continue to occur. That is why I shouldn’t restrict the lesson to controlled and repetitive activities. For example, if the trainees are drilled and drilled the language for the majority of the class sessions, then everyone would quickly become bored. They felt that there were just too little challenge, little engagement, little interest. To cope with this problem, my strategy is that drills and controlled activities are aimed at improving fluency too, as fluency is given more focus in my training center. When the trainees have improved familiarity with English knowledge, that means an improved level of automaticity, seen by quicker and smoother response times.

To conclude, an English teacher must not only consider accuracy and fluency, but he or she must also consider the balance of the two. Focusing too much on accuracy, the learners will be disengaged and unable to connect to the content. Focusing too much on fluency, the learners will make so many mistakes that they cannot be clearly understood. I keep on reminding my trainees to be aware that they should be both fluent and accurate and they have to be patient with the practice, because fluency and accuracy cannot be thought as separate features. Today’s English teaching practice should focus more on fluency while providing necessary input and guidance and organizing activities accordingly.

Indeed, it is hard to achieve in such a limited time and opportunity in our training sessions: trainees still have the responsibilities to do something with their own independent learning.


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