Accuracy vs Fluency: Is There A Third Way?

One of EFL / ESL’s favorite debates is the old “accuracy vs fluency” argument. Generations of teachers and linguists have lined up on either side of the divide, grammarians eye-to-eye with communicative theorists, each politely conceding minor points to the other while maintaining an iron conviction that their focus is the fundamental one in helping learners to master the English language.

Amidst the heat of battle, however, the real world has continued to evolve; and it has done so in a way that injects a new twist in the old debate. The increasing “casualization” of the English language means that an amazing amount of conversational, communicative English these days is built around catch-phrases, slang, idioms, cultural references, and common collocations used in such an ubiquitous fashion as to constitute essential “language chunks” to anyone wishing to understand or use the language. This began to be driven home for me when we started creating language exercises around video clips from current movies, TV series, television news reports and music videos for English Attack!, and I started to notice that the transcripts for these short clips featured one of these forms of language in virtually every uttered or sung phrase or sentence.

It occurs to me that this is a quite important but under-reported (and under-analyzed) change in English language usage in the past few years. Whereas before – let’s say, until the 1980’s — an idiom or item of slang used to be the exception, used on special occasions and/or in casual situations only, today the use of such forms and formulae is fully expected in nearly all situations… so much so, that their “plain language” equivalents sound awkward and contrived.

Should we thus boost the presence of this “vocabulary-plus” in our teaching approach? Consider the following:

An intermediate-level learner of English, having overslept and thus having had to rush his usual morning routine, wishes to pre-emptively apologize his being badly coiffed upon arriving at work. In standard English-with-a –focus-on-accuracy, we might end up with him adopting a structure from another similar situation, leading him to say “I apologize for the appearance of my hair.” If we have favored fluency over accuracy, he might come up with something less stilted that gets the message across, such as “Sorry but I have not been able to brush my hair correctly this morning,” or words to that effect. Both statements will elicit mild amusement, or embarrassed silence at best, from the native speakers with whom our spike-haired learner is trying to communicate. If we have taught him, on the other hand, the essential lifestyle language chunk “Having a bad hair day,” his meaning will instantly be understood and in all likelihood will elicit sympathetic commiserations.

The communicative and social importance of these forms increases exponentially the younger the learner. ESL students in my teenage daughter’s international school soon learn that multi-situational responses like “Fail” or “Awesome,” are much more useful, and gain them more group acceptance, than more conventional words or phrases. Young non-native English speaking employees in U.S.-based multinational companies soon catch on that cultural references like “It’s Miller Time” or “We need a home run” are essential in understanding their bosses and colleagues. Nearly every foreign exchange student enrolled in an American high school will soon adopt a language survival toolkit consisting of items like “No way” or “What’s Up?” or “Take it easy,” which tend not to be front-runners in EFL textbooks.

No, the objective is not to teach English language learners to sound like denizens of the San Fernando Valley. But we need to evolve our conception of what useful vocabulary is to include these “instant allies” which help make the learner not only understood but also socially accepted.

This evolution holds for oral discourse, of course, but equally – and increasingly – for written communication as well. News reports, business analysis, and even presidential state-of-the-union speeches groan under the weight of idioms, acronyms, and, alas, clichés. Not to mention the new platforms for the written word – Facebook, Instant Messenger, Twitter, SMS – which are essentially conversational and reward telegraphic accuracy-of-meaning (itself, today, a form of fluency) over style or structure. Right on cue, the fingers-on-the-pulse crew at the Oxford English Dictionary has just this week recognized the importance of terms like FYI, OMG and LOL by incorporating them into their latest edition.

As Stephen Krashen once said, “Language acquisition… occurs when comprehension of real messages occurs, and when the acquirer is not “on the defensive.” I submit that one of the best ways to create the conditions both for this comprehension, and for the avoidance of defensiveness, is to impart to learners this wider view of vocabulary, this expanded definition of “language chunks,” without which, in their everyday conversations and even written communication with native English speakers, they will be neither truly fluent or accurate. In short: I am recommending that we expand our view of the lexical method to embrace, wholeheartedly and in any case much more than we do at present, common expressions, collocations, slang, idioms, and cultural references. By doing so, we sidestep at least part of the accuracy vs. fluency debate by providing learners with language chunks that facilitate both, with social acceptability thrown in for free.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top