Fluency vs. Accuracy

As most of English teachers in Japan know, language teaching is changing. Boards of education all over Japan are beginning to focus more on communicative English instead of simply vocabulary necessary for passing tests. And as many English teachers know, Japan is falling behind the rest of Asia on TOEIC and TOEFL scores. To this end, I have heard one phrase being repeated over and over: Fluency, not Accuracy.

What makes a speaker fluent? I’d like to postulate that fluent speakers are confident, experienced, and knowledgeable. Confident speakers can, of course, speak more effectively. Confidence and experience helps them to express ideas even when making mistakes or when they don’t know a specific word. And knowledge is necessary, because if a speaker doesn’t know enough basic vocabulary, it can be difficult to express more complex, conversational ideas.

But there are several problems holding back fluency in Japan. First, Japanese society and culture turns many children into shy, mistake-fearing, over-thinking students. It is hard to overcome this barrier, especially since tests foster a single-correct-answer approach to translating, as well as learning, English, which is of course wrong. Communication is based as much on speaker opinions and context as it is on predefined meanings; the question “what?” changes based on tone, intonation, and attitude. So confidence is difficult to build.

Second, children are not exposed to enough English to gain experience or knowledge. There simply isn’t enough time dedicated to English in schools, although this is improving in elementary schools. In some districts, English is now taught once a week, starting from the first grade. It is a massive improvement, although there are still some flaws to be worked out.

If we cannot address the issues of confidence, experience, or knowledge, a simple method of improving fluency is sacrificing accuracy. Indeed, this is the approach favored by many prefectures now. For many teachers, who are limited by little time spent on English as well as their own poor fluency, this is the easiest method. It makes some sense, especially in resource-poor areas. Why use “I like lions” when you only have time to teach them singular noun forms?

But this can also lead to very poor pronunciation and grammar, things that hold students back in the future. After all, many people still laugh at the Japanese pronunciation of “city.” Isn’t it shameful that we purposely handicap our students? Isn’t it better that they learn now instead of having someone laugh in their face later?

I am not advocating boring drills that pre-program students to respond, although they are effective in their own way. There is no one answer that fits all problems, after all. But I do believe that we should not refuse to teach simple, correct English, especially to young children that can easily adapt to new patterns. Don’t teach kids “I like apple” when it is easy to teach them “I like apples.” Tell them the difference. My first-graders understood within two minutes. Instead, don’t make a huge deal out of it. Give them a good example, and if they stray, gently nudge them back onto the right path. Most kids will get it, sooner or later.

We should reward children when they do a good job. We should push them to use English inside and outside of the classroom. We should get them to express their individual ideas in English, through interviews, skits, and stories. We should task students with learning or speaking projects to use new grammatical patterns or vocabulary. We should get students to teach other students new English. There are so many things that we should do, but most importantly, we need to be leaders for our students. We ourselves need to be correct.

We may not be able to create perfect speakers of English. We certainly can’t hope to fix all the bad L’s and R’s that we hear from our own English teachers. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why we deliberately choose to handicap our children bad English when all it takes is just a little time to show them natural English.