What is Fluency? - Part V - How to Develop Ritual Fluency

Road sign

Continuing our series in What is Fluency? this post will explore how to actually develop ritual fluency.

An important aspect of ritual language is that it is used so commonly — and some of it is so idiomatic — that it often bypasses our instinctive need to understand how language works. Sure, it's nice to know that aujourd'hui in French is a combination of à + le + jour + de + hodie (on the day of today, hodie from Latin), but you don't need to know that to equate it with its meaning: today. This allows conversation-based courses to focus on communication without delving into structure, because ritual language — whether you understand its roots or not — must be drilled to oblivion.

If you consider your native language, think of how many times in your lifetime you have said hello or asked someone how are you doing? It's a mind bogglingly high number. This means that in a new language, you have a lot of ground to make up in developing ritual fluency.

You can work through a similar progression with developing ritual fluency as you would with structural fluency: from understanding, to production, to fluency. I would say that regardless of how ritual language is often taught, it's good to understand how it works in detail. Then, you need to begin producing it. And producing it. And producing it… Ritual language must become automatic and instinctive.

The difference in developing ritual fluency as opposed to structural fluency is that instead of working with mutable patterns, developing ritual fluency is more about drilling whole formulaic utterances and making sure they apply to the specific interaction and register. The language should be practiced with an understanding of adjacency pairs. You're not going to be breaking up constructions and using them in lots of different ways with different vocabulary as you will be with structural material. Instead, you will be working with more formulaic material, and you want to practice both the call and response side of things.

Practicing both sides of an exchange is key, as even slight hesitations in ritualized interactions will create a disconnect with a native speaker. These disconnects are what you must try to eliminate through constant drilling. For me, the best way to do this is to talk to myself and play both sides of dialogue. I'm sure I look crazy, but I usually try to make sure I'm shut in a room somewhere no one will give me funny looks! You can imagine different settings and conversation types, and practice switching registers and formulas. Once you understand the material and are able to produce it, you'll be surprised how quickly you can go from a basic production to a fluent production by practicing in this manner. Sometimes even a few minutes of practice can make a big difference.

In maximizing your efficiency, it's important to keep coming back to the same material, even if you think you're “done” with it already. There is a certain “soak in” period with language that must take place across a number of days and even weeks. You can end a session totally comfortable with an exchange type, only to find yourself stumbling a couple of days later. No big deal. Refreshing the material will only take a few minutes and it'll be more solid than ever before. You can use a review structure for drilling ritual language similar to that required for memory techniques, but I'd say it should be practiced everyday until it is instinctive. The more often the material is refreshed over an extended period, the more it will soak into our bones and become instinctive.

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