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The fluency vs accuracy dichotomy

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Hi again, in my last post I talked about the importance of understanding 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 language, especially in a second language.

In this blog I want to take that one step further and discuss the fluency vs accuracy dichotomy in communication. Despite being a very simple concept, many of my coaching clients were unaware of it until we addressed 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 well as one country where people found it easier to get the balance right.

First, the 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 Spain, where I’ve lived for almost 25 years now. 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 is actually often 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 lecture in English:

Example 1:

Here they will need to work on being more accurate when they speak, or risk students missing the message of their lectures.


Example 2:

In contrast, here they will need to work on increasing fluency when they speak, or risk students getting bored and switching off during their lectures.

So how do we make these adjustments?

It’s actually pretty simple: in Example 1, you need to introduce more pauses to give room for

monitoring your language while speaking. A common misinterpretation is that students get bored if we pause, but the judicious use of pauses and silence in our speech, as well as slowing down, as mentioned in my last post, will improve your communicative competence no end. And one thing I teach, and show my clients, is that a pause is never as long as you think it is when speaking.

In Example 2, it’s about accepting 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 coach will put you right in no time.

I mentioned there was one place I’d lived where they got the balance about right, and that would be Germany. Kind of annoying how they seem to get the balance right in so many aspects of life, isn’t it?… How do they do it?"



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