Accuracy And Fluency

Did you know that your command of English is a delicate balance between accuracy and fluency?

by Louis Alexander


About a hundred years ago, language teaching and learning was almost entirely about accuracy. The system used was something called 'Grammar Translation'. It worked like this: The learner was given a sentence in the mother tongue which contained a tricky grammatical point and asked to translate it into English. For example, the sentence 'I have been here since six o'clock this morning' might be presented in the learner's mother tongue. The learner would be tempted to translate this into English, as follows: 'I am here since six o'clock this morning', thus illustrating a tricky difference between the simple present and the present perfect. The whole emphasis in this approach was on knowledge. Grammar was an end in itself. If the learner ended up being able to understand and speak using this approach, it was a matter of luck. You had to be very talented indeed to master the skills of understanding, speaking, reading and writing through Grammar Translation.

It is surprising that it took the language teaching profession so long to realize that learning a language is only partly about knowledge. It is mainly about performance. Communication requires us to do things through language. We might want to do simple transactional things like changing money in a bank; interactional things like talk about our preferences in food; discursive things like express our views about a political situation, and so on. It is fair to say that in the past, the mastery of grammar (through translation) was the main objective and communication, if it occurred, was the lucky by-product. Today, we can say that the mastery of communication is the main objective and the grammar necessary for this is the by-product. In other words, grammar is the support system for communication, not an end in itself.

Just as too much emphasis was placed on accuracy in the past, it is possible to place too much emphasis on fluency in the present. Making mistakes when communicating is not regarded as being too important. The essential thing is to achieve communication, even if you make mistakes. Someone will understand you if you say *'I am here since six o'clock this morning' and know that you are trying to say, 'I have been here since six o'clock this morning'. But they won't understand you if you say, *'I was been here to six o'clock today morning.' The fact is, however, that self-conscious learners don't like making mistakes and that is why they have to strike a careful balance between accuracy and fluency.

Direct English seeks to achieve just this balance. From the point of view of accuracy, it affords numerous opportunities to train you to say things correctly and to understand the underlying grammar which will enable you to do this. You are actively prevented from asking incorrect questions like *'Where you went this morning?' by constant training for accuracy. Many points of language are carefully explained so that you are fully aware, for example, of the different uses of 'some' and 'any', so you don't say things like *'I want any butter'. At the same time, all the conversation practice is directed at inviting you to express yourself freely without being at all concerned about 100% accuracy. The fluency exercises invite you to take the parts of different characters when role-playing and to continue a dialogue in your own way. The accuracy exercises encourage a thoughtful use of language and the information is intended to help you to understand how English works. The fluency exercises encourage free expression, so you are not inhibited about the details of language use. The simple rule is: you're not allowed to make mistakes when doing accuracy exercises (drills, etc.); you're allowed to make as many mistakes as you like when doing fluency exercises (conversation practice).

 

© LG & DE Limited 2006

 

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