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?