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What is really achievable in terms of accuracy and fluency?

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Before I write anything else, I should start by saying that I don't have all the answers. And that what I am going to write in this post is absolutely my opinion rather than a fact or truth. However, I think it's interesting to consider accuracy and fluency and what might be achievable as so many of my clients repeatedly beat themselves up for not being accurate or fluent enough. We should start by defining the words 'accuracy' and 'fluency'. Accuracy is easier to define. It's a state of being correct and without any mistakes and this is a state that pretty much every language learner I have ever met has a strong wish to achieve. Fluency is harder to define. Linguist Scott Thornbury suggests that fluency is a by-product of learning a great number of chunks of language and being able to produce them smoothly in real time. This is why I always advocate learning chunks and phrases rather than individual words, because it helps develop fluency. It is far quicker to remember a single chunk than the the individual words that make up the chunk. There are courses online that promise you fluency in three months! However, I would ask serious questions about whether the fluency reached on a course like this would get you to native-speaker levels of fluency! And if we are going to measure fluency against native-speaker standards, what should we make of the native speakers who are less fluent and more naturally hesitant when they talk? And then there's pronunciation. Where does pronunciation fit into the definition of fluency? If you had a person who could speak a second language extremely well and quickly but who had weak pronunciation, could the word 'fluent' be used to describe them? My suspicion is that language learners want to be completely accurate while emulating native-speaker levels of fluency. At all times. And this is what I believe is at the heart of so much of the dissatisfaction and self-dislike that language learners experience. So, is it possible to be 100% accurate at all times? I would say no! Think about it: in your first language, do you occasionally make little mistakes (slips)? I know I do! And if you make little slips in your first language, is it realistic to expect perfection in your second, or third, language? Ridding your second language of mistakes is a painstaking and time-consuming process that requires a great deal of awareness, practice and patience. I believe that given the right conditions, a very high degree of accuracy is possible for foreign language speakers, I've seen the number '85%' used to describe the level of accuracy that could be realistically achievable, but I also believe that to achieve this takes time and dedication. What about fluency? Are native-speaker levels possible in fluency? Again, I believe they are, but only after a long period of learning the language diligently and patiently.

Perhaps the real question is this:

Do I need to be perfectly accurate and have native-speaker like levels of fluency? And if so, why?

My gut feeling is that people feel like they need these levels of accuracy and fluency because of two things: 1. Experiences from learning at school where a great emphasis was placed on accuracy

2. Wanting to 'fit in' with colleagues at work and feeling inferior to their higher language levels.

For me, these two things are toxic. I believe that learning at school should be far less focused on accuracy and correctness and far more about experimentation and growth. If this were the case, children would not leave school feeling like a failure because they didn't get the 'right' marks in an exam. In the modern workplace, it is my belief that all varieties of English (Indian English, Kenyan English, Chinese English and so on) are of equal worth to British, Canadian or Australian English and that the benchmark of native speaker English places an unrealistic and unfair expectation on non-native speakers.

Not only this, but I also believe that many English native speakers have little understanding of the difficulties and challenges faced by their non-native speaker colleagues. More compassion and understanding by English native speakers would, I believe, go a long way towards helping non-native speakers feel better about their language abilities. So, to answer the original question - what is achievable in terms of accuracy and fluency? The simple answer - the sky's the limit but only if you are willing to devote years to your language learning. And if not, like most of us, perhaps it's better to gently challenge the need to achieve perfection and develop compassion for where you are at the moment.

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