F is for Fluency

17 12 2009

Jeremy Harmer recently asked – on Twitter – for opinions as to why some learners achieve high degrees of fluency, while others do not. I wanted to reply that any answer to that question depends on how you define fluency – and then I would go on to attempt to define it. But the 140-character restriction of Twitter proved too much, so I thought I’d blog it instead.

As I found when I tried to define it in the A-Z, fluency is one of those elusive, fuzzy, even contested, terms that means different things to different people. In lay terms, a “fluent speaker of French” is probably someone whose French is judged as accurate, easy on the ear, and idiomatic. The term, however, was co-opted by methodologists (especially those aligned to the communicative approach) to describe the purpose of classroom activities whose focus is on communicating meaning, rather than on the practice of specific (typically grammatical) forms. Thus, Brumfit (1984) said that “the distinction between accuracy and fluency is essentially a methodological distinction, rather than one in psychology or linguistics”. And added, “fluency…is to be regarded as natural language use, whether or not it results in native-speaker-like language comprehension or production”. The problem with this definition, though, is that it is very difficult to operationalise, especially from the point of view of testing. What exactly is “natural language use”, how do you contrive it in the classroom, and how do you assess it (especially if you are discounting native-speaker-like models as your benchmark)? As a term, fluency becomes difficult to disentangle from related concepts, such as intelligibility, coherence, communicative effectiveness, and so on.   

To counter this fuzziness, various researchers, working in a cognitive tradition, attempted to characterise it in measurable terms. Thus, Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005), following Skehan (1998), define fluency as “the production of language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.”  That is to say, it is a ‘temporal phenomenon’. Well and good. This is something we can measure.

Confusingly, though, they go on to say that “fluency occurs when learners prioritize meaning over form in order to get a task done”. This to me seems patently false: getting a task done is no guarantee that there is no “undue pausing or hesitation”. On the contrary, the effort involved in performing a task may actually increase the degree of dysfluency. And nor is attention to meaning a pre-condition for pause-free production. Some of our most fluent productions, as proficient speakers, are texts that we have committed to memory (tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, prayers, oaths of allegiance, etc) that we can trot out without ANY attention to meaning.

In fact, it may be that fluency is indeed a function of memory, and that the capacity to produce pause-free speech in real time is contingent on having a memorised bank of formulaic language “chunks” – a view that was first put forward as long ago as 1983 by Pawley and Syder in their seminal paper, ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency’. Well, I used to say that it was P & S who ‘first put forward’ this view. And then I discoverd more recently that the great Harold Palmer, as even longer ago as 1925, identified ‘the fundamental guiding principle for the student of conversation’ as being “Memorize perfectly the largest number of common and useful word-groups!

If this is in fact the case, as teachers interested in developing fluency, we might need to:

1. clarify the concept of  what a ‘word group’ is;
2. select those word groups that are both common and useful;
3. set a target that represents the largest practicable number;
4. decide what the criteria for perfect memorization might be;
5. devise and teach strategies that promote memorization of word groups;
6. devise activities what provide opportunities for learners to activate what they have memorized, without undue pausing or hesitation, in ways that replicate real language use.

Is this a tall order?


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92 responses

17 12 2009
jeremyharmer

Hi Scot,

I am really pleased that you should have set this hare running or ball rolling (or whatever old lexical zombie best fits).

There are two problems that you raise. One is the onerous task of saying exactly what fluency is. Well like so many other concepts we kind of ‘know a fluent speakers’ when we find one, but what is it about that person. Chunks, yes. Lack of pausing inappropriately (perhaps that is it) yes, lack of over-circomlocution, an ability to put thoughts into words with a minimum of hesitation and stutter etc? It would be a great PhD thesis to get a serious of people to evaluate fluent vs non-fluent speakers and then go and really study what’s going on and what the differences are. (in recent talks I have attended, Mike McCarthy concentrates on pauses and chunks – and crucially the fact that there are no pause WITHIN chunks.

My concern, of course, is to try and pin down what teachers can do to help this stage. Memorisation of chunks? Activities to get students speaking in/with a ‘rush’? The use of reading aloud and acting out to promote a concentrtaion on rhythm, speed and stress? the development of the students’ ‘listening brain’?

No more, because I’ve already gone on too long. But in the end it IS all about a student’s attitude to learning, how they absorb, pick up and experiment. I think there are tricks we can pull off – but you’ll have to come to a talk for that?!!!

Jeremy

17 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks Jeremy – glad you got this before jetting off to exotic locations.

Activities for getting students speaking “with a rush” – this intrigues me – ever since a student of mine – ages ago, when I was teaching in IH London – confessed to me that she had formerly been a student at XXX College (no names) – a language school famous then (and even now, I think) as being unashamedly audiolingual in its approach, and whose main methodological gambit was fast and furious question-and-answer routines, accompanied by rapid-fire drills, without allowing learners pause to think. Any form of creative language use, like chatting, was forbidden!

She confessed to me that it hads been hell at first (she actually had nightmares about it) but after two weeks she settled in to it, and found it seemed to give her a bridgehead into fluency (in the sense of being able to engage in ‘real language use’). The only reason she had come to IH was to refine her writing skills, in advance of taking the FCE. Interesting, no?

17 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

Responding to…
1. clarify the concept of what a ‘word group’ is;
2. select those word groups that are both common and useful;
3. set a target that represents the largest practicable number;
4. decide what the criteria for perfect memorization might be;
Is this a tall order?

If I may respectfully disagree… I do think it is a tall order… and an impractical one too.

Principally, word-groups cannot be described as “common and useful”**- the word-group which one set of students needs is not the same word-group another needs so there’s no PackageableSet, especially when/if the teacher realizes that learner-mass is not the “learner.”

Language is used to communicate: principally, to communicate our very own personal needs, wishes, wants, instructions, hypothesis, ideas, emotions…

The secret to fluency lies in understanding that humans are essentially narcissistic (no ref to last week’s bruhaha) – this is a necessary part of the evolutionary program: we need to communicate in order to get what “we” want, because getting what we want means survival.

To unlock fluency, it’s necessary to create in the students’ mind a personal reality, a direct relationship with the language in order to encourage the `feeling´ that the student is on his way to reaching his ability to survive in the new jungle he’s entering.

If the student feels his goal is attainable (whatever that is: mastering a business deal, going to a meeting, passing a test, going to university) pleasure hormones kick in, affecting his ability to memorize the personal needed word-groups and he becomes super-receptive to even more vocabulary related to this “field”… whether coming in directly from the teacher or from outside of the classroom (advertisements, on the radio, on the internet, in a report on his desk, in the playground) and this emotional mix includes the casualness and confidence to reproduce it with at least the same meaning in a different context, perhaps not with the exact “right” form.

(The rush = surprised acknowledgment of finally being in the right tree).

However, if the student feels that the goal is too far away, is unachievable, the opposite emotions kick in (depression, demotivation, laziness) stopping him/her from progressing – so he goes into the “down,” which in turn, stops memorization, input and prevents regurgitation of meaning and/or form.

5. devise and teach strategies that promote memorization of word groups;

I’m on the shelf a bit with this one… I think language awareness is the core skill to be taught by teachers- memorization can be a part of this (I do like drilling as I mentioned in an earlier post, situational) but I think the focus should be more on teaching learners to simply pay attention to their new input, helping them to sort that data into applicable word-groups/form

HOW fluency?
6. devise activities that provide opportunities for learners to activate what they have memorized, without undue pausing or hesitation, in ways that replicate real language use.

“Make them talk about themselves.” Again and again and again.

(**please do note I am not talking about HighFrequency words with A1-A2 learners, that’s not fluency).

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks Karenne – should have know you’d have something to say on the subject!😉

I totally agree that there is a strong affective factor involved in the development of fluency – in a sense, fluency is its own reward. The better you get at it the more you enjoy doing it! This is why it’s important (I think) to give the learners the experience of fluency at a very early stage – even if this is only performing memorised dialogues (see comment below to Nick B. about recitation etc). On the other hand, forcing them to “get what they want” using language, when they don’t have a critical mass of language (whether words, chunks, grammar) to do this, might be counterproductive, and result in reduced, rather than increased, motivation. Don’t you think?

18 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

Yup, sorry for butting in😉 conversation and fluency is my “thang.”

I agree re demotivating.

I think that’s my main resistance to this idea of memorization… I’m a dyslexic with an extreme visual memory – one of the ways I managed to “fake” exams was to simply learn entire chapters of books off by heart – even whole plays (Hamlet and Macbeth)… but did I gather content, context, meaning?

No, and I knew it even when I was doing it – there might have been an A on my sheet at the end of the day but I always knew I didn’t understand the story.

Perhaps children do respond to this type of memorization – lots of books use this so it’s probably fair to say it mostly works… perhaps the young ones don’t need to understand and are accepting on the input…however I have really serious doubts about adult learners doing so because apart from the practical aspect, the time which would involved to learn so much text off by heart their brains are already cluttered and filled with so much else and their goal, IMHO, is take it what’s useful for “survival” and trash the rest.

Also, is it speaking?

I mean memorizing a dialogue in order to repeat it, is it speaking? Is it fluency? One would have to have a lot of things exactly in place to reuse said dialogue in an alternative setting – what happens when the other party says something unexpected that is not along said lines of the script?

Re lower levels – I’m no expert, of course – so thank you for your patience with my questions/statements – I’ve found that teaching our learners to achieve what they want to say using their minimal language to be more useful: teaching them to talk around (or through) the vocabulary that they don’t have and later filling in the gaps with more words and structures.

With the higher levels, pushing for spontaneous unstructured response seems to be more useful (dogme ;-)) as it much more accurately demonstrates to both parties (teacher and student) the holes in their language – where the pauses are – and then the teacher can discuss why and plug these up as well.

Also there was this book: Conversation Lesson by Ron Martinez, published by ITP which I’ve used on occasion… the concept of this was to get students familiar with specific chunks of idiomatic language: the book provides a dialogue which students act out, then an activity to create awareness of the structures of each phrase, dialogue-practice reusing the chunks, role plays and even applicable contextual scenarios where students can use what they’ve “learned.”

Yet, unfortunately it never really worked in the long term… my students never managed to reproduce any of those phrases again, by themselves, naturally.

But getting students to talk about the things that matter to them, things they care about or have concerns about… does.

No matter how ‘difficult’ the structure or how complex the phrase, whenever it has been something that they can use in real life, directly related to something that they are doing, or did, or it has “usefulness” – is something they need to “survive”, then they retain it.

I don’t know why but that’s what I’ve noticed…

17 12 2009
Glennie

When my students go ‘eeh’ excessively as they speak, I often refer to a fluency problem. But are they pausing in the search for language or to get their ideas straight? Are there native speakers who, given the difficulty of the ideas being discussed, would be ‘eehing’ away in like manner? If there are, then to test for fluency, do I need to force students to talk about simple things in a variety of ways? Hmmm…

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Native speakers and proficient speakers disguise the fact that they are both planning and producing simultaneously when they speak, by using various devices, such as pause-fillers (erm, ahh), repetition of a word (I I I I think), etc – anything to avoid a long unfilled silence. (One study showed that ‘the frequency of unfilled pauses is one of the most salient features indicating low fluency’ (Chambers 1997 ‘What do we mean by fluency?’)).

However, as you note, excessive use of pause-fillers is also an indicator of dysfluency (or drunkenness!). But even more important, perhaps, is where you pause: as Jeremy mentioned above, fluent speakers tend not to pause in the middle of a formulaic chunk. Chambers 1997 summarises the research as suggesting that the significant factors determining fluency are:

1. the frequency of pauses rather than the length
2. the length of run (the number of syllables between pauses)
3. the place of the pauses in an utterance
4. the transfer (or not) of pausing pattern from L1 to L2.

With reference to this last point, Glennie, it may be that your learners are not using pause-fillers excessively but (a) that they are using the wrong ones (eeehh rather than erm) and (b) they are transferring pause patterns from their L1 (Japanese is it?) Just a thought.

18 12 2009
Glennie

What I would need to do is to record some of this ‘eeeing’ and analyse it.

18 12 2009
Glennie

Thanks for the info Scott.

19 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

Oh, boy – not to disagree again but there are also cultural factors which play in pauses: some people pause frequently and/or at length in their own L1 as well…

Also we’re talking about lower level English… shouldn’t the discussion about fluency be more about the differences between C1 and C2?

19 12 2009
scottthornbury

Karenne, I’m not sure that fluency is necessarily an “advanced” skill, as you suggest. Does that mean that you need a critical mass of grammar and vocabulary before fluency becomes an option? If so, where do we draw the line?

Out of curiosity, I checked the Common European Framework descriptors for spoken fluency. This is how C1 and C2 are described, respectively:

C1: Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously, almost effortlessly. Only a conceptually difficult subject can hinder a natural, smooth flow of language.

C2: Can express him/herself at length with a natural, effortless, unhesitating flow. Pauses only to reflect on precisely the right words to express his/her thoughts or to find an appropriate example or explanation.

(Somewhat circular definition in C1 – fluency is speaking ‘fluently’! And ‘a natural, effortless, unhesitating flow’ – do you know any native speakers who achieve this??)

21 12 2009
Elizabeth Anne

PLEASE don’t even MENTION the pause fillers. My own experience of learning French (far from any language teachers – I came to France with “O-level” French to work in a Physics laboratory ) goes as follows:
First 6 weeks, I didn’t say a word. (very out of character) then suddenly I started speaking in French. After 2 months, my landlady asked “qu’est ce que cela veut dire ‘ou noo’ ? After much searching, it turned out ‘ou noo’ was “y’know” … apparently I peppered my French conversation with “you knows” …. and I feel quite sure that had anyone tried to correct it at the time, I, a lousy language learner, would NEVER have become a language teacher🙂

17 12 2009
Carol Goodey

As I read “fluency occurs when learners prioritize meaning over form in order to get a task done”, I actually thought that sounded like quite a good definition. What this meant to me was that the learners focus on the meaning they are trying to communicate and do not attend as much, or don’t need to attend, to the form. Or even, they don’t have to think about the form in order to communicate the meaning.

For me, fluency means that they don’t have to think. They don’t consciously think about which article they need or how to form the tense they want. They just speak and convey their message, and whatever ‘errors’ they make don’t get in the way.

My intuition is that fluency develops through the need/desire to really communicate. As we work to try to understand what is being said to us, what we’re listening to or reading and as we try to make others understand what we’re saying, we become more fluent.

I don’t think that fluency is a function of memory but rather of automatisation (is that a word?). As we speak fluently, we’re not, I don’t think, recalling chunks we’ve learned but the language we need to express our meaning just comes. The more fluent we are, the more quickly the language comes. Thinking, as in recalling from memory, may actually impede fluency.

Carol

17 12 2009
Glennie

I’m not sure it’s about ‘recalling’ chunks if that means that uttering them requires mental effort. I think the chunks are supposed to come unbidden, if that is the right word. And the fact that they come unbidden means that the st’s mind is freed up to work on those other ‘non-chunked’ bits of his speech whose formulation does require mental effort.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Glennie – yes, I think that is the point that the cognitive researchers are making: that the ability to deploy a lexicon of memorised chunks actually cuts down on processing time precisely because it doesn’t require mental effort. As Pawley and Syder (1983) put it: “Holistically stored sequences have the advantages of being quickly retrievable and of being familiar to the hearer as well as the speaker” (which raises the interesting question as to whether assessments of fluency are influenced by the listener’s familiarity with the speaker’s language use, an effect of idiomaticity as much as articulatory ease).

(Btw I love the term ‘unbidden’! Do you mind if I incorporate it into my own idiomaticity!)

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

I don’t think that fluency is a function of memory but rather of automatisation (is that a word?)

Yes, Carol, indeed it is – although it vies with automaticity as being the preferred term to describe the way that, through practice, routines become chunked into increasingly larger units, allowing them to be performed automatically, and thereby releasing attentional resources for the less predictable elements of the skill in hand. The analogy of learning to drive is often invoked here: as the learner becomes more fluid at certain routines (gear-changing, for example) they are better at coping with the attentional demands of driving in heavy traffic – to the point they can perform these routines (and others, like talking on their mobile phone, or changng the CD) automatically.

But memory would seem to play a role in helping internalise these routines. This is particularly conspicuous in the way we use ‘private speech’ to remind us how to perform actions that we have just been taught e.g. when uploading and reformatting a YouTube video and inserting it into your powerpoint presentation – something I reminded myself how to do yesterday! Eventually the verbal reminders become redundant as they become automised.

18 12 2009
Glennie

Scott,
‘Unbidden’ is all yours! :->

18 12 2009
Carol Goodey

Thanks Scott and Glennie! I see what you mean and it makes perfect sense. I would still see fluency as developing when we actually use language in ways meaningful to us, but would definitely agree that memorising the larger chunks of language could certainly aid that development.

17 12 2009
Alice M

Defining “fluency” is not an easy task! I thought too that it had to do with time and absence of pauses. But I know many native speakers of French who do pause inappropriately : shall I consider that they are not fluent in French? no, if we assume that all native speakers are fluent in their mother tongue. But I remember hearing another word linked to fluency when talking about native speakers : “articulate”. So, can you be fluent but not “articulate”? I can’t answer the question as I’m not very sure about the meaning of “articulate”.
I agree with Scott’s idea that fluency is “difficult to disentangle from related concepts, such as intelligibility, coherence, communicative effectiveness, and so on.” Well yes, it seems impossible to disentangle fluency from all these concepts. Can you be fluent and incoherent? fluent and not understandable? No.
Another point : I’m not sure that fluency is at its best through memorizing, without paying too much attention to what we say. On the contrary, speaking with a precise *intention*, a precise goal, in order to demonstrate, convince, tell a story, make people laugh, etc. is an excellent lead to fluency. So I am with Karenne here : real communication is conducive to fluency, not the mere memorization of chunks of words.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks Alice, for your comment.

Your point about fluency also implying coherence is well made – and this has been the central problem in defining it, I think: some (communicative) theorists opting for the ‘coherent speech’ view, where meanings are clearly articulated , and others (the cognitivists) arguing for the more mechanical aspects of fluency, i.e. “the production of language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.” As you suggest, it would seem foolish to separate the two: a conflated definition of fluency, then, might be “the capacity to articulate one’s meanings without undue pausing or hesitation”.

What this definition leaves out is any mention of idiomaticity: some scholars would argue that this is key.

19 12 2009
Glennie

Where can I find a good definition of ‘idiomaticity’?

19 12 2009
scottthornbury

A definition of idiomaticity, Glennie?

Erm, how about in An A-Z of ELT?😉

The word idiomaticity comes from idiomatic and describes the extent to which a person’s language sounds native-like. A sentence may be grammatically well-formed but not idiomatic. For example, in response to the question What’s the time? the following are all grammatically well-formed: It’s six less twenty; It’s two-thirds past five; It’s forty past five; It’s ten minutes after half past five; It’s twenty to six. But only one (the last one) is idiomatic, i.e. it is what is actually said. The others lack idiomaticity. Idiomaticity is one of the “puzzles” of linguistics. How is it that native-speakers select only a small proportion of the sentences that are theoretically available to them? It also presents an enormous challenge to learners: how are they to know which of the many different possible ways of expressing an idea is the idiomatic one? Recognition of both the formulaic and idiomatic nature of language has been a key influence on the development of the lexical approach, which foregrounds idiomaticity over grammaticality.

17 12 2009
Marisa Constantinides

Scott,

Fluency happened to be the focus of my dissertation work at Reading on the MAAL, which I believe you did as well? The only decent book on this topic is R. Leeson’s book (Fluency & Language Teaching, Longman) and not much else. I had to really dig in deep to find some decent bibliography.

But I think that the focus of the post is not perceptions of fluency (which is what I worked on) but what it is made of so we can help foreign language learners acquire it.

In that sense, I do agree that memorising chunks of language, or holophrases, as fashion should have them, is a good thing. Creating a stock of easily accessible phrases is very important. Automatization (drilling) is another.

But I am a highly fluent speaker and I did neither as a learner in the formal school setting where I learnt English. So what was it that I did which caused me to be fluent?

I propose to you the thought that it was my EAR that made this possible. I have a very good ear for music and think this is also true of many people with a flair for languages. My ear is not only good for sounds but for pauses and rhythm too and I am always very attentive to accents, styles and so on. And the hours I spent writing down song lyrics for my brother’s band were also a key factor.

My own drills must have been the music I sang ( I never had real drills while learning English which I started as a child). The hours of teenage fun screaming at the top of my voice to the tune of this or that song gave me my sound linking and good sounds but not my rhythm or my intonation.

This came later, I suppose, when I started noticing people in movies and, of course, when I went to the UK for the first time.

Duplicating such unstructured learning experiences in the classroom cannot be an impossibility. In fact, I do know it is not an impossibility.

But accent and idiomaticity have a lot to do with it. Luke Prodromou’s latest research focuses on this, (English as a Lingua Franca
A Corpus-based Analysis by Luke Prodromou?, and having read it, a lot of what he says makes total sense to me!

Finally, a small point related to the results of my own research. The perceptions of what consitutes fluency are very different amongst native speaker language speacialists and non specialist native speakers. And I think most materials take the former and not the latter perception as the guideline for helping leanrers rather than what the average person thinks it is.

Glennie,

Native speakers pause differently…First they don’t go eeeeh…they go schwaaaaa…second they pause after segments or chunks…. so even when they do pause a lot, even excessively, it does not sound disfluent.🙂

18 12 2009
Glennie

Thanks for that explanation Marisa.

I’m going to phone my dad this evening and listen out! :->

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks Marisa – as one Reading alumnus to another, I bow to your superior expertise in this area! I’d love to hear more details of your research. Just two things I want to underscore:

1. the importance of having a good ear – yes, the research into language aptitude certainly suggests that this is key (along with memory, and the ability to distinguish patterns in the ‘noise’). Unfortunately I’m not sure it’s an aptitude that you can develop if it’s not there in the first place. I, for example, have a lousy ear – both for music (I can’t even sing Happy Birthday in tune) and for language (even in English I need to see someone’s name writtne down before I can ‘hear’ it correctly). So, I guess the question is, how can we, as teachers, help learners compensate for the fact that their ears may not be well-attuned to the L2?

2. Expert vs non-expert perceptions of fluency – your research might suggest that teachers are not the best judges of their learners’ fluency. Is this correct? And what might the implications be, on testing, say?

18 12 2009
Marisa Constantinides

The research does not answer the question of which perception is correct, merely that it is different.

The perceived componets of fluency are all linguistic/systemic with phonology enjoying the highest prominence!

What implications for testing? As a rather brash MA student at the time, I seemed to think that it should either not be tested separately, or that it should be the only item evaluated since it encompasses all others, or if not, that suitable random correlating might be in order to check out scorer reliability.

18 12 2009
Marisa Constantinides

Scott,

In response to your “ear training” question which I forgot to respond to:

I do not have research evidence to support theclaim that musical people have it easier, or I may be unaware of it; I just have practical (and quite long) teaching experience – that auditory ability can improve with specific types of training.

How about you as a foreign language learner? Have you or have you not achieved a high fluency status in a foreign language you are confident/comfortable in? That would be very interesting to know and might be an indication of hope for the “musically challenged”!!!

19 12 2009
Glennie

Sounds like my mum and dad should be grading the fluency of my students’ orals. :->

17 12 2009
David

My own nickle’s worth on this is

1. Fluency is being able to order a pizza on the phone (there are really only 3 language levels – “saying hello” / ordering a pizza and being able to curse )

2. Students that “notice” language are much more apt to acquire and become fluent than those who don’t. Growing research in this area and as teachers we should have students do exercises that get them to notice and connect language (like grammar poems / chunking etc…)

3. Beginning fluency is about making yourself understood. Int. fluency is making yourself understood like others do. Adv. fluency is making yourself understood as you yourself are – beautifully.

4. Fluency is context dependent. Total fluency is the fish that doesn’t know what water is….

5. If you think you are fluent, you probably aren’t.

Not easy to say what is “fluency” – the beauty of language is precisely found within its indefinite nature. Why is it that our nature as teachers is to try and define the indefinable????? Why do we prefer the fuzz on the peace to the peach? Oh well…..

David

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

A great collection of soundbites on fluency, David – thanks! I particularly like this one, because it captures the distinction between intelligibility, idiomaticity, and creativity – asif they were on a kind of cline of expertise:

Beginning fluency is about making yourself understood. Int. fluency is making yourself understood like others do. Adv. fluency is making yourself understood as you yourself are – beautifully.

17 12 2009
Eoin Higgins

Isn’t it funny that the main aim of language teaching has never been clearly defined? I mean, ask any language learner what he/she is aiming for and they will probably say something like they would like to be able to speak the language “fluently”. And to say that someone speaks X foreign language “fluently” is certainly something to be admired. And yet, as you say, Scott, it’s such a fuzzy term.
An online etymology dictionary say the word fluent comes from the Latin fluetem from the verb fluere “to flow”. Psycholinguistic research seems to focus on temporal variables and hesitation phenomena (this from Ellis 1994) – things like the rate of speech, length of pauses, how pauses are filled, repetitions and corrections. It would seem obvious to define fluency in terms of the rate of speech, which in turn consists of linking speech segments together, linking words and syntactic constituents and linking together propositions and speech acts (this from Hedge, T. 2000).
Based on these definitions, it does seem logical for teachers to focus on teaching chunks – word groups that can be learned and recalled holistically. But then, as you point out in Teaching Unplugged, too much language teaching focuses on teaching grammar – abstract structures in which words are slotted to make sentences.
We should be, and I think we are, slowly moving towards a better balance of the latter “micro-language” teaching (individual sounds, words, structures) and “macro-language” (segments, chunks, gambits, text). (I teach a lot of Economics students and lecturers!!).
I think getting into a discussion about memorizing and whether having to recall something impedes fluency is getting off the point a bit. I as a “fluent” Spanish speaker forget words all the time but I use certain phrases and gambits or fillers to gain time to be able to recall the word, thus keeping it all flowing.
What you’re proposing is a very tall order. Corpus linguistics can help but only up to a point because it doesn’t analyse the frequency of entire chunks/word groups, but rather focuses on words first.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Eoin, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

Out of interst I decided to check to see what words most frequently co-occur with both fluent and fluency in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (http://www.americancorpus.org/). Unsurprisingly, fluent collocates most often with English, Spanish, language and French. Fluency, on the other hand, occurs most frequently with reading, oral, English, and comprehension – the co-occurences with reading and comprehension being double those with oral. So, in American English, at least fluency is as much a receptive skill as a productive one.

Not that this has got anything to do with your post, Eoin!

17 12 2009
Glennie

I remember examining in Proficiency for Cambridge and occasionally having a candidate in his/her 50s or 60s. Invariably, they had chosen the oral based on a novel and, invariably you just couldn’t stop them talking – they were so enthusiastic about what they’d read and couldn’t wait to engage you in conversation about it. So they got top marks for fluency. This chimes in with what people are saying about a real desire to communicate being one of the keys to fluency. But it doesn’t take away from the argument that chunked ‘automatised’ language may also favour that fluency.

18 12 2009
vicki hollett

Following on from Eoin’s interesting points about the fuzzy definition, academic and lay definitions can differ in confusing ways. For example, if I remember rightly, to my materials engineer son-in-law, ‘brittle’ applies to materials that tend not to deform before fracturing. So butter is brittle.

I always felt uncomfortable about the academic communicative theorists’ definition of fluency. It seemed like they might be twisting it away from its lay meaning rather a lot to make their point. So I really liked it when Skehan offered, what seems to me, a definition that’s more in accord with the rest of the world, and measurable, as Scott points out.

When a job hunter says they are ‘a fluent speaker of English’, I’m not too sure anyone knows what they mean, except perhaps that they want the job. When a recruiter says they are looking for ‘a fluent’ speaker of English’, I think having the ability to talk without pauses and hesitations is probably on their mind, but also quite possibly a kind of good ‘all-round general ability in English’ (whatever that is) is implied. So the ability to accomplish tasks in English could well be part of their thinking.

Scott, you make a good point about getting a task done being no guarantee of little pausing or hesitation. So there could be inherent conflict in the ‘recruiters’ definition. (Might we be seeing the last dying embers of an old accuracy vs. meaning debate among the theorists there, I wonder?) And yes, I’d have thought memorization of common and useful word groups is bound to be important for both smothness and speed of delivery and also ‘general ability’. I think Nattinger might have suggested that learners induct grammar rules from the chunks too, which sounds very appealing.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks Vicki: your problems with the multiple meanings of fluency accurately reflect my own.

Your final point is also very interesting, i.e. Nattinger might have suggested that learners induct grammar rules from the chunks too, which sounds very appealing.

I’d like to come back to this point in another thread (perhaps F is for Formulaic language?) but there is certainly a growing body of evidence that – in the L1 at least – language users ‘abstract’ the grammar out of chunks, or, put another way, they generalise from the particular: Langacker talks about language acquisition starting off in ‘a sea of particularity’ – great metaphor!

Whether this happens in L2 is moot with a capital M!

18 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

I can recall, as a university student in Sweden, a Swedish friend of mine talking about how he wanted to help me achieve “flöttande svenska” – which is the way Swedes refer to fluency in language use. I was interested, because the word “flöttande” means ‘floating’ – so my friend was trying to help me achieve “perfect floating Swedish”!

This sense of fluency has remained with me ever since. Beyond being the ability to speak a language fluently while treading water (although of course fluency could be very helpful in that situation!), it has echoes of the word “fluid” and the ability to do something effortlessly. It’s also a reminder to me that ‘floating’ means surviving relatively effortlessly in water, as opposed to struggling or sinking.

So while the ability to communicate without pauses is part of this, the ability to communicate relatively effortlessly, without strain or struggle, is also part of my instinctive definition.

Just thought I’d throw my 2 kronor’s worth in there!

~ Jason

18 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

Terrible apologies – and as evidence how far both my memory and my Swedish have slipped…

In actual fact, my Swedish friend meant to say “flytande svenska” (fluent Swedish), and said “flöttande svenska” by mistake (floating Swedish). The Swedish “flytande” has the sense of moving quickly (related to the English word “flitting”), and that is actually how they refer to language fluency.

Still, the ‘floating Swedish’ has always remained in my mind, and I do like it as an interesting substitute for language fluency!

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Jason, I love the idea of fluency being both flitting and floating!
(I can feel the title of a talk coming on!)

18 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

Yes – must enter it in J. Harmer’s list and see how popular it might be…🙂

18 12 2009
Nick Bilbrough

I’d agree that the more real time searching, retrieving and putting together of single word units which occurs during meaningful production, the less fluent the speech.

We can see this process happening in our learners and feel it in ourselves as we struggle to express ideas in languages that we are less proficient in. It also happens in our mother tongue, of course, when we feel less comfortable with the subject matter or when there are affective factors relating to our performance. I know that I’m a far less fluent speaker of English when I’m giving a talk at a conference than when I’m chatting round the dinner table at home.

As a learner, and as an observer of learning, this process of negotiation of meaning in the struggle to communicate, feels like a very useful thing to be happening, but I’m not sure that it is the only thing that can be done in order to really promote fluency. Perhaps what it does more than anything else is provide us with practice in the coping strategies that Eoin is talking about.

Fluency activities in the classroom have traditionally tried to do this though, haven’t they, with the policy of encouraging learners to just use the language that they have available, and where any focus on form only comes as a separate follow up stage. As a language learner I know that I actually really appreciate being provided with the language item that I need at the moment that I need it. Perhaps as teachers we need to be very open to allowing students to turn fluency activities into those which allow them also to focus on accuracy? In the communication that occurs outside the classroom it tends to be the learner who decides when this will happen, not the more advanced speaker.

In order to develop fluency, perhaps learners also need plenty of opportunities to use language where communication of their own ideas is not the sole purpose; where they can play with language without the pressure of having to create it, and explore the sounds, the collocations, even the identity behind the words.

I’d say that spending some class time on raising awareness about the chunks that are there to be memorized, and providing practice in memorisng them, is an effective step towards greater fluency. One of the most useful things I did in order to improve my spoken fluency in Danish was to perform in a play.

Here’s what Guy Cook (2000) says about this in Language Play, Language Learning

‘The rehearsal and performance of an appropriate play combines the best of both structural and communicative syllabuses: rote learning and repetition of a model, attention to exact wording, practice in all four skills, motivating and authentic language and activity, instances of culturally and contextually appropriate pragmatic use, and integration of linguistic with paralinguistic communication’

Nick

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks Nick – I appreciate everyone’s ability to weave their own language learning experiences into the mix of theory and practice!

Interesting that you should say:I’m a far less fluent speaker of English when I’m giving a talk at a conference than when I’m chatting round the dinner table at home.

I’m not sure that this is always the case – i.e. that formal situations are less conducive to fluency. I find that if I’m giving a talk that I’ve done lots of times before (i.e. the well-rehearsed scenario) PLUS the facilitative (as opposed to debilitative) stress of having an audience can actually help, whereas it’s sometimes the case that, in an informal context, where minimal effort is required, I can get sloppy and tongue-tied. (Of course that might be due to other factors associated with informal situations!)

Does anyone else experience this – and if so – what implications might it have on the design of fluency activities?

18 12 2009
Nick Bilbrough

So coming to Scott’s last point

‘devise activities that provide opportunities for learners to activate what they have memorized, without undue pausing or hesitation, in ways that replicate real language use’

Practising and performing the lines of a play may be one way of doing this but it may also not be everyone’s cup of tea, and there may also not be time or space for it in curriculum.

Incorporating memorization processes into our normal classroom routines is something that we can all do though, I suppose. For instance, building in a final stage of memorising the dialogue which has been created in a community language learning type activity and challenging learners to re-run it in a later class. Or providing initial letter prompts on the board for the series of chunks that were written there, and asking learners to recall them.

Using chants is another way, and the rhythm, rhyme and challenge to speak quickly that they provide can be very useful in promoting fluency. I’ve often found that these lines just stick with people. About a year ago I was teaching a beginners group and we used the chant

One two three
I’d like a cup of tea
Four five six
I’d like a plate of chips
Seven Eight nine
I’d like a glass of wine

This was practically the first thing one of the learners in that class said to me (very quickly and smoothly) when I met him in the street six months later.

Nick

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Nice story, Nick.

I think the recitation of dialogues, rhymes etc can only be a good thing – since (even if the language items in them are not recycled) the learners experience fluency – at the extended discourse level too. Surely this is one of the reasons that nursery rhymes and songs are a universal feature of early language acquisition? They provide the experience of a “long run”.

18 12 2009
Mark Brierley

Just put up a twitter-length definition:

fluency = average number of words speakers string together as they speak.

I’ve found as a rule of thumb, if people can only speak in single words, they have a very low level of fluency. Native speakers string together idea units of around seven words.

If you look statistically at corpuses, and rather than frequency of individual words (search “*”), look for frequency of multiple words (search “* *”, “* * *” or “* * * *”) you find there are some very common four letter word groups. “I don’t know”, “I don’t think” and “I don’t want” are the three most common, appearing around the 1000 most frequent lexical units of English, making me wonder why anyone wants to learn such an ignorant, apathetic language as English!

If people are absorbing language as it is, they will pick up all these groups of words, and the more words they know, the more groups of words they know. In fact it’s the opposite for native speakers, and the more groups of words they know, the more words they know. Learners, on the other hand

Here’s my question:

I know it’s very easy to find lists of frequencies of single words, so you can see what the 2000th most common word is (like http://www.wordcount.org). Has anybody looked at corpus frequencies of chuncks, starting with the longest groups of words, taking them out of the corpus, then searching for shorter ones in what is left?

For example, just looking at 1, 2, 3 and 4 word chunks, you find “I don’t know” in the list of 4-worders, and “I don’t” is in the 3-worders. However, “I don’t” is going to appear in “I don’t know” or may appear in “I don’t think it’s going to rain” or “I don’t like getting up on Monday mornings” and the chances are “I don’t know” is more common than “I don’t.” When I tried searching the corpus with more than than 4 wild cards, it stopped working!

This should not be such a tall order for a computer programmer! I think corpus linguistics CAN analyse the frequency of entire chunks. Has it yet?

Back to defining fluency, I teach in Japan, and was recently talking in Japanese about Extensive Reading, which is an excellent fluency activity. I had to look up the Japanese word for “fluency” in the dictionary, which I had never heard before, and it didn’t seem so familiar to many of the audience. It doesn’t seem to be a high priority in the education system here.

Mark

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

fluency = average number of words speakers string together as they speak.

Yes, nice tweet-length definition, Mark! Stringing together a number of words at a time is what I referred to earlier as “a long run”. And some of the research into speech production uses “run-length” as the key indicator of fluency. But I’d want also to consider the other factors that I mentioned earlier (quoting from Chambers) such as pause length and pause placement.

19 12 2009
Laura Ponting

Surely pause lengths and placements are every bit as important as a ‘long run’ in terms of fluency? If, for example, a pause is too long the listener starts to process what’s just been said in an entirely different way than intended. One obvious example is when we get that awkward…”Was that a rhetorical question…or do you really want me to answer it?” moment!

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Has anybody looked at corpus frequencies of chunks, starting with the longest groups of words, taking them out of the corpus, then searching for shorter ones in what is left?

I’m not sure that corpora have been analysed in quite the way you propose, but they certainly have ben combed for the most frequently occurring strings, clusters, n-grams, or bundles (the terminology varies, but basically they refer to the same thing – frequent word sequences, irrespective of meaning or syntactic integrity). If you look at the back of The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber, et al. 1999), you’ll find all the most frequent 2-word, 3-word … up to 6-word “bundles”, organised according to register and syntactic criteria. The Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter and McCarthy 2006) has similar data, but calls them bundles (I think – from memory).

A wonderful website which allows you to search for n-grams (aka clusters etc) is the Phrases in English site, which uses the British National Corpus as its data base: http://www.usna.edu/LangStudy/PIE/

18 12 2009
Nick Jaworski

Is fluency a function of memory? I’m going to approach this as a language learner rather than a teacher. I’d say, for the most part, yes. The first part is going to be muscle memory. Foreign word patterns can be hard to wrap your mouth around. For example, I still have trouble with ayarlayabiliyorum in Turkish. All the y’s trip my tongue up. It’s a word I don’t say often. However, I can say things like gerceklestiremeyebilir or istemediklerimizde without a hitch cause I use them reasonably often.

I think language recall works very much like muscle memory. You could call it language memory. The more you use something the more automatic it comes to you whether it’s one word, a word chunk, or a grammar structure. It just depends on how many times you’ve been asked the question or how many times you’ve been in that situation before.

I always do a kind of demo thing with my students where I ask them simple questions like ’how are you’ and then ask something similar but different like “how have you been”. One is really no harder to formulate or answer than the other, but the students have heard to and responded to the first one a thousand times, whereas the 2nd one they generally don’t use as they don’t really care for present perfect structures. Language becomes ingrained and internalized through use and this demo is one way I try to convince my students of the importance of speaking to each other in English. It’s not just that you have to learn it, it has to become a part of your language memory for fluent recall.

With my Turkish I can speak rapid fire back and forth with my wife at home, but get me talking about politics and I slow down, I trip up. Why? I know the vocab and the grammar, but the vocab. and grammar used is much different and I don’t use it that often. My brain just doesn’t recall it as quickly. Instead it calls to mind simpler or more common phrases that I’m used to using. So, in the end, fluency is very much a part of memory.

With that said, I don’t think it has to do with memorizing the words or word groups though. It has to do with recalling the word groups in response to questions and situations. You can memorize them, but if you language muscle memory isn’t conditioned to recall them, it’s quite useless.

But there is an additional part I think. For example, Turkish students generally don’t like to use connected speech as they think it sounds bad and they see the words as disconnected. They speak everything in pieces. They may use everything correctly and quickly, but it just sounds choppy. Here, I think the way you speak also factors into fluency. The speech should sound natural. This can be corrected by using it and committing it to language memory correctly from the get go though.

That’s all she wrote.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Turkish students generally don’t like to use connected speech as they think it sounds bad and they see the words as disconnected. They speak everything in pieces.

My experience suggests that this is not just a Turkish phenomenon, Nick, and nor is it necessarily related to a dislike of connected speech. It may in fact be a production issue, where learners are constructing utterances from the bottom up, as it were – retrieving a word at a time, rather than longer sequences. (Peter Skehan, in a talk, referred to this as the ‘blu-tak’ method of speech production – each word blu-takked to the mental whiteboard one at a time!) It’s virtually impossible to map connected speech features (such as vowel reduction, accommodation, liaison etc) on to this kind of output.

18 12 2009
Nick Jaworski

I agree with you in part here, but my learners tend to actively resist weak or connected forms. It comes from Turkish. In Turkish, every letter is clearly reproduced, so they transfer this concept over (not uncommon in other language learners as well I know).

Also, clearly enunciated Turkish spoken with correct grammar is considered better. Whereas a native speaker of English perceives foreigners coming across as stilted or overly formal if they speak slow and clear English, Turks love it when foreigners start learning Turkish as they speak according to the rules and don’t used reduced forms. For example, wanna sounds more natural than want to in English, but most Turks prefer gidecegim to giticem even though the latter is more common in everyday language. The learners L1 brings with it certain prejudices as to how to produce the L2.

18 12 2009
David

I really would like to play the devil’s advocate here.

Me feels that students will attest to the “brillance” of any method, if they stick with it and through it long enough. Same with teachers. If they keep using it, they will undoubtably find reason to believe it. Most suredly, researchers who’ll prove whatever they believe without ever thinking they believed it in the first place!

I highly doubt there is any ONE way of second language acquisition. No magic potion, no golden fleece, no Shazaam and no viagra. Just “WILL” . I think a lot of researchers have to study the role of desire in language learning (and I mean this as something complete independent of “motivation” — more as in a Nietzschian “will to power” or a surreal sense – that the mind is open to possibility).

All the focus on memorization in this discussion is quite disturbing given that “anything” is memory. Exactly what are we studying? Of course you won’t be fluent if you don’t remember!!! Nothing will be there to be recalled. So why all the fuss about memorization or are we actually talking about “how” we memorize (acquire)? This is a good place to start.

And I will bluntly add that fluency has nothing to do with the number of words/sentence or any algebraic equation. I can be very fluent with very few words. Nuf zd.

David

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Hi David – great that someone’s prepared to defy the jury – reminds me of Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men”!

You’re right – everything is memory, and (as I mentioned earlier) having a good memory is a key factor in aptitude for language learning. I guess it’s about what you commit to memory, though. I was recently in Korea, and amazed at the feats of memorising that stduents there are put through . but it’s all individual, de-contxtualised (and often low frequency) words – rather than (high frequency) expressions, phrases, ‘word groups’. This seems to represent a monumental waste of effort. The chance of ever using – or even meeting – a word like pusillanimous or instep a next to none!

Your point about there being many different routes to language acquisition is also a valid one. But I’d want to be careful about equating (spoken) fluency with language acquisition. It’s one aspect of it, certainly, but it may not be achievable – or even necessary – for many learners. That is to say, proficiency in an additional language can also target (and be measured in terms of) accuracy and complexity, as well. And at the level of reception as well as production. A small point but…

18 12 2009
Nicky

As I’m constantly comparing my experience of teaching English with my experience of learning Spanish, the term “fluency” is especially frustrating–from a terminological standpoint.

That is, utterances such as “I speak English fluently” or “I am fluent in English” or “I speak fluent English” don’t really admit a direct translation in Spanish. The adverbial “con fluidez” is sometimes used, but doesn’t really have the same meaning–a speaker without this “fluidez” (“fluidity”), could be a non-native learner, or it could be a stutterer. Or someone who isn’t clear on what they want to say.

As far as I’ve been able to find out, the more common, more idiomatic, and more accepted way of expressing what we call “fluency” is done with the verb “dominar”–“to master”. “Domino el idioma inglés.”

Comparing this to the metaphor of “fluency” and “flow” in English (and the one Jason mentions in Swedish), my question is: are we looking at a specifically Anglo-Saxon way of conceptualizing successful language learning here?

Isn’t “fluent speech” generally just an outward sign of this “mastery” of certain linguistic information–whether it be phonology, grammar, or lexical chunks, etc.? The means of achieving “mastery” often seem to be wholly idiosyncratic and dependent on the particulars of each learner…and I dare say requires more an unshaking commitment from the student than some polished and perfected methodology on the part of the teacher.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

are we looking at a specifically Anglo-Saxon way of conceptualizing successful language learning here?

Interesting question, Nicky. And it’s true that – when I was researching this posting – I found whole books on speaking and methodology where the word fluency didn’t get a mention (e.g. Bygate, 1987, Speaking; Nunan, 1998, Language Teaching Methodology), suggesting that it’s not univesally recognised as a technical term. And in the Common European Framework (2001) ‘spoken fluency’ gets only one mention, and is subsumed under ‘the user/learner’s competences’ where it is ranked alongside ‘propostional precision’, as being “two qualitiative factors which determine the functional success of the learner”.

Nevertheless, terms like ‘mastery’ are not much more helpful, are they? The value of the term ‘fluency’ is that it suggests a certain kind of mastery – at the level of performance – whereas accuracy suggests mastery at the level of competence (to use Chomsky’s distinction). We all know learners who have ‘mastered’ the systems, but are incapable of stringing two words together!

22 12 2009
Nicholas

Yeah, I kind of figured that substituting one term for another would be no solution, but I had to give it a shot…🙂

The competence/performance dichotomy is interesting here, though if a learner is incapable of stringing two words together, I don’t know to what extent we can say that he’s “mastered” much of anything, regardless of how well they do the gapfills.

Also, I’ve long been sold on the importance of teaching chunks, word groups, sentence heads, and all that, and in fact think it is the best if not only way to make real gains in speed and confidence. But I wonder what role do we feel then that the “g” word plays in acquiring fluency? Where do we fit in tense and aspect (and other “grammar-y” means of encoding meaning) into these word groups, or do we just accept that they have to sort of cut transversally across all such groups?

So, to sum up, my answer to your question in the original post: “Is this a tall order?” Mm, in a word: probably!

18 12 2009
Mark Brierley

Now that I think about it, I do know the Japanese word for fluent. As in “He speaks fluent Japanese”. A binary adjective (word 1). Either you’re fluent or not.

The word is pera-pera. I think “pera” means tongue. So it means you have a waggling tongue.

This onomatopoeic iword does not become a noun, so the word for “fluency” is not connected to it. (Word 2). I think the word for fluency has two characters and may translate as flowy-ness, perhaps having imported the river-thing from a European language.

Word 1 and word 2 are completely different words which happen to look similar in English. People talking about reading fluency would NOT say “Student A is fluent but student B is not fluent”.

For my own part I have more fluent day and less fluent days. I can say things like “what’s it called” and “what I mean is” and “how can I say this” so perhaps I am fluent in Japanese but just have a small vocabulary. That’s entirely possible as “fluent” is a binary word defining whether you have reached an arbitrary level, while “vocabulary” is much more precise although much more complicated.

18 02 2010
Philip Shigeo Brown

Just passed the half-way mark in scrolling through this fascinating thread🙂

By the way, I think you can also say ‘nameraka’ (=smoothly) and there’s a text book on Successful Communication in Japanese that uses nameraka in the title.

18 12 2009
Sandy

If you can chat somebody up in the foreign language, you’re pretty fluent, I would say.

This, of course, leads to the language learners’ paradox – that ugly people can never achieve fluency, and handsome ones reach it quite easily!

18 12 2009
englishuniverse

Internalising language chunks, repetition and exposure to language are paramount to fluency.

Here’s something I do with my advanced students. We have a native language assistant in our school in Spain. Before she comes to class, I tell my class to, in addition to interacting with her- watch out for something specific (without her knowledge). One day it could be the use of “would” (not in conditional sentences such as “if I won the lottery, I would…”) but to refer to past, which is in fact a much more common use (“when I was living with my parents I would…”). Another day it could be “like” used, not as a verb or a preposition but in utterances such as “it was… like… 10 of us that went to the party”.

The girl is a living corpus, I can tell you. She gives us the best grammar lessons I have ever given (without her notice). THen it is up to the students to internalise the language, maybe use it to talk about something that is meaningful or relevant to them.

I also take good notice of language chunks she uses, and, in general, the kind of language that sounds like authentic or that you would expect from a native speaker of the language and try to devise situations where that language in particular could be used.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks for that – I love the way you are using your ‘native language assistant’ as a walk-on corpus. My nephew is doing a language assistant-ship in Japan at the moment, but I get the feeling that his “homeroom” teachers are not exploiting him as a resource to anything like the same extent.

21 12 2009
Elizabeth Anne

Oh no …. not THAT “like”
My 15 year old L1 French daughter came back from a stay in the UK – joined in a conversation with “the adults” and was so mortified by the old-Etonian’s “what do you mean (girl). There were like 10 of you or there were really 10 of you “, that she jumped back into her shell and lost all the benefit of her 2 months immersion !

18 12 2009
Alice M

“What this definition leaves out is any mention of idiomaticity: some scholars would argue that this is key.” says Scott.

Well yes, I suppose idiomaticity has to be taken into account, and I am often asked for some idioms and chunks of idiomatic words. The problem is that some students tend to pack their speech with them, and then comes the rather absurd situation when the students don’t want to communicate, but to pack as many idioms in one single sentence as possible!
Jeremy wrote about the absence of pause between chunks : very well but what about *around* the chunks? if the chunks are ok, it does not necessarily mean that the non-chunk words are organised easily…
As David says, “there is no magic potion”. To me fluency is like the Graal… no one knows how to define it, no one knows where it is, but we are heading in its direction! I do not beleive in the “ear” theory either, because I see too many students come to me and say”I’m sorry I haven’t got a good ear”, and they persuade themselves so much that they are no good that they actually manage to produce very approximative French sounding words.

18 12 2009
scottthornbury

Thanks Alice – one thing to be said regarding idiomaticity – this doesn’t mean “speaking in idioms” so much as using the accepted way of saying even quite normal things. For example, there are many different possible ways of saying the time represented digitally as 3.20 – and different cultures will render this differently (in Arabic the translation would be ‘three and a third’). English idiomaticity dictates that we say “twenty past three” or “three twenty” and not “twenty minutes after three” or “quarter past three plus five”.
Idiomacity, then, is knowing which is the ‘done thing’ out of all the (grammatically and lexically) plausible possibilities.

18 12 2009
Alan Tait

My ha’pennyworth: Everybody knows about the effect of a few units of alcohol on fluency; and it’s not just an illusion – sober A will testify that slightly pissed B is speaking more fluently.

I really think a lot of it comes from levels of inhibition vs self-esteem. I get the feeling that my own students pick up fluency after they learn to relax: I certainly feel more comfortable speaking Spanish and Galician with people I’m comfortable with. And those who are psychologically inclined to jump in at the deep end usually end up being fluent.

Games, joking, personal attention and a friendly class atmosphere seem to work – Or a few shots of vodka at the start of each lesson?

19 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

One thing that has always concerned me in definitions of – or references to – ‘language fluency’ is the fixation on productive skills like speaking and writing. Scott has alluded to the idea that it should encompass more than that, including receptive skills, and this reminds me of the importance of automaticity – the ability to automatically process language without needing to pay undue attention to things like form(s).

Over the years I’ve been teaching English, I’ve encountered plenty of learners who appeared to understand English quite well, but really struggled to speak it. Conversely (and often more interestingly), I’ve also had learners who could gabble away like crazy but barely understood what was being said to them, or were oblivious to things like basic discourse markers. According to common definitions of fluency, the latter students would likely be considered more fluent, whereas personally I think the former and the latter would/should be considered at about the same level overall.

I also worry that students’ individual personalities could adversely affect whether they are considered to be ‘fluent’ or not. We all have friends who are ‘(wo)men of few words’, but none of us would ever say they aren’t fluent speakers of their own language, would we? However, a foreign or second language speaker of English who was naturally shy or not inclined to say a lot during conversation would most probably be automatically labelled as “lacking fluency.”

Looking at fluency as ‘the full package’, I’m more inclined to go with a simple term like Nicky’s “mastery” (from Spanish), and acknowledge that it is a unique blend of receptive and productive skills, flavoured by personalities and personal styles or preferences of communication.

Another 2 kronor’s worth there – 4 kronor in all contributed to your ELTpedia bank, Scott.🙂

19 12 2009
jeremyharmer

Hello Scott,

as you can imagine, I have been ‘watching’ this conversation with great interest – because I have just ‘made’ a talk about the topic, and in January I am going to run a 6-hour workshop in Säo Paulo called ‘The Fluency paradox’. Of course now I feel, having read all the comments here, that you (plural) have said it all anyway!!

As far as what fluency is, well other much cleverer minds than mine haven’t quite got it, though looking at the comments and citations here we do have a rough idea of what we mean?? I don’t think task performance describes it (remember way back Dick Allwright’s students at Essex completing tasks with almost no words. Was that fluency?) It IS something to do with the ability to speak without thinking (yes, all right I am an expert – but that’s a different meaning!). And after that come the measurements like the absence of INAPPROPRIATE pauses, the easy deployment of chunks etc etc.

The paradox is, as David points out, that there is no fluency method. Indeed CLT (which is fluency-oriented, after all) is no guarantee it will happen, whereas even grammar-translation (which is NOT overtly fluency-orientated) is no guarantee that it WON’T happen!

So fluency MUST happen inside the language learner’s head, as it were. Maybe it has something to do with ‘Marisa’s ear’ – and I set great store in training a student’s ‘listening brain’. In other words if you can spend a lot of time making sure that students listen rather than just hearing, who knows what intake rather than just input might transpire. Isn’t all pronunciation teaching about listening-training mostly? Listening-noticing?

I’m sure Karenne is right about the desirability of making students WANT to communicate – and then they’ll have a go and who knows, maybe that acts as the ‘switch’ that Rod Ellis talked about years ago.

I am a firm believer (increasingly) in the use of drama, or rather ‘speaking well’ – getting students to recite poetry, read aloud (effectively and with preparation) and even (remember Adrian Underhill’s pron book) speaking ‘alongside’ fluent speakers etc. This is all about ‘listening brain’ stuff too, I think.

But in the end it all comes down, perhaps, to the ‘inner voice’ – and it may be that trying to help students develop and nurture that voice is the main goal of all fluency teaching.

There’s more – but hey you’ll have to come to the talk!

Jeremy

19 12 2009
Marisa Constantinides

Jeremy,

There is some research, only I can’t quite remember where or how I read it right now, that suggests TBL as a stronger predictor of fluency although it may SEEM to take longer than the daily consolation of PPP and that the latter fails to produce fluent OR accurate users quite miserably if used exclusively. Can try to find if keen.

Marisa

19 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

Jeremy, the real tragedy now is that many of won’t be able to attend that talk! I hope there will be a follow up report somewhere in the blogosphere.

Regarding the inner “switch”, it reminded me of something that happened to me as I developed ‘fluency’ in a second language, and which I’ve heard many other people mention as well. All of a sudden, somewhere along the line as I was learning Swedish, I started ‘dreaming in Swedish’. I don’t just mean that everyone (including myself) was speaking Swedish during dreams (though admittedly I did hear some Abba tracks playing in the background a few times…), but rather I found myself “thinking” my way through the dreams in Swedish as well. I’ve heard a lot of people (usually not teachers or applied linguists, mind!) claim that this represents the transition to genuine fluency in the second language – when it becomes a natural and independently operating part of the subconscious mind.

Before somebody (perhaps quite rightly) jumps on here and dismisses this as a sort of second language acquisition urban myth, I’ve noticed my young son (who at one point was very bilingual) still talking away ‘fluently’ in Korean in his sleep, though he hasn’t actively used this language in his waking hours for a good 6-9 months. I’m not sure how well this supports the idea of the “inner voice” mentioned by Jeremy and others, but I certainly find it very fascinating.

19 12 2009
guarany

Hello, everyone!

What an interesting conversation going on here!

Thanks for your account, Jason. Really fascinating.

I started learning English as a foreign language when I was about 11 (back in 1984) and lived in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. I remember that after three month’s serious autonomous daily study I started dreaming in English regularly. Those were exciting days when I looked forward to the nighttime: “Will I dream in English tonight?”, I wondered. A year later, when I had reached a satisfactory level of oral fluency in English, I decided to learn French using the very same approach of autonomous studies with very limited resources. A similar experience of dreaming in the foreign language followed suit! Two years after that I started learning Spanish and, yeah, you’ve guessed it, dreams in Spanish! Throughout my career as an EFL teacher, various students and teachers have told similar stories. When I started teaching back in 80s, we used songs to quite a large extent. Students loved it. Basically, as we had five 60-minute lessons a week, we would allocate about 15 minutes at the end of each lesson to “singing” the same song and a special 30 minutes in our Friday lessons when the learners could ask questions about the language in the lyrics. By the end of each semester, students would be able to sing a number of pop songs by heart. Surely that must have helped them to acquire important lexical chunks which became ready to use. Back to my own experience as language learner, many of my dreams featured songs by Pink Floyd, whose lyrics I used to translate into Portuguese for my brother, a “The Wall” fan. In time, I, too, became a Pink Floyd fan and learned several of their songs by heart, which in hindsight, I consider to have been instrumental in improving my pronunciation, vocabulary , grammar and . . . probably . . . fluency🙂

So, Jeremy is probably right when he says that “. . . trying to help students develop and nurture that voice is the main goal of all fluency teaching.” By the way, Jeremy, when and where exactly is the “Fluency Paradox” going to take place?😉

Fernando Guarany
Natal, Brazil

20 12 2009
Nick Bilbrough

Brilliant Fernando. I love the idea of this constant recycling of the same song in classes, and the replaying of it at night in your dreams, and in the dreams of your learners.

I notice that my three year old will often spend quite a long time whispering to himself little snippets of things he’s heard during the day before he goes to sleep at night. These could be lines from songs, nursery rhymes or things that people have said. It’s like he’s providing himself with a bit of controlled langauge practice – and it’s all pretty meaningless in the sense that he’s not really communicating anything by doing it.

So in this discussion are we moving towards the idea of less communicative language use (recitation, performance of lines, singing etc) being very beneficial in terms of developing fluency? Scott, don’t you have a story about learning Maori which relates to this?

What I’m thinking a lot about now is whether plenty of fluency activities in the classroom (those which encourage learners to speak just using the language they have at their disposal) is necessarily always going to be the best approach to take in terms of actually developing fluency. Of course learners do need these opportunities but maybe alone they’re not enough. I guess it depends on how much scaffolding they get during the fluency activity too (as well as a host of other factors!)

Nick

22 12 2009
jeremyharmer

Hi Fernando,

my workshop (The Fluency Paradox) is being organised by Pearson Education. I think it’s January 28, but if you get int touch with them (Pearson) in São Paulo, they can tell you…

Maybe I’ll see you there!

Jeremy

23 12 2009
Fernando Guarany Jr

Thanks, Jeremy.

I’ll contact Pearson Ed. about the details.

Merry Xmas to you!

Fernando Guarany Jr
Natal – Brazil

21 12 2009
scottthornbury

So in this discussion are we moving towards the idea of less communicative language use (recitation, performance of lines, singing etc) being very beneficial in terms of developing fluency? Scott, don’t you have a story about learning Maori which relates to this?

Nick’s referring to something I recounted from my experience taking a two-month course in Maori, a few years back when I was teacher training in New Zealand. This is how I described the incident:

More personal information language. Then it becomes clear that this “I come from… My father’s name is … My mother’s name is .. etc” is part of a ritual greeting routine called a mihi, used, for example, during the welcoming ceremony on the marae [the spiritual community centre]. This is a brilliant way of contextualising personal information, and we all set about writing and rehearsing our own mihis with a venegeance. We choose our own mountain and river, but are challenged to come up with a waka – the canoe that first brought us to NZ. Perhaps Air NewZealand flight 197? We are to rehearse our mihis for homework and to “perform” them in the next class. ….

We perform our mihi – I offer to go first since no one else does, and manage quite well, with only one or two stumbles. I am really chuffed, but wonder if I would be able to “turn it on” on the marae – i.e. in “real” life….

(As it happened, a few years later I was asked to make the formal response, as token guest, during the Maori welcoming ceremony at the start of a conference in Christchurch, and – with a little help – was able to retrieve and perform my mihi – not with a great deal of fluency, nor even accuracy, but considerable passion!)

21 12 2009
Elizabeth Anne

Thank you for such a woderfully interesting discussion – it is really interesting to see the wide variety of convictions !
In our English for science classes at the University, where, after 11 years of learning English in the state system only 30% of the students attain a B2 level on the initial placement test, “fluency” is a point to be assessed by we teachers at the end of the course ! (we are well versed in the CEF guidelines and “chunking” is an element on our fluency assessment grid)
In this ELF context, it is taken as given that “if you really want to express yourself you can do so in French outside of the classroom” ! Sounds tough Karen ? Once we get these people to focus on what they can say rather than what they want to say, we can milk the 11 years of passive learning, and they all speak in English by the end of the 24 hours – which, for many represents and increase from zero spontaneous expression at the start of the course and as such is a very definite rise in fluency however defined🙂
I just wanted to say that, even from this very hardliner starting point, it is clear that playreading is surprizingly well appreciated and helps greatly in this walk-before-you-run methodology.
As an ELF fan, I feel (not an acceptable academic word I guess) but anyway, I do feel that chunking and pronuciation (or rather stress in the right place) are the more essential points of focus for a teacher of B1 level students in their strive to fluency.

22 12 2009
dfogarty

I am already ten minutes late in waking the sleeping lions that have to be taken to school, so forgive me for having done you the discourtesy of only skimming through your comments.

I can’t quite see the value in pinning down an agreeable definition of fluency. Everyone knows what it means, don’t they? Of course, there might be more of a need if you set yourself the damn-fool task of writing an A-Z. Or if you are locked in a research library at some university or the other. But ultimately, I would suggest, there’s not too much to be learned from the exploration.

Jeremy’s question, “How come some learners achieve fluency and some don’t?” doesn’t necessarily require more than an idiosyncratic definition of the word anyway. If I use “fluency” to mean “the achievement of high speed and low monitoring characteristic of most native speakers, but with the potential for less accurate language production”, Jeremy’s question remains unanswered. And perhaps unanswerable.

What makes some people better language learners than others? The jury has spent so much time deliberating that the court is beginning to suspect that they haven’t got any other homes to go home to. And the range of factors that MIGHT be involved is huge. Could it have something to do with prenatal exposure to other sounds? Could it have something to do with the relationship you had with your parents? Is it to do with how attracted you were to your teachers? Might it be the rare combination of an extrovert character who is desperate to please and willing to conform? Apart from being a fascinating area for navel-gazing, does it really matter?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what is the drive behind asking such questions? Is the intention to strip away all of the excess baggage and hone our language learning/teaching skills down to the bare necessities? Is it merely academic conjecture akin to the “Do angels have freckles?” type of research of earlier times?

For what it’s worth, I’d say that fluency =acceptable accuracy X acceptable rate of delivery. What causes some people to be more fluent than others? The fact that people are different. Is it possible to predict fluency? No. Can anyone achieve a high standard of fluency? Yes. Is it biological? No.

You may probably be able to infer from this why I am having such difficulty in finishing my MA in ELT.

22 12 2009
jeremyharmer

Well, I don’t actually think my original question (which Scott kindly referenced when he started this conversation) is the same as ‘what makes a good language learner?’ There IS something special about fluency itself. And I think that anyone who has an interesting in teacher training (or has, like Scott and myself, the temerity to write about teaching!!) has to be able to offer some guidelines, some advice on this otherwsie what use are we at all?!!!

My own questioning/research/inner contemplation coupled with the conversation that has been taking place here have lead me to feel more confident about offering that advice. No definitive answrs, of course, but I DO have some strong feelings and hints that for me suggest ways in which teachers can provoke, encourage, induce fluency. But my big insight (for myself, of course, everyone else knew this already) is that fluency happens inside ceratin students’ heads, so it’s making that happen – making that inner process kick in – that matters.

Right, that’s quite enough from me. I need to plan that ‘fluency paradox’ workshop!

Jeremy

Tha

22 12 2009
dfogarty

Far be it from me to say it, but I’d say that the key word in my definition was “acceptable” – and I would therefore dispute that fluency happens in the head of the speaker; to me, fluency only exists in the recognition of others. So, it’s not as simple as a mere cognitive ability that people can be trained in.

I would suggest that the only way of getting any inner process to kick in is through thousands of hours of practice – which, as we all know, is not an option for most of the world’s language teachers. I think the burden is upon all of us – and perhaps especially upon those who would teach people how to teach- to recognise reality. I have recently blogged about the falsehoods contained in many teacher training books that speak of classrooms that are unfamiliar to most of us (with apologies for taking on the rather demagogic role of Spokesperson For All People). I would hate it if any future teacher was to labour under the illusion that the failure of her students to attain fluency was in any way a comment upon her ability to teach.

I am not sure if there is a paradox to fluency. It seems relatively simple to me: if you get loads and loads of practice and you really want to improve, the chances are that you will reach a level of language that will be acceptable to most people’s ears. You will have achieved Fluency.

Coincidentally, I was reading Postman (not the Postman) this morning and he was railing against the reification of things. He glosses reification as “converting an abstract idea (mostly, a word) into a thing.” If I might be permitted to paraphrase him here:
“There is no such thing as [fluency]. It is a word, not a thing, and a word of a very high order of abstraction. But if we believe it to be a thing like the pancreas or liver, then we will believe scientific procedures can locate it and measure it.” (Postman, N. 1992. “Technopoly”. NY:First Vintage Books. p.130)

In light of this, I have the temerity to suggest that teacher trainers have the use of correcting the false perceptions that earlier generations of teacher trainers – perhaps earlier regenerations of themselves- have allowed to develop. I am going to bombastically proclaim that it is ridiculous to try to convince people that anything other than Time X Motivation / Meaningful feedback = Potential for Fluency.

22 12 2009
scottthornbury

Diarmuid, I think I agree that fluency is not some internalised attribute of the mind but is an interpersonal phenonemon, in which mutual familiarity (with each other’s idiomaticity) may play an important part ( I made this point earlier). Subsequently (and thanks to another blog: http://is.gd/5x69o) I find out that Mike McCarthy offers the term confluence to capture the interactive aspect of fluency. The reference is:

McCarthy, M. J. (2005). “Fluency and confluence: What fluent speakers do.” The Language Teacher 29(6): 26-28.

I throw that in to the pot, but I don’t have the article so I can’t say much more about it here.

Meanwhile, as for your formula:

Time X Motivation / Meaningful feedback = Potential for Fluency.

I assume by Time you mean something like Practice time or Time on task, because Time on its own (as in idly watching the hands of a clock) won’t do much good. If so, have you any thoughts as to what kind of practice or task would be optimal. Or doesn’t it matter?

22 12 2009
Diarmuid

Well I guess that it should be time spent doing something! So, time means time available to practise using the language in a motivating way.

Karenne breaks this formula into even smaller chunks to come up with some kind of quasi behaviourist theory. I’m not convinced that this is the right way to go. I can imagine lots of scenarios in which one can acquire (or construct) fluency without feeling “rush”. Rush might be how it goes for those people for whom motivation is inherently positive.

My formula suggests that if people have the time necessary to their study and are motivated to do so, as long as this product can be then divided by the feedback on their efforts, then they will be better placed to become fluent.

What activities should they be doing? Any which get them talking in a meaningful and motivating manner.

22 12 2009
dfogarty

…of course, how you’re going to get 6 hours out of that is anyone’s guess.

22 12 2009
David

dfogarty —

I must stand and applaud. Thank you for adding this clarity. so MEANING full.

Or as Bill Cosby would say – “it’s not how you say it but ow day nose wat u sayz” Fluency can neither be defined or measure nor be anything other than one place and one time.

David

22 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Dear All,

I am late into this thread but what a fascinating discussion so far. The part that I wanted to pick up and focus a bit more on is where Diarmuid said “fluency only exists in the recognition of others”. I think this is an important point as it is an external representation of an internal process and therefore notoriously difficult to pin down really – plus it inevitably will be seen differently by the speaker and the listener and their respective and subjective positions. I too believe it cannot be measured for this reason. Hence I suppose this being one of your longest blog posts to date as it boils down to interpretation! I must admit I also find myself wondering how useful it will be to have a definition – I mean won’t it be characterised as much by what it can’t encapsulate as by what it can? A tough call I think with this “F” word Scott!

It reminded me of when I used to be an assessor in a popular EL test for the speaking bit (not going to name the exam board here). It was a paired format with two examiners and two candidates – the subjectivity employed by individual examiners towards fluency (as the supposed overarching category that drew all the other analytical criteria like grammar, vocab etc together) was always a source of amazement to me – by that I mean that often the reasons given to justify low marks were a long way from the deconstructive dialogue here (by that I mean some would have had trouble justifying their decisions in linguistic terms I suspect). If anything they were subjective and often based on whether the examiner ‘liked’ the sound (and sometimes even the look) of the candidate (i.e. socially constructed factors), whether they warmed to them, if they sounded too “Greek” (yes indeed, I heard that said many times to my horror) and if they paused for thought. Or in the case of teenagers if they paused to consider some of the silly questions they were being asked. These ‘gaps’ were understood as lack of fluency. Now obviously testing fluency is different to defining it, but it shows how pinning down a definition doesn’t mean transparency for all in the application of the definition.

I remember one of the best ever candidates I had in terms of the sheer wonderment I felt at her responses (at C2 level) didn’t actually really say very much at all. But what she did say (and it was all delivered at a slow and careful pace) was astounding. So as others have mentioned, fluency is also about individual style of expression – diversity being the norm!

Speaking personally now – my Greek is ‘fluent’ sometimes and at other times not which seems to be directly related to a) tiredness b) investment in the situation c) enjoyment of the situation and d) my perception of the listener. Indeed, when I feel the listener is judging me, it makes me less inclined to talk much and I feel ‘tongue tied’. However, I will happily stand up in front of large crowds and do presentations when suitably fired up and invested. So, like all things, people have to want to talk right? And that includes the right to silence or short answers at times too.

Not sure if any of that helps but that is my 22/12 rambling pre-xmas thoughts on your fascinating discussion!

22 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

If I may… because I really do like to harp on this which… for the life of me just keeps getting missed:

not
Time X Motivation / Meaningful feedback = Potential for Fluency.

but

(Time spent Speaking on Self + Interests) + meaningful and measurable feedback on progress = Motivation.

Motivation x Consistent Progress = dedicate more time in pursuit of raising level.

More time spent in autonomous learning… in order to be able to spend more time speaking about one’s self and interests = motivation2 (squared)

Increased knowledge leads to accidental moment of suddenly speaking first sentence fluently = Rush occurs.

Desire for more Rush.

Consistent Rush = Confidence in ability. Pride in this ability.

Confidence + Pride = open mouth, engage brain, activate memory banks and have assurance in one’s power to communicate one’s need = Self Worth.

Self worth in L2 intact when opening mouth = Fluency.
by whomever should call it that: learner, evaluator or person on the other side.

22 12 2009
Steph

For what it’s worth – I have days when I don’t even feel fluent in English (my mother tongue)

There are days when German flows easily – and others where I can barely string a sentence together.

I haven’t read all the posts (probably this is mentioned somewhere) but it could be the longer you stay in a particular country, the more you become so used to the ” L1 errors” of that language – the more influenced your notion of fluency becomes.

Years ago while living in Australia – I met a Danish man who had lived in Oz for about 40 years. He complained to me that he had lost his proficiency in Danish – yet was not proficient in English and as a result felt as though he were not really fluent in any language!

It’s another topic – but “L2” interference can also crop up in long term residents of non-English speaking countries!

Also – does being native automatically mean being fluent. Thinking back to my student days working as a barmaid in the Northern Industrial town where I grew up (in the UK) some of the workers who were regulars in the pub would have struggled to fit certain exam boards notion of being fluent – and to people from the South – their accents were often incomprehensible…….but that’s perhaps another thread!

23 12 2009
dfogarty

The idea that a bona fide servant of HM The Queen might not be fluent is clearly wrong. Whether this goes to show that “fluent” as a concept is worthless or whether it tells us something about the nuances of “fluent” is a moot point.

I will assume that it tells us something about the nuances of the word. To be a NS of English means that you are going to develop fluency, unless there is a physical/mental anomaly that works against this.

Fluency is, above all, a perception of acceptability. The accepted opinion here seems to be that it is a cognitive feature that can be triggered once the conditions are met. I would still dispute that and say that it is a social construct and it is not fixed or dependent upon any clearly recognised characteristics – apart from in exams when it has to be reified into a measurable feature.

Scott asks for activities that might promote fluency – I’d say any meaningful conversations that students are motivated to join in, but also any activities that are designed to train the learners in getting as much exposure to English as they can. That might be reassuring them of the value of reading for enjoyment, giving them techniques to employ at the cinema if they are watching a film in English; directing them to websites where they can both consume and create and so on.

Mr Thornbury, rather facetiously I thought😉, asked me to clarify what I meant by “time”. My formula was shorthand for saying:

1) If you have enough time to devote to using the [English] language; and
2) you are motivated to keep doing so (i.e. it does not become a chore); and
3) you have the opportunity to receive feedback from a trusted expert about what works and what does not work; then

the chances are that you will reach a stage where people will recognise you as being fluent in your speech (and possibly your writing).

My central point was that the first condition on the road to fluency is the availability of thousands of hours to dedicate to study/language use.

It seems that many teacher educators overlook this blindingly obvious fact because they prefer to look for the Grail that cannot be found.

23 12 2009
scottthornbury

Fluency is, above all, a perception of acceptability.
But don’t you mean accuracy (is a perception of acceptability), really?

I think we are talking at cross purposes: fluency is not native-like proficiency (qua competence) but the capacity to speak in real time (performance).

Having slept on this, I DO still think that fluency is measurable – just as a pianist’s ability to play a sequence of notes fast and without long pauses (irrespective of accuracy) is measurable.

Yes, it comes with practice – but ceratin kinds of practice would seem to be more conducive to fluency than others. One type might involve the mechanical repetition of memorized items, in order to optimise immediate recall and retrieval, and so as to provide ‘islands of reliability’ while dealing with the twin demands of planning and production simultaneously. Another might be practice in real-time conditions, i.e. dealing with spontaneity and unpredictability in face-to-face interaction.

23 12 2009
dfogarty

No – I mean “fluency”. I think that fluency means speaking at an acceptable speed with acceptable pauses using acceptable lexis and acceptable grammar.

I agree that if it is reified and turned into a slightly different concept than that held by most people, it probably can be measured, but I am not convinced that this is very purposeful or meaningful. It’s a bit like those speed reading books where you have to time yourself reading. As if that might be enough to develop fluency…

The grail seems to be a search for quick shortcuts to fluency (memorising stock phrases; drilling them etc). I don’t dispute that they might contribute to fluency, whatever it is. But I’m automatically suspicious of anything that appears to impose logical reasoning on the teaching of language. Just because drilling something into somebody means that they can reproduce at will and without thought doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been helped towards fluency.

I don’t know – I’ve just talked myself into the rut of believing that fluency develops over time and that there are no shortcuts. If I am to be convinced out of this rut, I suspect that I am going to need a pretty hefty shove.

23 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Scott and all,

How interesting that there are so many threads going on in the same blog post. Lots and lots to think about here! Thank you to all.

Quick question Scott – if fluency in language is measurable, then how do you measure speed and pause? I mean what ‘tools’ do you use for breaking down and assessing this in a quantitative manner (which is what you were proposing I think?).

I found the music metaphor interesting as music is indeed another language.
I did a bit of digging around and found this useful link on musical fluency here http://www.musicallyfluent.com/musical/mod/resource/view.php?id=2 which compares musical and linguistic fluency (and I quote)

“Musical Fluency does not mean playing a piece that has been practiced repetitiously until you can play it without stopping! Fluency and literacy in music are similar to fluency and literacy in language. A fluent musician possesses an internalised musical “language” – rather like vocabulary – made up of familiar elements or components that they can imagine and also play. These are typically patterns of rhythm, melody and harmony. Once internalised, these elements can be expressed, sight-read or recalled instantly and naturally without mental processing.
However, music is not the same as language. When we learn to speak a language, we need a great deal of vocabulary before we can be fluent. In music, we can be fluent with only a limited amount of musical “vocabulary” as long as it is sufficiently familiar or internalised”

It goes on to point out that fluency is about the ability to improvise in musical language.

Questions: does repetition and repeat = fluency (not according to this definition)? Is it true that language must first be internalised (and what does that mean?) Is fluency the ability to improvise? It strikes me that even for the most gifted musician there must be bad hair days when fluency lapses from time to time, just as there are in language. Is it true (as this quote says) that lexis is more important in language than in music?

I find the comparison of music/language fascinating as so many musicians I know use their music as their main form or expression and reach degrees of ‘fluency’ in that medium which are very difficult in language.

24 12 2009
Richard Chinn

I know that this is probably too late and we’ve moved on to ‘sentence’, but everyone talks of fluency in terms of ‘speaking’. I’ve just completed my trainer-in-training for the CELTA and my supervisor and I disagreed a bit. Can a writer be fluent?

2 04 2010
Michael Foy

Isn’t it possible for one of you lexically resourceful experts to pronounce a grammatically accurate and coherent description of fluency without repetition in this defining moment?

2 04 2010
Sue Murray

by coincidence, I’d just read Andrew Wright’s article (Stories in Language Teaching) in April’s hltmag, when I saw Michael’s comment. Think it’s okay to quote? Andrew sez:

“Fluency for me means being able to make use of all the language you’ve got with the purpose of communicating meanings rather than avoiding grammatical errors.”

Might not stand up to all the technicalities above, let alone the exigencies of Michael’s challenge😉, but as a working model it sounds good to me🙂

True, phonological aspects, especially chunking and pausing, and also lexical accuracy (and familiarity), can sometimes be an obstacle to communication. It is possible by the above ‘definition’ – which I doubt it was formally meant to be😉 – to consider that someone can be fluent but (at times, or to a new audience, for example) difficult to understand. As also happens between native speakers – Fred from Surrey can’t always understand Mike from Glasgow, but neither would deny the other is a fluent speaker.

And I hasten to add that Andrew precedes the above-quoted line with: “If you do not make accuracy a key element then there is no better way of DEVELOPING fluency than storying” (my caps).

Whatever really comprises fluency, classroom learners and teachers aim to develop it, and taking both parts of the quote together seems to say: encouraged and motivated to be fluent – ie, to communicate – learners and teachers have real opportunity to improve everyone’s/each other’s fluency (and understanding too).

With emphasis on the ‘real’ perhaps. Often easier said than done, depending on the learning situation/learning objectives, and how ‘real’ it’s all allowed to be. But if fluency is an aim, it has first – and subsequently, and then again, and again, and again – to be ‘experienced/lived’ in order to become more fluent?? Yet like Jeremy’s ‘fluency paradox’, maybe fluency has a fundamentally intrapersonal element, however much we adjust and adapt, language being predominantly social, and fluency largely judged externally …… and as with Sara’s experience of C2 testing, formal external judgements tend to be ‘quantified’, and quantification and quantity itself doesn’t necessarily equal effectiveness, or tally with non-formal assessments ….

Just a (rather garbled once I started it!) late night thought. And better to read Andrew’s article than listen to me. And love that verb ‘to story’ (tho maybe, so far, only used in –ing form?)
Sue
PS also so true, as has been said, that we can suddenly find ourselves relatively (or totally, as has happened to me recently!) ‘disfluent’. or less fluent. when in a situation or sector we’re not used to, or which we’re suddenly thrust into. But we learn and improve bit by bit. By doing it. Plus awareness of ‘feedback’, and observation of what everyone else is doing/saying differently, etc. And thereby useful chunks too, in fiercely real context – some of which we may well reject as not being how we are or want to come over? Just cos it’s a regular chunk in some circles doesn’t necessarily mean it’s one I need or want to adopt??

12 07 2010
henrietacat

Thanks everyone…I am doing my DELTA assignment on fluency…got couple of quotes and paraphrases and had thought I might’d been able to define it….but now my stream of consciousness is surely not fluent on what fluency is…it’s flooded indeed:-) thanks for inspiration… it feels like William Wordsworth Poetry – the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings (and ideas) about fluency
and another sleepless night:-)

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