Is it possible to be proficient in English grammar but lack oral communication skills?
Not only is it possible, but it’s more common than you think.
Grammar skills are certainly helpful, and there are situations in which accuracy is important—when you’re writing an academic essay, for example. However, even learners who have perfect grammar can’t necessarily hold a conversation.
The Problem with Accuracy
English is a complicated language with a lot of rules and exceptions. Learners know this and often worry about breaking those rules when they speak.
Speakers who are too focused on correct grammar face a kind of speed-accuracy tradeoff: They speak slowly to produce more accurate sentences. This makes sense—a speaker who takes time to think before speaking will make fewer errors. Unfortunately, this isn’t a great conversation method.
Pace and flow are important parts of a conversation. When someone is only concerned with avoiding errors, the conversation can’t progress naturally; the speaker is too busy translating and perfecting each sentence in their head before saying anything. A speaker who chooses accuracy over speed will have difficulty managing real-life conversations, achieving natural-sounding speech, and expressing their ideas.
Focusing on Speed
The less a speaker worries about perfection in their sentences, the faster they’ll be able to respond to others. Fewer pauses and awkward silences will allow conversations to flow more naturally; their ideas will be conveyed more freely.
Not only will conversations flow more naturally, but engaging in real-time conversations at a natural pace will strengthen a learner’s language skills, as seen in the fluency-oriented approach. And the stronger a learner becomes in oral communication, the less they’ll have to think about what they’re saying; eventually, they’ll achieve automaticity.
An English learner might worry that they won’t be understood if they don’t have perfect grammar. But in a conversation, there are at least two people involved: the speaker and the listener. Yes, it’s the speaker’s job to communicate their thoughts, but the listener has an active role as well. With their own knowledge of English, they’re able to listen, fill in the blanks, and figure out what the speaker is saying. As a result, the speaker’s overall message can be understood even if they’ve misused a verb tense or forgotten a preposition.
There’s no question that grammatical accuracy is important in reading and writing tasks— composing a business email or understanding a research paper, for example. But oral communication is different. By ignoring the urge to speak perfectly and trying instead to respond more quickly, an English learner can improve their communication skills and will have more effective conversations overall.