Fluency vs. Accuracy

Fluency GoalsDespite the fact that I had spent two years learning Latin and seven learning Spanish when I was growing up, I had never contemplated whether fluency in a language equaled accuracy until I moved to Brazil. It was teaching English that led me to start thinking about this.

I remember in my early days of teaching being confused by some of my intermediate and advanced students’ desires to become “fluent” in English. They were perfectly capable of holding a conversation, and they had no problem understanding me. In my book that meant fluency. However apparently for them fluency meant making no mistakes.

I began to understand this desire as I gained more fluency in Portuguese. I found myself sometimes avoiding conversations not because I was afraid I couldn’t get my point across, but because I would make a mistake. People would compliment me on my Portuguese, I would hear my friends tell others that I was fluent, yet I still hesitated before speaking. I felt like my students, wanting desperately to speak Portuguese accurately; otherwise I couldn’t consider myself fluent.

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This begs the question…if fluency in a language equals speaking it accurately, that is, with no mistakes, then is anyone fluent, in any language? I mean, as much as I’d like to think that I, as a native speaker of English and as a teacher of this language, speak English perfectly, do I? In fact, I sometimes feel like I’m just as much a learner as my students are.

What are the ingredients that make up fluency when speaking another language? Do you translate in your mind what a person says as he or she is saying it? Do you find yourself getting lost in a conversation with more than one person? Do people give you a blank stare when you speak to them? If you’ve answered no to these questions, then I would say you’re fluent. In my opinion accuracy is just an optional ingredient of the many that distinguish fluency.

Writing fluently in another language, on the other hand, é outra história completamente. I might have proudly placed myself in the category of speaking Portuguese fluently, but brave enough to write in this language? Maybe an e-mail or two, but certainly not a blog!

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Ashley Smith

Ashley Smith é americana que mora no Brasil desde 2001. Durante os primeiros sete anos aqui ela dava aulas particulares de inglês, e atualmente trabalha como diretora de conteúdo do site meuingles.com.

27 comentários

  • 27/04/09  
    Felippe diz: 1

    In my opinion, we need a lot of vocabulary too..
    When I learned English, it was easy because here in Brasil, we have contact with movies, songs, texts and a lot of simple things as name of some stores, clothes, places, etc…
    We see your language everywhere.
    Now I’m trying to learn Deutsch, and I’m getting mad…
    There’s almost nothing written in Deutsch here in Brasil.
    I can’t find movies, just a few songs and it’s not usual to see a place or a name of a thing in german…
    So I think that we need a litle bit of vocabulary too…

  • 28/04/09  
    Carlos diz: 2

    I have one question about the expression “beg the question”… In this case wouldn’t be better to use just “raise the question”? What’s the difference? If I’m not wrong, there’s a Grammar Girl podcast where she talks exactly about this. Thanks.

  • 28/04/09  
    João B. L. Ghizoni diz: 3

    I don’t think that speaking fluently means speaking without mistakes. And this has already been explained by the author of today’s post. In my opinion, speaking fluently means, mainly, not pausing too long or too often when speaking, trying to gather the words. The words must come out pretty easily, and understanding the other person should not necessitate great effort either. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, and people make mistakes no matter the language they’re speaking, be it their mother tongue, be it a foreign language. Congratulations on this post.

  • 28/04/09  
    João diz: 4

    Alessandro, is it possible to see the dates of each post? Is it possible to see the posts in the sequence they were presented? Thanks for an answer. João.

    • 28/04/09  
      Alessandro diz:


      Atualmente os usuários podem navegar por categorias. Vou verificar a possibilidade de mudar a ordem por datas.


  • 28/04/09  
    Alex Jilas diz: 5

    Thanks a lot Ashley ;-)

  • 28/04/09  
    Álan Crístoffer diz: 6

    Didn’t get your point… do you think it is easier to speak than write in another language?
    I can write in English, and of course there are some errors, but I’m worse when speaking than writing… and I have big troubles when listening to…
    In my opinion it’s a lot easier to write…

  • 28/04/09  
    Paulo diz: 7

    Eu percebi que ela escreveu “Portuguese” com inicial maiúscula. Eu sempre aprendi que se escrevia assim mesmo, mas ultimamente vários falantes NATIVOS me disseram que era com minúscula, então abandonei a prática. Mas estou vendo que eu estava certo… Talvez seja uma regra “culta”. É isso?

  • 28/04/09  
    Diego Gomes diz: 8

    My gosh….that was fantastic!!! Achei muito legal! You described a thing we usually feel when we are going to say something in a different language: afraid.

    Thank you so much for the post. I hope you post some thing else soon.


  • 28/04/09  
    Rossine Ambrósio Alves diz: 9

    I can say isn’t so easy to become fluent in a foreing language. All I know it’s we must try and try and try again. To become a fluent without mistakes, I think, is a almost impossible mission, at least living in your mother land. If you aren’t a public person, or don’t deal everyday with a lot of people that are evaluating you, I don’t see any problem in make some mistakes, indeed, they leave our lives more funny sometimes… That’s all folks.

  • 28/04/09  
    Lucas Carioca diz: 10

    I was about to write a lengthy post when I saw Mr Ghizoni’s words and that was enough for me.
    I couldn’t agree more.

  • 28/04/09  
    Ashley diz: 11

    Hi Carlos,
    In modern day English we use “beg the question” the same way we do “raise the question” (a perfect example of fluency not equaling accuracy). In my case though, you could argue that I used it in the classic sense because I set out to prove something I already assumed to be false. I don’t believe that fluency equals accuracy, because no one is ever truly accurate in any language. Thanks for the question! Ashley

  • 28/04/09  
    Ashley Smith diz: 12

    Hey Carlos,
    Bom, in modern colloquial English “beg the question” and “raise the question” are used interchangeably. However, in the case of my blog you could argue that I’ve used it in its classic sense. When you beg the question of a statement made, you are proving something you already understand to be false. As I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be 100% accurate in any language, I’m proving the statement “Accuracy equals fluency” to be false, and therefore begging the question. Endendi? Thanks for the question!

  • 29/04/09  
    João diz: 13

    Can anyone tell me why I see only one comment on the post “fluency versus accuracy”?

  • 29/04/09  
    João diz: 14

    No need to answer, guys. All the comments have just appeared, like magic. Thanks anyway.

  • 29/04/09  
    João diz: 15

    Ashley, I’m sorry for being so bold in commenting this, but are you sure the verb form HAD SPENT is the appropriate one in the first sentence of your text? You say that the action of “learning Latin” happened WHEN you were growing up. Had I written that sentence, I would’ve used the simple past with the verb ‘spend’, like here: “I MET a friend WHEN I was waiting for the bus.” The past perfect (had spent) is to be used for an action that happened in the past, BEFORE another past action, right? And here it is not the case, is it? Can you say something about it? Thanks in advance. João.

  • 29/04/09  
    Ashley Smith diz: 16

    Good observation, João. However, the reason I used the past perfect here is because I was linking the time I had spent learning Latin and Spanish to the time I had “never contemplated” this topic. For me these events all happened at a point in the past (while I was growing up), which occurred before I moved to Brazil. You would certainly not be wrong in using the simple past, but in this case, the past perfect is acceptable as well.

  • 29/04/09  
    Mário diz: 17

    I guess that “the dream fluency” can be reach if we study a little of grammar and practice everyday, but we’re many times don’t want to wrong nothing, because others people talking with perfection. Now you can imagine like is important to writing, if we writing more than speaking (I think this way) the wrong show more easily and new words can stay forever in your mind. The writing’s like a mirror to have a better speaking.

  • 01/05/09  
    Anderson Lago diz: 18

    I liked very much your post, unless the last paragraph.
    I believe writing is part of your fluency either, and it’s part of the learning process. If you discourage this part, the learner could missing some important knowledge or skills. I’m an English learner, and I started writing a blog in English. Doesn’t matter if I’m not so good writer yet, but the as “common sense” that every teacher gives – “You’ll learn making mistakes”, I’m making my mistakes writing, but I’m learning a lot doing this.
    Nevertheless, it was a great post, congratulations. And if you want to contribute with my writing skills, take a look in my blog and feel free to be critic.

  • 03/05/09  
    luiz diz: 19

    great post!!!
    i’m 16 and i’ve been learning english for 2 years. In my small road of studying english i realised that you can’t only pay attention “how right” you are talking;you have to be fast too even though you make some mistakes. i always try to be fast when i’m talking in english ‘cuz if we look at our own language we’ll see that when we are talking we don’t say every single word in the right way or in the right collocation.so before we even think of saying everything right we hwve to talk fast. i believe that it’s the secret.
    one more time GREAT POST!!

  • 04/05/09  
    Ashley Smith diz: 20

    Hello everyone!
    I feel the need to explain the last paragraph of my blog. I’m not negating the importance of writing. I believe it is an essential part of the learning process. However, the written word is tricky because it can be interpreted in a thousand different ways depending on who’s reading it. And there is no intonation of voice, nor hand gesturing to aid the person who’s communicating. If I’m writing something that has a potencial audience of thousands, I want to be able to get my message across as clearly as possible. As English is my native tongue I have a much better command of it, and therefore feel more comfortable writing in this language. Lógico, desde que eu comecei a trabalhar numa empresa em que eu tenho que escrever muito mais do que nunca em português, eu aprendi bastante. Mas como eu já disse, por enquanto fico com e-mails, só. Talvez um dia eu escreva um blog em portugês! Obrigada todo mundo pelos comentários!!!

  • 04/05/09  
    Sofia diz: 21

    Hi Shirley, great post! Really alleviated me. It’s good to see someone who speaks the language talking about fluency. I study English as much as I can, couse I really like it. And it’s awesome that here on the internet we can get in touch it everything, everywhere and everyone, so we can learn a lot.
    Good luck with your portuguese ;D

  • 06/05/09  
    Giovanni diz: 22

    Nice post, it describes exactly how it feels.
    I’m sharpenin’ my english everyday on the internet, but when in a conversation i have this same fears although i can perfectly understand what they are saying… it’s weird.

  • 06/06/09  
    Terry diz: 23

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. Fluency is generally considered (and always measured as) the number of words produced in a specified time period. As such, fluency does not necessarily include accuracy unless the error is so great as to obstruct or alter understanding/meaning. One thing missing however, is the use and choice of vocabulary. Some recent studies in this area show that students who are considered more fluent in either speaking and writing sometimes use fewer words than interlocutors who are less fluent. When this happens it seems to show that fluency can’t be defined or measured solely by word counts. However, the more fluent writer might use less words to express their point but they often use more rare/less frequently occurring words to do so. Simply put, a more fluent writer may write only 100 words compared to a less fluent writer who writes 140 words. The difference lies in words used as the more fluent writer generally uses a greater number of less common words.

  • 08/06/09  
    Liacassia diz: 24

    Actually, what I really want is just receiving the upcoming comments by email, but when I marked the “Receber próximos comentários” box, it was shown a request to add a comment. So…


  • 08/06/09  
    Ashley Smith diz: 25

    Great, Terry! And thank you! I had never thought about “number of words used” being connected to fluency.

  • 31/07/09  
    Intercâmbio ou Pós ? « Java – Blog Camilo Lopes diz: 26

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