Sorry for my English
Anyone who is learning a language wants to be able to use that language fluently. But what exactly is fluency, and how do you get it? In this article I’m going to show you how to produce perfect, fluent English, today.
I want to start by defining fluency. On one hand, fluency is easy to define. It’s when you produce language that flows easily and quickly, without mistakes and interruptions. It’s the highest and most advanced form of language.
In fact, fluency is easier to define if we look at the things that are not fluent. For example:
- Pauses and hesitations
- Filler words like er and um
- Starting a sentence, and then correcting or changing it
- Vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar mistakes
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that in linguistics these things are called disfluencies. These are exactly the things that you have problems with in English. These are the things that are preventing you from being fluent, and having perfect English. These are the things that make you ashamed and frustrated.
I’ve been teaching English for 14 years, and the one phrase that I have heard more than any other is “Sorry for my English.” You have probably said it yourself. You’re apologizing for all of those things, the hesitations, using the wrong word, pronouncing something wrong, the grammar mistakes, all those disfluencies.
And maybe you should be sorry. I mean, those disfluencies must really annoy other people. It feels like you make a mistake every 10 seconds when you speak in English. This wouldn’t happen if you were perfectly fluent, like a native speaker. In fact, let’s find out exactly how fluent native speakers are.
Research shows that in a conversation, native speakers produce around 6 disfluencies per 100 words. That’s approximately 1 disfluency every 5 seconds.
That’s right. On average, every 5 seconds, a native speaker of English is hesitating, saying um, making a pronunciation mistake, or correcting their grammar.
But you know what? No native speaker has ever said to me: “Sorry for my English.”
I have a rule in my Academy, that you are not allowed to apologize for your English. Not only because disfluencies are a normal part of language, but because mistakes are a part of learning.
Just think of how ridiculous it is to say: “Sorry for learning.”
But there’s another reason to not say sorry.
Those disfluencies are caused by limitations of the human brain. Repetition is the key to memory, so things that are repeated less often are harder to remember, and that will affect fluency.
This research showed that people are more disfluent when they talk about the color green, compared to the color white, because white is a more common word.
Think of how ridiculous it is to say: “Sorry for having a human brain.”
And there is one final reason to not say sorry.
Fluency is almost always used to talk about speaking, but in a conversation you have to speak, and listen. You have to listen fluently. And processing language is hard for our brains. Research has shown that disfluencies like pauses, filler words, and corrections, give us time to think, and actually make language easier to understand.
Think of how ridiculous it is to say: “Sorry for helping you to understand.”
But this subject is deeper than that, because when you say sorry, it indicates that you feel like you have done something wrong. You feel like your English should be perfect.
And that makes sense. You are surrounded by ads for secret methods and quick fixes to your language problems that give you the idea that language learning is really easy.
So, why can’t you learn to speak like that? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be the perfect learner like all those other people?
So you subscribe to every learning channel you can find online. You prepare for exams, you hire private tutors, you do language quizzes, you complete every exercise in the book, but still, you are not perfect. But it feels like everyone else is.
I’ve spent more than 10 years with language learners of all ages and all levels, and almost everyone suffers from the pain of comparing themselves to others. So let me make something very clear:
Nobody’s abilities exceed their efforts.
If someone appears more fluent than you, it’s not because they are more intelligent, or younger, or because they have the ‘language gene’, it’s because they have had more practice, and fluency comes from practice.
And this brings us right back to the beginning of this article, to the definition of fluency.
Measuring and defining language fluency is a big business. Every year, companies make billions of dollars by counting your mistakes, and then giving you a level like A2, or C1. This is how millions of students define their fluency.
But I would like to offer you a new definition of fluency, which is much more simple and accurate:
Fluency = Successful communication
It means that fluency can happen at any time, at any level.
If you go to the supermarket, and they ask you if you want a plastic bag, and you say “No thanks.” Congratulations, that is fluent communication!
But also, if you give a detailed business presentation, and everyone understands your big new idea: Congratulations, that is fluent communication!
You have probably been conditioned to believe that fluency is the same as complexity. That fluent language requires big words, and difficult grammar. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Language was invented by humans for one reason: to send and receive messages. That’s it. If you’re doing that successfully, you are fluent, and your English is perfect.