“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.


Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

Edward Thomas

Cambridge has finally thawed. When the wind blows now it does not bring ice and perishing cold. It might blow you off your bicycle, but you will be warm enough.

And so the birds are nesting. In the garden at OISE Cambridge we have nesting pair of long-tailed tits. The nest is neat and small, with a suitably tiny aperture, and an elongated for to accommodate the birds’ absurd tails.

The tits are on to something. Leaving aside for a moment whether the tail can be said to be efficient or not, an efficient form will ultimately follow function in some way. With language, for instance, the brain will not let you learn what is not relevant to you. The language you have at your command will, in the end, accurately map the use you have for it. You will not spend resources which your brain does not think necessary.

This partly explains the plateau – the tendency of language learners to stop learning at a given level of competence, suitable to their needs. It also explains why some learners can make sudden dramatic progress, if their needs change. If all your meetings and telephone calls are, overnight, in English, with native speakers, you will sweat profusely for a few months, and then settle at a new, much higher, but still adaptive, level.

Creating that need in the classroom is part of the expertise of teachers – forcing students not to be content with what they can currently accomplish. But it is a tricky business. Humans are easily scared. They resist. Their brains are out of their conscious control. Half the time they’re looking out of the window, thinking about something completely different (which is of course another well-worn survival technique), such as why a long-tailed tit wants such a long tail in the first place.