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FLUENCY AND UNUSUAL VERB TENSES

Written by: Sidney Beck

INTRODUCTION

 What is fluency in a learned language(L2)? Here’s a practical measure of fluency….it is the ability to make one’s way in the L2 society and get the point most of the time (shops, bank, police, etc.) Here are some useful tips about fluency. There is much unhelpful talk about “flow”, but who hasn’t seen a tiny mountain stream gurgling and squabbling its way downhill and who hasn’t seen a slow-moving summer trickle in a giant river like the Colorado near the sea……yet both are obviously flowing streams. They are both “fluent”, but difficult to compare and measure. We may examine the concept of fluency under these headings: speed, pronunciation, cultural awareness, word order, half-and-half, and accuracy.

Speed is not not really a hallmark of fluency but it picks up as the vocabulary and grammar practice sink in. Textbook/reader practice at simply carrying out faster L2 speaking or listening is essentially a waste of time. Speed simply comes as an attendant feature. Many people speak their chosen foreign language slowly but very well-pronounced and with good accuracy. This is certainly fluency, yet speed is not aimed at.

Pronunciation is an important indicator of fluency but not as crucial as might be thought. One or two small points sometimes help to boost the overall impression of being an L2 pronunciation ace, for example, saying /f/ and /s/ to replace/v/ and /z/ in I have to = I haff /he hass to = must. Occasional fads in the L2 language may be copied to add to the impression of cultural awareness, eg in the movie Dirty Harry the ghetto bank robber says “ I gots to know.“ But these fads are short-lived and not worth a lot of practice.

Cultural awareness is inculcated when L1 stories and songs are learned by a child and as he grows they become embedded in his cultural background. So if he later in life refers to being in an “Alice in wonderland situation” he knows that other L1 native speakers will understand the reference immediately. Fluency is often portrayed unrealistically. Spy movies that involve learning the language of the enemy(L2) so well that even natives can’t tell are unrealistic. The enemy only has to make a few references to their own cultural childhood and the spy would be lost and exposed. Popular sports references would work too eg In baseball, hitting a home run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. (an idiomatic collocation) By extension, this means any last chance or final opportunity. L1 speakers understand easily, and L2 speakers display a glassy-eyed look of non-comprehension. Cultural immersion is an important part of fluency.

Word order In languages like German this is crucial. In Russian, it is not - due to the extensive use of grammatical case endings. In English, it is important but not crucial, except in poems and poetic expressions. Reversal/interruption of word order in very often the method used in English poems. Normal word order eg “I saw a man chase a dog along the cold and dark street” may become, “A man saw I a dog chase along the street dark and cold” Familiarity with this kind of word order is sometimes the key to sounding fluent.

Half-and-half with the use of two languages L1 and L2 may sometimes be regarded as a reasonable modus operandi of fluency. If the L2 language is English, a native Russian speaker ( or native Spanish speaker) might frequently resort to ready-made colloquialisms in two languages, eg ochen good (R =very good), mi carro (S = my car), su loncho (S = his lunch), mucho goodo (S =very good), I hachu (R =I want).

Accuracy is essential for fluency. If you don’t really know the exact meaning of individual L2 words then serious misunderstanding can result. Accuracy arises as an issue with vocabulary and grammar particularly in relation to verb tenses and verb formation. These are easy to learn from textbooks but textbooks often don’t deal with non-mainstream tenses.

VERB TENSES

One of the most common non-mainstream tenses in English is the historical present (also called dramatic present). Widely used in informal settings by practically all L2 native speakers. It is easy to comprehend but usually not taught in a coherent manner. Students are just meant to “pick it up.” Example - this short drama is set in the past: “So we goes into the bar and shouts to them about the money and they growl hello to us. Then onto the big sofa I jumps as large as life.” The usual grammatically correct tense would be the English past simple. Thus “So we went into the bar and shouted to them about the money and they growled hello to us. Then I jumped onto the big sofa as large as life.” Note the rest of the text remains unchanged except for the poetic “onto the big sofa I jumps.” Sometimes the past simple just switches with the historical present with no loss of meaning or musicality or rhythm.  

This use of present tense to suggest other tenses is also found in the following examples in English:

Present Continuous = Future Meaning ( events under control )

used for our own future plans. Eg You are starting work tomorrow Are you doing anything on the weekend?

Present simple = Future Meaning (events not under control)

expresses future events that are scheduled/arranged. Eg The bus leaves at 08:00 am on Tuesdays. The examination starts at 9 o’clock tomorrow

Present verb = Past Meaning

Present simple to refer to the past to make events sound as if they are happening now eg German Finance minister resigns.

Present simple to tell stories or jokes. It makes them sound more immediate: eg A man walks into a restaurant with a monkey on his shoulder. The monkey says, ‘I’d like soup please.’

Present simple to report what people say as part of a story: eg It was only eleven o’clock and my mum says, ‘You’re late again.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m not.’ Then my dad starts to shout.

VERB FORMATION

Verbs are usually action-words or doing-words such as hold /see/ walk/talk/ swim/fly/ But Non-action verbs can also be formed from nouns. They are usually transitive verbs = verbs which take a direct object, but they can sometimes be used intransitively. A noun is simply a word identifying a person/place/thing/idea. A noun such as dust produces the verb to dust, likewise, water produces to water plants, and likewise to vacuum, or to sandwich, or to sandbag, or to anchor, or to ship.

So, a noun can be verbed. In fact, any English noun can be verbed, but some are more resistant than others. This can be imagined as the opposite of creating a gerund (a noun produced from a verb.) In fact, any English verb can produce a gerund.

But now consider these two sentences. “Right, you lot, I want you all to big it up for Fred!” (meaning I want you to show strong applause and cheering for Fred.) “He upped and grabbed the glass.” (meaning he rose out of his seat and grabbed the glass.) These two examples show that not only any noun but also any adjective (big) or preposition(up)(upped) is also likely to be verbed.

CONCLUSION

This discussion of the non-mainstream grammar of certain parts of English L2 sheds light on some important aspects of the language. These aspects include the formation of non-action verbs, together with some of the many oft-neglected verb tenses in wide daily use in L2. The extensive account of verbs and their finer points is a hopefully helpful contribution to the discussion of accuracy as a key part of fluency. Fluency itself is seen as a nebulous concept with many illusory qualities, which is a near-impossible goal for students of L2.