Resources for applied linguistics and language teaching

3 Dimensions of Language Learning Success

What does it mean to be “good” at a language?  We often think of language ability in one dimension only:  beginner, intermediate, advanced;  he’s better at English than me; we’re about the same level; etc. Tests and test scores often reflect this too: a higher score (in TOEIC, JLPT, TOPIK, HSK, etc.) means a higher ability.  Some tests give separate scores for different skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar.  So that recognizes that ability is more than just a single number.  But I think a better way to look at language ability is in three dimensions.

In Applied Linguistics, accuracy and fluency are often viewed as separate aspects of language ability.  Sometimes they’re pitted against each other: you should focus on fluency, or sometimes the opposite.  These two make up the first two dimensions in my model, and to those I’d add range.  They make up semi-independent dimensions, and all are important. Let’s look at each a little further.

Accuracy is the ability to use the language correctly.  Most often we think of accuracy in output: speaking and writing.  That is, the ability to speak and write correctly.  It might also be the ability to answer grammar questions on a test correctly (if that’s important to you).  But accuracy can also be applied to listening and reading; the ability to comprehend correctly what is spoken or written.

Fluency (used here) is the ability to use the language “with ease”.  That is, being able to listen comfortably, to read quickly, communicate without too much difficulty, get the point across, etc.  It is not necessarily accurate; some people can speak quite fluently, yet make basic mistakes.

Range is the range of domains / genres / topics that you can operate in.  You may be quite fluent and accurate in a few areas (e.g. buying things in a store, talking about light topics) while being very limited in others.  Many academics are very strong in English in their area of specialty, but have a lot of difficulty in more casual environments.  Many are limited to a few topic areas that they are interested in, or that have been covered by coursebooks.  I’ve found my Korean speaking ability changes greatly depending on whom I’m conversing with; so in that sense, my range is partly limited by co-interlocutor.  A truly advanced learner will be able to operate in a wide range of topics, including “getting by” in topics they are not very familiar with.

As you advance in a language, you should be advancing in all three dimensions (although often in the short term, an increase in accuracy or fluency might have a temporary adverse effect on the other; this is normal, caused by focusing on the other, and shouldn’t matter in the long term).  Don’t neglect accuracy or fluency, as some tend to do; take some time to develop fluency regularly, and focus on form from time to time.  And always push yourself into new topic areas so that you will feel comfortable and not limited.


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