“A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is the goal in language learning, if not fluency? We all want to be fluent. If you tell someone you speak a language they want to know if you speak it fluently. Not accurately or expressively or competently. Fluently.

It isn’t something we ask of other skills. We do not ask if someone can play the violin fluently, or climb mountains fluently, or draw pictures fluently, or write blogs fluently (pretty fluently, since you ask). There are other measures of competence (accuracy, intonation, musicality, eloquence, not falling off, etc.)

So I have been wondering if fluency is really the right goal for a language learner, and whether fluency can even hamper efficient communication. In part, fluency is cultural, and in part it is indexed to personality. Some people, from certain cultures, are more given to fluency than others. I have known some gobsmackingly fluent Italians, for instance – and by contrast, not so many outstandingly fluent Japanese. Does that make the Italian learners more competent than the Japanese? In some instances, to be sure. But some of the most fluent speakers I have know have also been among the least accurate, ultimately the least comprehensible. Stopping and thinking from time to time, suffering inhibitions connected to self-doubt, inaccuracy, tricky corners, and so on, is not necessarily a failure. It can, in fact, be indexed to ultimately higher levels of achievement. Fluency can really be nothing more than a fluent mess; hesitancy can be the hallmark of a well-managed communication.

When the telegraph was first installed along the length of the eastern seaboard of the USA towards the end of the 19th century a newspaper headline announced proudly Now Florida Can Speak to Maine!, to which Ralph Waldo Emerson was moved to wonder sardonically, but does Florida have anything to say to Maine? We are all pretty confident of our own need to communicate, less confident as learners of foreign languages, of our ability. On occasion however, it may very well be that the reverse would serve us better.

All of which amounts to some pretty fluent grousing, I’m pleased to note.