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Fluency is a Beast in its own right – from Obama to Snoop Dog

Hello, everyone.

Today’s blog post was written by a special guest Alex Tamulis, a friend who loves Linguistics, but not so much about how languages change, because they do change, but how it all began in the first place, which conditions were optimal for language to emerge, so he’s mostly concerned with the origins and the interface between language and mind.

Alex is an Academic Consultant at Macmillan Education and Linguistics major at USP ( Universidade of São Paulo, Brazil). With regard to teaching, he’s interested in how L2 speakers store sequences in their mental lexicon and what to do in order to foster a cultural and fluency-laden environment in the classroom.

To find more about fluency in the ELT setting, please check out his article “Fluency in ELT” available on issuu.com/alextamulis and academia.edu 

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Fluency in ELT

What is fluency in the first place? Since the definition of a fluent speaker may rub up against the definition of what a proficient language user really is, I’m going to try to briefly mention these two concepts so we can establish a dichotomy and tackle it accordingly.

Fluency is not easy to define. Some scholars define it as an ability to use language accurately, focusing on content rather than form per se (Hartmann, 1976), filling time with talk, without long pauses, using coherence and phrases that are semantically dense (Fillmore, 1979).

Fluency is related to how retrieval of data is done in the brain. If a string is retrieved whole from memory, they are usually produced with faster speed and more confidence than completely fresh sentences. It is real-time communication, filled with timely pauses, hesitations and false starts.

There are some avenues that we can take in order to help our students become fluent; delving into the components of effective communication and understanding how fluency impacts it can help the process tremendously.

Let’s have a look at pronunciation. We usually focus on phonemes and leave prosodic features and reduced forms aside, to the detriment of real spoken English. Prosody is crucial for both interlocutor identity and for a true sense of community and commonality to be reached amongst users, whilst not leaving out the own ‘self’ image of the speaker.

Exposure and Awareness to Spoken Discourse

 

Let’s consider the fact that an utterance like “Hey, you look great today!” can be said in many ways: you can sound as if you were bored, or convey the same message ironically, sarcastically, sexily and probably in many other ways, depending on how these prosodic features come into play at the time of the utterance.

I really don’t agree with people who say that slurred speech and the use of contractions and reduced forms show signs of careless or lazy English. There is ample evidence that reduced forms are used in all kinds of  “world Englishes”, from Obama speeches to Snoop Dog rap lyrics. Listening exposure to them is what’s at stake here.

Why is it that coursebooks don’t scratch the spoken discourse surface, then? On top of that, some teachers seem to prefer to cover coursebook written language and assume that students will automatically be able to understand and produce the spoken language that’s appropriate for the context. But spoken English is a beast in its own right!

Utterances like whatduyawannado? (What do you want to do?) are tricky for non-native students during a binge-watching session on Netflix because they’re heard as one big pack of sounds and not as isolated, neatly uttered words like the ones you hear on a Class Audio CD.

Teachers are usually eager to teach minimal pairs and phonemes in general. However, important generalizations about real spoken English are forgotten in the midst of the process. A very important feature that cannot be stressed enough (no pun intended!) is the fact that unstressed vowels in English become the famous “schwa” (ə) in many environments, which makes it the most common vowel in American English. This would take hours to be taken care of, since it’s not only a matter of phonetics (articulation) but also of phonology (teaching your brain new rules of the language system).

Practicing Prosodic Awareness

 

The truth is that in most cases spoken discourse does not require complete sentences, as it can be seen in most real-world encounters. We do know that the persistent use of complete sentences will sound a bit robotic and unnatural. Let me give you a more concrete example of that:

Teacher:   Hey, howzit goin?

Student:  I am fine, thank you.

T:   Your mom and dad?

S:  They are doing very well, too, thank you.

T:   Whereya going?

S:  I am walking to the pub. Would you like to come with me?

The “S” part of the dialogue would be much more natural if the rules of spoken discourse and pronunciation were applied, as follows:

Teacher:   Howzit goin’?

S:  I’m good, thanks.

T:   Your mom’n’dad?

S:  They’re good, too.

T:   Whereya goin?

S:  The pub. U wanna tag along?

Encouraging Fluency

 

From now on, teaching grammar should include teaching conversational grammar, as has been pointed out by Thornbury on his blog (“F is for Fluency”). The rules of utterances in spoken discourse are crucial for smooth communication to take place within any speech community. Adding spoken features to speaking situations in ELT will make classes more interesting and useful for students.

We can foster fluency in the classroom setting. We’re facilitators of learning, we provide opportunities for people who are motivated to engage in those opportunities and grow personally, professionally and academically.

In a sense, the student’s responsibility in fluency development is to bring the level of their spoken English production up to the level of their knowledge of lexis and grammar (a mixture of words and rules, such as storage in the mental lexicon and rules to generate new utterances, as Pinker puts it).

If we want our students to stand a chance at improving their fluency status, we have to go out of our way in terms of accuracy, and shed light on communicative language tools that they must be able to use, and strategies they must use to compensate for the fact that, in most cases, they’re not sages of the language, they are users of it.

 

 

To find more about fluency in the ELT setting, please check out my article “Fluency in ELT” available on issuu.com/alextamulis and academia.edu. If you want to contact me, feel free to get in touch via alex.tamulis@macmillan.com.br  or https://br.linkedin.com/in/alex-tamulis-025583b1

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Thanks for reading.

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