Should You Concentrate On Accuracy or Fluency?

Are you embarrassed when you speak English? Are you worried that you'll make a mistake, or that you'll look stupid?

This fear of making a mistake is often the biggest obstacle standing between you and your goal of speaking fluently. It means that you never take a chance when you speak English, or that you're so worried about getting everything right that you end up hesitating and pausing – two things which make you less fluent.

So why do people feel this way? After all, young learners of English (ie children) don't seem at all embarrassed to speak – it's only when we become teenagers and adults that we have this fear.

EnglishwithKim says that the problem is that we're too perfectionist. We set ourselves impossibly high standards and don't consider ourselves as "advanced" unless we have perfect pronunciation, perfect grammar, and perfect vocabulary.

She makes the excellent point that communication isn't about perfection, but that it's about connection.

Nobody's perfect

You probably find that when you speak your own language, you make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time in English! I start a sentence with one noun, then change it half way through. Or I forget that I started with a singular noun, for example, and end up using a plural verb. Or I slip into ungrammatical "dialect" English and start using the wrong verb endings, or double negatives.

The point is that no native speaker of any language speaks perfectly. That doesn't mean we aren't good communicators, but that making mistakes is a part of using a language. It doesn't stop us from speaking!

I'm lovin it

A lot of people asked me why the McDonald ad says "I'm lovin it" when we all know that you can't use a state verb in the continuous form.

People who create advertisements play around with language rules to make an impact. (See this post for some great examples.)

It isn't just people creating advertisements. Newspapers also break the rules to make an impact. After one national election, the headline of the Sun (a tabloid newspaper) read "It woz the Sun wot won it" (= It was the Sun that won it). Using non-standard spelling and non-standard grammar was a deliberate (and effective) way to appeal to a certain type of reader.

Final tips

If you need to write, aim for accuracy. If you need people to understand and act on your message, or if you need to make a good impression (writing a CV, doing an exam, etc) then accuracy is more important.

If you need to communicate face-to-face, then concentrate on fluency. Here are some ways you can achieve that:

Paraphrase
If you don't know the right word, or if the other person doesn't understand, you'll need to say it again in a different way.

Use checking phrases
If you don't know how to end a sentence (but you're pretty sure you communicated most of the meaning) you can say "Know what I mean?" to get the other person to show understanding.

Listen
One of the best ways to improve your communication skills is to improve your listening skills. If you show you're listening closely to the other person, firstly you'll probably understand them better (so your responses are more appropriate); and secondly, that other person will also focus on you when you speak. When two people focus on each other in a conversation, the overall communication becomes more successful.

What this means is that you shouldn't try to have a complicated or difficult conversation when you're texting!

Copy native speakers
Do what native speakers do when they make a mistake:
– keep going (you don't need to make it obvious that you made a mistake)
– go back to the beginning. If what you say is so complicated and wrong, just start again. Say "Let me say that again" and then say it again – but in a simpler and clearer way.




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2 comments

Kim
Thank you for sharing my perspective! I love your clear tips on how non-native speakers can increase their fluency while communicating more like native speakers. :)
Clare
My pleasure Kim!

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