Universiteit Leiden

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Speaking a foreign language: Is fluency ‘a must’?

Nivja de Jong, researcher at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL) and the Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching (ICLON), has won the 2018 Best Article Award from the International Language Testing Association (ILTA) for her paper on language fluency. The award committee writes that ‘the paper displays brilliant scholarship and moves the field forward in valuable ways’. Time to find out more about Nivja de Jong and her article on fluency.

Tell us a bit more about your article.

The article Fluency in Second Language Testing: Insights From Different Disciplines aims to inform language testing experts about the assessment of oral language use. Fluency in speech (rate of speech, few and short silences, few interruptions, few "uhms") is seen as an indicator of language proficiency when assessing second-language speakers. But what if part of that fluency says more about personal speaking style than about language skills? What if some hesitations and pauses in speech are actually part of successful communication? This is what my article is about. It brings together research and insights from different disciplines and research fields, from applied linguistics to sociolinguistics. And the article is published open access, so everyone can read it.

What are your conclusions?

For learners of a second language, these perspectives on fluency may be quite a relief. Informed by this article, language testing experts can now review their assessment criteria. Because you don't always have to be perfectly fluent in a language in order to communicate successfully. What’s more, sometimes hesitations are essential for successful communication!

What are the next steps in this field?

My previous research aimed at disentangling aspects of fluency that reflect language proficiency from those that reflect personal speaking style. Following up on this research, I think we need to find out more about personal speaking styles. Why do people have personal speaking styles to begin with, and what are the effects such styles on communication? With respect to helping language learners, we need to find out more about the extent to which personal speaking styles may hinder language development. A question that comes to mind is if we should first focus on native language skills and styles in the classroom before turning to developing speaking skills in a second language?

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