Speaking generally, there are two types of language learner: the first type gets really worried about making errors or mistakes. They think about everything that they say carefully. Sometimes, if they start to say something, and then realise they have made a mistake, they will stop and correct that mistake, maybe returning to the beginning of the sentence. They might pause between each word, contemplating what the right word or phrase is before they say it.
For these learners, generally, their accuracy is high, but their fluency is low.
The other type of language learner doesn’t really care about making mistakes or errors. They have an idea in their head of what they want to communicate, and they say it with whatever words and language feel the most natural. They make frequent mistakes, sometimes in every sentence! Their grammar can be a mixture of English and their native language. They either don’t know or don’t care if they are making errors or mistakes.
These learners have high fluency, but low accuracy.
So which one is more important – fluency or accuracy? Because I’m a Libran, and I like balance, I’m going to say that both fluency and accuracy are equally important. At the end of the day, it depends on what your goal is for learning English.
Language, essentially, is used for communication. So you have to ask yourself – what do I want to be able to communicate? How well do I need to speak English?
For example, if you are working in a restaurant or a retail shop, the level of English you need is quite basic. You need to known certain words or phrases related to your job – the items you are selling, how much they cost, and certain social phrases like how’s it going, thank you and see you later.
This is all you need to communicate with your customers. It’s not important to communicate accurately – the customer will understand both what you want？ and what do you want？ equally well. But it’s very important to communicate the information quickly. Time is money, as they say. In this situation, fluency is the key.
On the other hand, if you are studying at university, or perhaps working in an office environment, accuracy becomes very important. This is especially true when you are trying to communicate complicated thoughts or ideas. In these situations, speaking quickly, but with lots of errors, becomes very confusing for the listener. This is because the errors and mistakes distort, or change, the meaning of what you are trying to say. So you need to pay more attention to what you are saying.
So what should you focus on, fluency or accuracy?
The answer depends on what kind of learner you are. If you focus too much on accuracy, and therefore speak very slowly, you need to improve your fluency. Speaking too slowly is bad for maintaining a conversation. After a few seconds of silence, the person you are talking to starts thinking about something else. Communication is failing, you need to speak faster. Don’t worry about making errors or mistakes – most are not serious, and don’t affect communication.
But if you focus too much on fluency, you need to ask yourself if you are achieving your goals in communication. Are your mistakes and errors causing problems for the people who listen to you? If the answer is yes, you need to slow down and pay more attention to what you say. Speaking really fast, with lots of errors, is very problematic for the people who are listening to you.
And if you are somewhere in the middle? Now you have to take a balanced approach. When you are in the safe environment of a classroom, with the support of teachers and fellow-learners, you should focus on accuracy, because these people can help correct your mistakes and errors. But when you are outside the classroom – when you are at work, or socialising with friends – concentrate on communicating as fluently as possible.