Is fluency really necessary?

I recently read a conference paper about the lack of English language skills among the tour guides at the Aceh Tsunami Museum in Indonesia.  The author concluded that of the thirteen guides tested, only one was considered fluent in that “their speech would be fully acceptable by native speaking standards.”

Of course, being able to speak English is becoming essential within the tourism industry, even more so in a country like Indonesia, where tourism represents 4.1 percent of the country’s GDP. But does one need to be fluent to perform their job well?  Should that be the standard to which everyone should aspire?

Back at the tsunami museum, the author described the situation as one where the guides lacked even the most basic skills to explain the museum’s displays to visitors.  Apparently, everything was missing: vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Yet this assessment seems to contradict her own findings which showed:

  • Eleven of the guides used grammar well or with “sufficient structural accuracy”
  • Ten had enough vocabulary to speak without problems and their pronunciation was good enough that guests could understand what they were saying
  • Only one guide had serious issues with grammar and vocabulary
  • Only three were deemed “unintelligible” with respect to pronunciation.

This tells me that at least ten guides had the skills needed to communicate with guests effectively and with confidence.  Yet, this didn’t seem to be enough.  Why?

Part of the problem lies with our definition of fluent.  To many, being fluent means using perfect grammar all the time, having a near-academic level of vocabulary, and speaking without an accent.

Newsflash:  for most people, this is not a realistic goal.

My solution is that you should stop trying for complete fluency. Instead, you should first aim for “functional fluency.”

Functional fluency

Functional fluency focuses and narrows the vocabulary and grammar needed in order for you to do your job well. It is a balance between functional language (sentences and phrases you memorize), basic grammar, and site-specific vocabulary. Once you can talk about your site confidently, you can move on to other subjects. And having confidence is sometimes the hardest skill to learn.

Next week, I’ll be continuing this conversation with some tips for both guides and interpretive leaders on how to develop tours, build vocabulary, and overcome pronunciation and confidence issues

In the meantime, if you have any questions, comments, or if you just want to get in touch, feel free to contact me at

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