What is Fluency? - Part IV - What is Ritual Fluency?


This is the 4th segment in a series answering the question “What is fluency?” In this post, we'll define and explore ritual fluency.

Ritual fluency is the ability to instinctively handle ritualized interactions. Greetings, goodbyes, introductions, taking meals… all of these are daily occurrences in any linguistic context. As a result of their frequency, they become ritualized and are highly formulaic. I have elsewhere written about the importance of adjacency pairs, so I will not get into that here, but much of ritual fluency is an ability to work with adjacency pairs.

While there may be several possible formulas within a given language, we as individuals tend to settle on usage of only a few within any given context. Take a look at your own speech. How many different greetings do you use? You probably restrict usage to only a few, allowing for variations in time of day, formality, etc. You will be aware of dozens that exist within the English language, but your own usage is likely limited to a fraction of the possible choices. In learning a new language, we must learn to recognize and understand different formulaic possibilities, but we can settle on a few for our own speech.

Ritual language comprises a small amount of any language, but it is both high frequency and high value. If you consider how many times you have greeted someone in your own native language, it's really staggering. Ritual language must not only be learned, but ingrained to the point of instinct.

To illustrate this point, consider the phenomenon of linguistic performance vs. competence. In a foreign language, our ability to understand or speak may be affected by external factors like noise, or internal factors like tiredness, illness, or drunkenness. You may have the actual ability to understand or speak - the actual competence - but your performance is affected by other factors. Think of a drunk person. Ask a drunk person, “How are you?” and they will often respond with some variant, “I'm alright, how are you?” Ritual language is so ingrained that virtually no external or internal factors hamper our performance.

So, what exactly is included in ritual language? It depends somewhat on the language, but there are many commonalities, including the following:

  • Greetings
  • Goodbyes
  • Introductions
  • Giving and receiving directions
  • Taking meals together
  • Dates and times
  • Numbers and counting
  • Filler words
  • Saying the alphabet

The last one is an interesting one, as I've known some completely fluent ESL speakers who still have to switch back into their first languages to say the alphabet. In addition to these subject zones above, any learner of a foreign language will need to be able to answer the following questions:

  • How long have you been learning X?
  • Where did you learn X?
  • Why did you want to learn X?

Application-Specific Language

In addition to a kind of generic ritual language that will hold significance for all speakers of a language, there is also application-specific language that will function in a similar way. This will be unique to individuals within specific professions or roles. If you work in a bank, for example, you will need some very specific bank-related language that for you personally is really important, but which will be completely irrelevant to someone who works in a clothing store.

Within any role, topics and tasks - and therefore also language - will repeat dozens of times. We naturally fall into the pattern of turning this kind of language into set formulas, whether this process is conscious or not. With structural fluency, we have the ability to vary these formulas at will, but it is simply easier to use a pre-packaged utterance than construct sentences completely anew each time we say them. Start looking at your professional language and you'll see how formulaic it is. We tend to attach a negative stigma to the word formulaic, but this need not be the case. In terms of foreign language learning, we can use it to our advantage and determine the formulas that are necessary to develop a kind of ritual fluency within a specific application.

You'll notice that the topics included in ritual fluency are the topics primarily covered in conversational courses. If your goal is to develop ritual fluency alone, these kinds of courses and resources can be great. They meet a specific objective. If, however, you want to develop a more complete fluency, you may end up frustrated by your inability to progress beyond ritual interactions. This is quite common. In order to develop a plastic ability in language that will allow you to talk about any topic, you will need structural fluency.

Gaining ritual fluency is often a good place to start, but be aware of its ceiling. At a certain point, many feel they end up having to “start over” when they then go to learn grammar. Developing ritual abilities can coincide with structural abilities. In our own Starter Modules, we teach ritual language, but with a view to introducing topics of structure. Structure pervades all utterances in any language - it is unavoidable. Without separately developing structural fluency, it is difficult to transition beyond ritual fluency into a more complete ability in a language.

On a final note about ritual fluency, this is the element on which your ability in a language will be judged. You could have complete structural fluency in a language, but if you stumble in your first interaction or greeting, you will be written off immediately as someone who doesn't speak the language. Conversely, if you develop ritual fluency, you will get mistaken for completely fluent even if your ability in the language extends no further than the end of the ritual interaction.

The question "What is fluency?" is covered in our free video course, Time Management for Language Learning. Sign up HERE to learn more.

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