When you speak a foreign language, what is more important: fluency or pronunciation?
Imagine this scenario: You are trying to have a conversation with two really interesting people. You’re using your native language, which is a foreign language for your interlocutors. Both of them speak really well, but they differ in a couple of ways.
One of them, let’s call him Alex, pauses unnaturally in the middle of a phrase and repeats the same word until he gets it right.
The other one, Daniel, has a fluent speech pattern, but mispronounces a word every now and then.
At end of the conversation, you will realize that it was harder to keep track of what Alex was saying and you might have missed a few details of his story. However, you understood everything that Daniel had to say, even if some of the words sounded a bit goofy.
This is what researchers at the University of Purdue discovered in a study of the perception native English speakers have about non-native speakers of English. Alexander L. Francis, associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at Purdue, says:
“With more fluent speech, listeners are not working so hard to keep track of what the speaker is trying to say, so they can devote more effort to figuring out sounds the speaker is trying to produce.”
Fluency is more important than pronunciation.
What does this mean for language learners?
1. Stop sweating the small stuff NOW. It does not matter if you stumble on words. Mispronouncing “warm” as “worm” may trigger some smiles, but it’s really no big deal. You will make yourself understood from the context.
2. Jump right into speaking. There are people who study a language for years and never build up the courage to actually have a conversation in that language. Don’t make that mistake! The sooner you start speaking, the faster you will progress in your language learning.
3. Listen intently. The best way to internalize speech patterns is to listen to native speakers. Movies, podcasts, radio stations and news stations are just a few of ways to expose yourself to the spoken language.
Image source: Tour Group with Princess of Biscaris by Louis Ducros (1778) via Rijksmuseum