Which is more important in learning a language: speaking and writing correctly, or expressing yourself fluently but inaccurately? Although both are important, if I had to choose, I’d say developing fluency is a higher priority.
Grammar knowledge alone does not make students competent language users. I learned this the hard way on my first trip to France. After two years of grammar based college French, I was completely unable to make myself understood or do the simplest things like ask for directions or order food. The problem was that my training had included plenty of grammar drills, but very little free practice. In the real world, I kept finding myself in situations that I hadn’t met in class, and I was so nervous about applying the rules and not making mistakes that I couldn’t communicate effectively.
This experience made me rethink my ideas about language learning. I realized that learning to communicate in a new language was a lot like learning a musical instrument. You can’t learn to play the piano by just studying music theory. You have to put your fingers on the keyboard and practice until gradually you begin to play more smoothly. And just as in learning to play an instrument, making mistakes when you learn to speak and write a new language should be a natural part of the learning process. The idea is to practice and get better at playing the “melody,” which for language learners is the ability to communicate ideas. Perfection can come later.
Of course, the end goal of language learning should be both fluency and accuracy, but I feel strongly that learners should be encouraged to develop fluency first. After all, no one expects a baby to speak in perfectly grammatical sentences. Babies learn by communicating simply at first and then developing a gradual mastery of their native tongue. Language students should be encouraged to develop in a similar way.