Many EFL classrooms around the world are filled with what Bennett calls fluent fools. While these students are often very gifted in the English language, they struggle with even basic tasks outside of the context of the classroom. The language that the students use often appears overly formal and strange to the ears of native speakers.
A fluent fool is someone who speaks a foreign language well but doesn’t understand the social or philosophical content of that language’ – Bennett, 1993
It is possible that the fluent fool is an expression of literacy in one very specific semiotic domain and illiteracy in other associated domains. An example of this would be a musician who has learned to play by ear (a specific domain of learning) and not learned to read sheet music (an associated domain).
In the case of EFL, the student has become literate in the arena of classroom English, but has not had the chance to acquire literacy in the area of less formal English interactions, leading to a wide variety of problems for the learner when they have to interact within these new domains.
The academic domain of English has certain features that are at odds with other more conversational domains.
Grammatical accuracy over fluency
For example, within the classroom environment it is often the case where there is only one correct answer to the question being asked. This can lead students to assume that there are only specific answers to specific questions in a very call-and-response fashion.
Reductionist approach to grammar
In classroom English it is very uncommon to have students practicing with different grammatical forms within the class. The focus is only on a specific piece of target language, whereas in more conversational domains, a person will often switch between past, present, future, and conditional language within the same conversation.
Emphasis on assessment
If an error of speech occurs, the student is encouraged to go back and repeat the utterance again or they have failed within the exercise. In contrast, in the conversational domains errors are only questioned when the listener is unsure of the meaning of the utterance and is seeking clarification.
These and other difference in the distinct domains can interfere with the students ability to transfer their knowledge and skills from one domain to another. The transfer of skills is a major field of study within educational psychology. There are certain things that can be done to improve transfer ability.
What can a language teacher do to help?
A student will not be able to understand a new domain unless they have been exposed to it. This can be done through extensive reading, authentic listening and other methods. The student will begin to realize that different language styles are used in different situations, and begin to make choices based on their experience.
The teacher must be aware of the domain in which they are teaching, and respect the conventions of the domain. It may prove to be impossible to teach academic English and conversational English at the same time and in the same manner due to the differences associated with their expression. Likewise, it is unfair for a teacher to emphasise conversational fluency in a course and then to assess performance on the accurate usage of grammar.
Finally, tasks that are too tightly focused will not be transferable. If we broke down the skills necessary to play a game of basketball to their component parts and drilled them relentlessly, but never actually played the game, we would not expect world class performance. The students must be given opportunities to use the skills they have acquired in a broader context.
Will it ever be possible to say goodbye to the fluent fool? It is unlikely, but an understanding of the reasons our students are struggling with speaking English can point towards potential solutions.
To produce more fluent speakers, we must give them opportunities to experiment with free production within the language, and access to examples of the language within the target domain.