I know a person (in fact, few) who can read – and, more importantly, understand – any magazine, newspaper, or web article in English. He can also easily follow TV programs in English.
But, guess what, he comes a cropper when speaking in English.
The person I referred to above lives in a town in India where neither his profession demands speaking in English nor people around communicate in the language in their day-to-day lives. As a result, he has barely practiced speaking in English.
As part of the selection process to its English-speaking program, a non-profit organization poses simple questions in English to the applicants. Many of those who make it to the program answer the questions correctly but they do so in few words (they struggle to speak full sentences).
They answer correctly because they can listen – and understand – the questions. But they answer in words – and not full sentences – because they haven’t spoken enough.
Pause and think for a while. It’s a bit deeper point.
To give another example you may be able to relate with, I’ve met a person with master’s degree in English who was plain average in spoken English.
Because such degrees and high marks in academic tests are awarded largely on performance based on reading and writing, they’ve little correlation with fluency in spoken English.
Why do many who can read, write, and listen with ease struggle while speaking?
Because speaking is a skill different from reading, writing, or listening.
(To give you a crude parallel, an athlete specializing in 800-meter race will struggle in 100-meter sprint. There will be some ingredients that will be required in both the races, but then there will be some critical ingredients that will be very different.)
4 reasons you can read, write, and listen English, but not speak
1. You don’t have the luxury of stopping and thinking while speaking
You can put a book down while reading and think for a while if you don’t understand something. While writing too, you can take a break and come back to revise your work.
But you don’t have such luxury while speaking. You’ve to speak on the fly. Think while speaking. No long pauses. That’s an altogether different skill, which you can learn, of course, through more speaking.
2. Spoken English requires getting used to variety of sounds and phrases
Try speaking out the following loud:
Most non-native speakers, even the fluent ones, will struggle pronouncing at least few of the above. (Pronounce them and then check on an online resource to see where you stand.)
Because they haven’t spoken the sounds of these words few times before.
Imagine if you’re just a beginner. Your list of unfamiliar sounds will be light years longer, which will kill your fluency. To quote Dr. Paul Sulzberger, a researcher at Victoria University, New Zealand, from his 2009 findings on language learning:
When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words.
You need to learn these sounds. You may find following post useful in this regard:
To give a different example, if you haven’t used following idioms in your speech few times before, you’ll fumble on most of them when trying to use them in speech:
Please note, this example, unlike the first, has nothing to do with sounds associated with the words. Here, it’s about getting into the habit of speaking a reasonably long string of words in a particular order, which can come through practicing it few times in speech. However, when you’re reading these idioms in, say, a book, you would mistakenly get confident of speaking them correctly in speech the first use itself. (Pause and think a bit on this example.)
That’s another way speaking skills can be so different from reading skills.
3. Without speaking practice, you’ll lack the rhythm, the peculiarities of spoken English
Two persons may both be speaking ‘correct’ English, but one may be markedly better than the other. English – and for that matter any language – has a rhythm, a flow that can come through practice alone. The intonation. The pauses. The emphasis.
For the uninitiated, intonation is rise and fall of voice when speaking. Whereas pronunciation focuses on the sound of words, intonation focuses on the entire sentence. You may watch this video to know what intonation is (duration: 06:04 minutes):
Moreover, spoken English is less stiff than written English.
For example, you would speak:
‘What’re you up to mate today evening?’ [Less formal]
‘What are you doing today evening?’ [More formal]
Breaking grammar rules too is not uncommon in spoken English.
You wouldn’t grasp these peculiarities of spoken English just by reading or listening. You ought to wet your feet.
4. Speaking is not a solo activity
Speaking, unlike reading and listening, is not a solo activity. It involves others. It could be one-to-one with a friend or with few in a meeting or with many in a large audience.
Because others too are involved, your effectiveness as a speaker also depends on factors such as how well you listen to others, do you grasp non-verbal cues, and your comfort – or lack of – in speaking in a group. And you can master these only through more and more speaking. Not through just reading and listening.
Recommended posts on related topics:
However, reading and listening aren’t wasteful
Reading and listening aid your spoken English. You pick new words when reading and listening. You learn pauses, pronunciation, and intonation through listening. So, keep at them, especially when you’re a beginner.
Many think they can speak English because they can read, write, and listen. Spoken English, however, is a skill unto itself and therefore requires lots of practice in speaking.
That’s why you may not speak well even if you’ve the best vocabulary in the world. That’s why you may not speak well even if you’ve the best comprehension in reading and listening. That’s why you may not speak well even if you write the most grammatically correct sentences. That’s why you may not speak well even if you scored the highest marks in the English language paper in school.
Solution: speak more. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s fine.