Updated: May 23
The article discusses the components of speaking fluency in a language, which goes beyond just correct grammar and speaking quickly. Fluency also involves having a rich vocabulary, being an effective listener, and understanding the characteristics and conventions that govern participating in conversations and other speech events. Speaking involves real-time interaction with others and requires the speaker to make quick decisions, use nonverbal cues, and understand cultural conventions. Speaking proficiency can present various challenges, such as difficulty with real-time operations, unpredictability, conveying information, efficient listening, vocabulary, speed, intonation, articulation, participation, grammar, and physical distance. To overcome these challenges, students can engage in various speaking exercises, such as role-plays, presentations, conversational practice, improvisational speaking, vocabulary-building, pronunciation, grammar, listening, nonverbal communication, and cultural awareness activities.
The Components of Speaking Fluency: Beyond Grammar and Speed
From a language teacher's perspective, students frequently equate speaking proficiency with the ability to speak accurately (having correct grammar) and quickly. However, fluency also encompasses having a rich vocabulary to deal with a wide range of topics and situations. Unfortunately, students often overlook the crucial role of being an effective listener and the characteristics and conventions that govern participating in a conversation and other speech events in English.
The various types of speaking events have distinct characteristics, and proficiency in one requires knowledge of specific conventions and language that differ from others. For example, giving a speech at a friend's wedding, in my experience, requires preparation and often involves scripted anecdotal content, limited dialogue, and set phrases like ‘I'd like you to raise your glasses...’, ‘I'd like to make a toast to...’, ‘Could I have your attention please?’, ‘I have been asked to say a few words about...’. Despite the personal and humorous nature of the content, the language used is usually formal, and the organisation is prescribed by tradition. In contrast, recounting a personal anecdote to a friend is usually unplanned, with more reciprocity, set phrases such as ‘It was [wonderful]!’, ‘We had a [brilliant] time!’, "Have you ever been...?’, ‘You know what I mean?’, and a less formal tone.
Therefore, each speech event belongs to a different genre and understanding the conventions associated with each genre is crucial for fluency. However, students and teachers may not always recognise the significance of these conventions, which are often general tendencies rather than strict and inflexible formulae.
The characteristics of speaking and conversation can be described as follows:
Real-time: Speaking occurs in real-time and is not pre-arranged or scripted.
Unpredictable: Conversations are spontaneous and often difficult to anticipate, lacking the organisation of written communication.
Less information-dense: Speaking typically conveys fewer details compared to written communication.
Ability to manipulate language: The speaker's capability to manipulate language is crucial, though grammatical accuracy is not always a requirement.
Unfinished utterances and reformulation: Conversations feature incomplete sentences, variations in language, and listeners indicating interest through nonverbal signals.
Interaction with others: Speaking involves interaction with one or more other speakers, necessitating effective listening skills and the ability to react to what is being said.
Understanding cultural conventions: Understanding and adhering to the conventions of conversation, which differ from culture to culture, is essential for successful communication.
Use of nonverbal cues: Gestures, body language, and facial expressions clarify and reinforce the message.
Real-time decision-making: Speakers must make quick decisions about the direction of the conversation or addressing potential obstacles to guarantee the intended message is conveyed.
Complex and demanding: Speaking and participating in meaningful conversations are intricate and challenging, requiring a variety of skills.
The Characteristics and Challenges of Speaking in Real-Life Situations
Real-time: A spontaneous chat between mates at a café.
Unpredictable: An exchange between a client and a salesperson, where the client raises unexpected queries.
Less information-dense: A relaxed conversation between colleagues over lunch, where they swap updates on their personal lives.
Ability to manipulate language: A job interview, where the applicant must articulate their abilities and experiences convincingly.
Unfinished utterances and reformulation: A chat between two people, where one is trying to explain a complicated idea and the other is seeking clarification.
Interaction with others: A group discussion in a lecture hall, where pupils are sharing their viewpoints and collaborating in the conversation.
Understanding cultural conventions: A dialogue between a person from the United States and a person from Japan, where they need to navigate cultural disparities in conversation norms.
Use of nonverbal cues: A lecture, where the speaker employs gestures and facial expressions to accentuate their points.
Real-time decision making: A negotiation between two parties, where they must make real-time decisions to reach a compromise.
Complex and demanding: A heated argument between two political candidates, where they must articulate their positions effectively and respond to their opponent's arguments.
The Complexities of Speaking and Conversation:
Real-time: Speaking occurs in real-time, which means that the conversation is taking place in the moment and is not pre-planned or scripted. This characteristic of speaking distinguishes it from written communication, which can be edited and refined before being finalised.
Unpredictable: Conversations are frequently unplanned and unpredictable, lacking the structure of written communication. This means that speakers must have the ability to think on their feet and respond to unexpected developments in the conversation.
Less information-dense: Speaking generally conveys less information than written communication, as speakers frequently rely on nonverbal cues and context to express meaning. This characteristic is important to remember when communicating significant information, as the recipient may require additional clarification.
Ability to manipulate language: The speaker's capacity to manipulate language, including their vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation, is critical for effective communication. Nevertheless, grammatical correctness is not always necessary, as speakers frequently use informal language and colloquialisms in conversation.
Unfinished utterances and reformulation: Conversations are marked by unfinished sentences, changes in language, and listeners indicating interest through nonverbal cues. For instance, a speaker may pause in the middle of a sentence to collect their thoughts, reformulate their language to more effectively convey their message, or use filler words such as "um" or "ah."
Interaction with others: Speaking involves interaction with one or more other speakers, requiring effective listening skills and the ability to respond to what is being said. This reciprocal nature of conversation means that speakers must be able to adapt their communication style to suit the context and audience.
Understanding cultural conventions: Understanding and following the conventions of conversation, which vary from culture to culture, is vital for successful communication. For example, in some cultures, direct eye contact is seen as a sign of respect, while in others it may be considered impolite.
Use of nonverbal cues: Gestures, body language, and facial expressions are employed to clarify and reinforce the message. For example, nodding your head to indicate agreement, shrugging your shoulders to indicate uncertainty, or making eye contact to show engagement.
Real-time decision-making: Speakers must make real-time decisions about the direction of the conversation or addressing potential difficulties to ensure that the intended message is communicated. For example, a speaker may change the topic of conversation if they sense that the audience is losing interest or adjust their language to better suit the audience.
Complex and demanding: Speaking and participating in meaningful conversations are complex and demanding, requiring a range of skills, including the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly, listen actively, use appropriate body language and gestures, and adjust one's communication style to suit the context and audience. These skills are essential for successful communication in both personal and professional settings.
Challenges in Speaking Proficiency: Overcoming General and Specific Difficulties in Conversation
The requirement for real-time operations: Students may find it challenging to respond swiftly and spontaneously during a conversation.
The unpredictability of most speaking events: Students may have trouble adapting to the informal nature of the conversation and the sudden changes it can bring.
Conveying information and meaning: Students may struggle with the language itself, the phonetics, and the arrangement of the conversation to effectively communicate their message.
Efficient listening: Students may face difficulties actively listening and reacting to what is being said in a conversation.
These general difficulties can present as more specific issues, such as:
Availability and appropriate use of vocabulary: Students may struggle to find the right words to express themselves.
Speed of speaking: Students may speak too rapidly or too slowly, making it challenging for others to comprehend them.
Narrow intonation range: Students may have limited variation in their tone of voice, making their speech monotonous.
Articulation of sounds: Students may struggle with pronouncing certain sounds clearly, hindering their ability to communicate effectively.
Appropriate participation: Students may have trouble understanding when it is appropriate to interrupt or express disagreement in a conversation.
Grammatical accuracy: Students may struggle with using grammar correctly, which can hinder their ability to communicate their message effectively.
Physical distance in face-to-face speaking: Students may struggle with maintaining the appropriate physical distance from their conversational partner, which can affect the effectiveness of communication.
Overcoming Speaking Challenges: Enhancing Communication Skills through Practice and Study
Operating in real-time: To conquer this challenge, students can engage in real-time speaking exercises, such as role-playing scenarios or actual conversations, to build their confidence and fluency. Furthermore, they can enhance their abilities through speaking exercises and presentations.
The unpredictability of speaking events: To tackle this challenge, students can study the conventions of conversation and learn how to handle unexpected turns in a conversation. They can also hone their active listening and improvisational speaking skills to become more comfortable with unpredictability.
Conveying information and meaning: To overcome this challenge, students can focus on improving their vocabulary and grammar accuracy, as well as the structure of conversations to effectively organise their thoughts and ideas.
Effective listening: To address this challenge, students can practise active listening techniques, such as making eye contact, asking clarifying questions, and summarising what they have heard. Additionally, they can boost their overall attention span and concentration through mindfulness and meditation exercises.
Availability and appropriate use of vocabulary: To conquer this challenge, students can broaden their vocabulary by reading extensively, keeping a vocabulary journal, and using dictionaries or thesauruses. They can also practise using new words in conversation to increase their confidence.
Speed of speaking: To tackle this challenge, students can work on slowing down their speech and pausing between sentences. They can also use breathing and relaxation techniques to control their pace of speech.
Narrow intonation range: To overcome this challenge, students can study intonation patterns in their mother tongue and practise using a wider range of intonation patterns. They can also improve their overall expressiveness by practising speaking with emotion and emphasis.
Articulation of sounds: To address this challenge, students can focus on pronunciation exercises, particularly for sounds they find challenging. They can also receive feedback from a teacher or native speaker and use online resources to enhance their pronunciation.
Appropriate participation: To conquer this challenge, students can study conversation conventions and learn how to participate appropriately in diverse cultural contexts. They can also engage in active listening and speaking exercises to build their confidence in conversational situations.
Grammatical accuracy: To tackle this challenge, students can study grammar rules and practise using them in speaking and writing exercises. They can also receive feedback from a teacher or native speaker and use online resources to improve their grammar.
Physical distance in face-to-face speaking: To overcome this challenge, students can study cultural norms for physical distance and practise maintaining appropriate distance in face-to-face speaking scenarios. They can also receive feedback from a teacher or native speaker and practise in a supportive and secure environment.
Enhancing Speaking Skills: A Guide to Effective Practice and Development
Role-plays: Role-plays offer a valuable opportunity for students to hone their real-time speaking skills. The teacher can assign a variety of scenarios, such as job interviews, ordering food at a restaurant, or making a complaint, and have students put their skills into practice in pairs or small groups.
Presentations: Presentations provide a great platform for students to boost their overall speaking fluency and confidence. The teacher can assign topics, or allow students to select their own, and have them share their ideas with the class.
Conversational practice: To aid students in honing their speaking skills, the teacher can arrange conversational practice sessions. In these sessions, students can engage in conversation with each other in a supportive and safe environment. The teacher can provide prompts or questions to initiate the conversation and encourage students to listen attentively and respond appropriately.
Improvisational speaking: Improvisational speaking exercises can help students become more at ease with unpredictability and be able to adapt to unexpected turns in a conversation. The teacher can present a prompt or scenario and have students take turns speaking without any preparation.
Vocabulary-building exercises: To aid students in expanding their vocabulary, the teacher can offer vocabulary-building exercises such as word games, puzzles, or flashcards.
Pronunciation exercises: To help students improve their pronunciation, the teacher can offer pronunciation exercises such as tongue twisters or word repetition exercises, focusing on specific sounds.
Grammar practice: To help students improve their grammatical accuracy, the teacher can provide grammar practice exercises such as sentence completion or correction exercises.
Listening exercises: The teacher can offer listening exercises, such as audio recordings or videos, to help students enhance their active listening skills. The teacher can then ask questions or have students summarise what they heard to reinforce their listening abilities.
Nonverbal communication exercises: To help students improve their nonverbal communication skills, such as gestures and body language, the teacher can provide relevant exercises.
Cultural awareness activities: To help students understand and appreciate cultural differences in communication, the teacher can offer activities that compare and contrast cultural norms for physical distance or nonverbal cues.
The article discussed the various components of speaking fluency in English language learning, beyond just grammar and speed. Fluency also involved having a rich vocabulary, being an effective listener, and understanding the conventions and characteristics of different types of speaking events. These characteristics included real-time nature, unpredictability, use of nonverbal cues, real-time decision making, interaction with others, and understanding cultural conventions. The article also highlighted some of the challenges students faced in speaking proficiency and offered suggestions for overcoming these challenges through practice and study. The article suggested different activities such as role-plays, presentations, conversational practice, vocabulary-building exercises, pronunciation exercises, grammar practice, listening exercises, nonverbal communication exercises, and cultural awareness activities to help students improve their speaking skills.
Implications for the English language classroom when teaching speaking
In the classroom, it is important for English language teachers to recognise that speaking proficiency goes beyond just grammar and speed. Fluency also encompasses having a rich vocabulary and the ability to participate effectively in a range of speech events and conversations.
The various speech events have distinct characteristics, and proficiency in one may require knowledge of specific conventions and language that differ from others. For example, a wedding speech is usually formal and scripted, while a personal anecdote with a friend is informal and unplanned. Understanding these conventions is crucial for fluency.
The challenges in speaking proficiency can include difficulties with real-time operations, unpredictability, conveying information and meaning, effective listening, and understanding cultural conventions. These difficulties can also manifest as specific issues such as limited vocabulary, poor pronunciation, and difficulty participating appropriately in a conversation.
To overcome these challenges, teachers can provide opportunities for students to practice and develop their speaking skills through activities such as role-plays, presentations, conversational practice, vocabulary-building exercises, pronunciation exercises, and cultural awareness activities. These activities can help students improve their real-time speaking skills, adapt to unpredictable situations, effectively convey information and meaning, and understand cultural norms in communication.