if we try to speak perfect English, we lose fluency, but if we try to increase our fluency, we make more errors
In my work as a language and communication coach I endeavour to help my clients understand the difference between speed and fluency as communicators, and the need to monitor the former when we speak so as not to deliver a stream of undecipherable speech, especially in a second language.
In this column, I want to take that one step further and discuss the fluency versus accuracy dichotomy in communication. Despite being a very simple concept, many of my clients are unaware of it until we address it in one of our sessions. The basic premise is that the more fluent we are, the less accurate we become, and vice versa.
So what does this mean for us as communicators, and particularly when using English as a second language? The answer is clear: if we try to speak perfect English, we lose fluency, but if we try to increase our fluency, we make more errors. A dilemma as well as a dichotomy, then.
The concept is easily witnessed in the way different cultures approach communication. I have lived in various different countries and experienced both extremes: as a young man I lived in Japan, where accuracy is highly valued, and it was therefore not uncommon to wait several seconds for someone to elaborate a sentence. This insistence on precision comes, of course, at the cost of boring the waiting listener and losing their attention. By way of contrast, the opposite is true in this country. People here tend to speak so fast that they do not pause to consider the accuracy of the language they produce, with the resulting confusion for the listener, who has only understood a certain amount of what their interlocutor has said. In other words, what appears as fluent English can actually be quite poorly communicated and the message unclear.
So how do we address this dichotomy? In my work as a language and communication coach, I help my clients identify where they are on the scale when they communicate in English: more oriented towards fluency or accuracy, and then make the necessary adjustment.
So how do we do that? It’s actually pretty simple: if you over-emphasise fluency, you need to introduce more pauses to give room for monitoring your language while speaking. A common misinterpretation is that people get bored or switch off if we pause, but the judicious use of pauses and silence in our speech, as well as simply slowing down, will improve your communicative competence no end. One thing I show my clients is that a pause is never as long as you think it is when speaking.
If you over-emphasise accuracy, on the other hand, it’s about accepting that you will make small language errors as the cost of improving your communication style, and therefore not dwelling so long on accurate language use while speaking. Either way, a language coach will put you right in no time.