About the presenter: Sandra Merlo is a Brazilian speech-language pathologist who stutters. She received her degree in Speech-Language Pathology by University of Sao Paulo (USP). She received a Master's Degree in Linguistics and is doing her PhD also in Linguistics in Campinas State University (UNICAMP). She also dedicates to clinical practice with people having fluency disorders. She is the Scientific Director of The Brazilian Fluency Institute (www.gagueira.org.br).

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2008.

On the concept of fluency

by Sandra Merlo
from Brazil

Despite the expression "fluency" is much used in stuttering-related scientific literature, there is not an agreement about its definition [1, 3, 12]. The following observations suggest that fluency is not confined to the non-occurrence of stuttered disfluencies (part-word repetitions, initial prolongations, and blocks):

The use of the expression "fluency" is not restricted to referring to the classical fluency disorders (stuttering and cluttering), but it is also appropriate to other language disorders, such as:

Fluency as a skill

What does fluency have in common with walking, driving, concentrating, and doing calculus? These are all examples of skills. Fluency is also a kind of skill, but one of a very specific domain -- language [8, 9, 13, 14]. Skills have two typical characteristics [16]:

In general, the development of the fluency skill implies the development of automatic and unconscious processing mechanisms. This means that the more the person is fluent, the less he/she has to pay attention to his/her speech. Fluency just happens, without the person being able to explain why and how [1].

Possible components of verbal fluency

As fluency has several components, evaluating fluency requires considering several aspects of speech.

1) Low frequency of disfluencies

Disfluencies used to be seen as speech errors or defects, but not anymore, because one now knows that disfluencies give the speaker time to solve transitory difficulties related to "what" to say or "how" to say something [6, 15]. Disfluencies are part of the speech of all speakers (with and without communication disorders). The same psycholinguistic processes that generate fluency, generate disfluency. Perfect fluency is an abstraction, and only exists in professional or rehearsed readings and in spoken texts rehearsed or learned by heart. This is to say that disfluencies only disappear during the production of familiar, fixed, and automatic utterances [13].

There are two kinds of disfluencies [17]:

2) Low frequency of reformulations

Reformulations signal fragments considered inadequate by the speaker or by the listener that are repaired. Sometimes it is possible to observe the presence of reformulation markers, such as: "nay", "for that matter", or "that is". Reformulations include paraphrases (the corrected fragment is similar in content to the original one) and corrections (the corrected fragment is not similar in content to the original one) [6].

Normally fluent speakers show a low frequency of reformulations in speech, but, as far as we know, there are not numeric parameters for normality [6, 15].

3) Fluent silent pauses

Not all pauses in speech are the same. There are two types of silent pauses: fluent and hesitant [2]. Fluent pauses occur in strong syntactic boundaries (between clauses or phrases); there is also a significant difference between vocal frequency before and after the pause. Hesitation pauses occur in weak syntactic boundaries (inside phrases) and there is not a significant difference between vocal frequency before and after the pause.

There are basically three variables for analyzing pauses: frequency, duration, and use [1, 11]. Frequency is more important for the perception of fluency than duration, that is, the high frequency of pauses is more related to the perception of lack of fluency than the long duration of pauses. Besides, a native-like use of pauses is necessary for the perception of fluency.

Contrary to common sense, silent pauses do not happen onlyfor breathing. They are useful to physically disconnect clauses and phrases, which makes meaning establishment easier. However, when the speaker pauses, he/she can also take advantage of the opportunity to breathe [4].

In the speech of normally fluent speakers, about 70% of pauses are fluent and about 30% are hesitant. In addition, fluent pauses are, on average, 800 milliseconds longer than hesitation pauses [18].

It is also known that speakers who do pause at strong syntactic boundaries show fewer occurrences of disfluencies in speech. Thus, pauses are important instances for language planning and can be used to prevent difficulties in the production of utterances [18].

Normally fluent speakers show adequate pauses regarding frequency, duration, and use.

4) Speech rate

Speech rate refers to whether a speaker talks slowly, on average, or fast. It is usually measured in syllables per minute (a measure of articulatory programming) or in words per minute (a measure of information production) [3].

It is important to note that speech rate values change according to the sociolinguistic community. For that reason, there is not a universal value that could be applied to all speakers of all languages [7]. Thus, a certain value of speech rate considered average in a specific community can be taken as slow or fast in another. For example, Brazilian adults who live in the city of Sao Paulo and speak Portuguese, usually have a speech rate from 120 to 140 words per minute and from 220 to 260 syllables per minute [20].

Normally fluent speakers present comfortable speech rates, which are not too slow or too fast for their sociolinguistic community [5, 7].

5) Smoothness of speaking

Smoothness or ease of speaking refers to the lack of effort employed during speech production. Effort is usually evaluated from a qualitative and global point of view [1].

Effort is physically related to the pressure below the larynx, larynx tension, and tongue pressure [5]. Effort during speech production can also relate to semantic or cognitive difficulties (for instance, difficulties remembering).

Normally fluent speakers present low effort during speech production.

6) Grammatical skills

The ease a speaker has in applying word-building and word-combination rules during spontaneous speech is also important for the notion of fluency. Research about the relationship between grammar and fluency are only beginning, but there are clues that grammatical skills are important for fluency [3, 11, 13].

Adults without communication disorders do not usually face great difficulties in using their native language grammar. Nevertheless, fragments without articles, prepositions, or conjunctions (instances of agrammatism) are considered less fluent, because they show disruptions in the grammatical construction of utterances.

Normally fluent speakers present good grammatical skills and few instances of agrammatism in spontaneous speech.

7) Semantic complexity

Research about the relationship between semantics and fluency are also only beginning, but there are clues that semantic complexity affects fluency [3, 10, 13].

Semantic complexity depends on lexical and supralexical factors [3]. Regarding lexical units, factors that suggest greater complexity include the use of non frequent words and the restricted use of expressions with low semantic weight (for example: "thing", "stuff", "kind of", "you know"). As to supralexical units, factors that suggest greater complexity include low redundancy, structural cohesion, number and complexity of concepts, and semantic relations among concepts.

Normally fluent subjects talk with average or high semantic complexity.

All the seven factors discussed here converge to determine if speech is more or less fluent. Nevertheless, these factors also connect among themselves, creating a complex network. For example, disfluencies are more frequent if there are fewer fluent pauses, faster speech rates, and higher semantic complexity.

Although it is known that fluency results from many factors, we still need to agree about all these factors [1], to better specify each of them [3], to know which ones are central and which are peripheral to the notion of fluency [8], and to know how they relate to each other [3].

If it is clear that fluency includes much more than stuttered disfluencies. Fluency evaluation and the goals of speech therapy for stuttering should not be restricted to eliminating stuttered disfluencies. That is why I emphasize the relevance of this discussion about the concept of fluency, for if we know what our object is about, it will be easier to know where to go.

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You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2008.

DATE SUBMITTED: August 19, 2008
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