4 Reasons You Can Read, Write, and Listen English, but Can’t Speak

‘I know English, but I can’t speak fluently.’

‘I can write English, but can’t speak fluently.’

Why do many who can read, write, and listen with ease struggle while speaking?

Because speaking is a skill fundamentally different from reading, writing, or listening.

Therefore, if you’ve been reading and listening – but not speaking – you’ll struggle at speaking.

(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.)

Let me give few real-world examples where this phenomenon is unfolding every day.

Example 1

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.

Sounds familiar?

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.

The same holds for ocean of people who studied in English-medium schools (where the medium of instruction is English) but can barely speak in English. When in school, they mostly hanged out in groups where speaking in English was sneezed at, and hence they spoke too little then.

Example 2

As part of the selection process to its English-speaking program, a non-profit organization I know 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.

Example 3

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. In schools and colleges, English is taught as a subject… not as a skill. Taught to get 100 percent marks… not to apply.

Without further ado, here are four reasons why you can read, write, and listen English, but not speak:

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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

Example 1

Try speaking out following words loud:

Words Words
Auspice Jamboree
Complicity Mosquito
Cache Panache
Hypocrite Unequivocally

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.)

Why?

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.

Example 2

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:

  • Run with the hare, hunt with the hounds
  • You can’t fit a round peg in a square hole
  • Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs

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 that you can use them in speech effortlessly the first time itself. (Pause and think a bit on this example.)

That’s another way speaking skills can be so different from other three 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. Pronunciation. Intonation. Pauses.

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):

Because English is not a phonetic language (which means you don’t necessarily pronounce the way words are written), pronunciation can be a challenge, especially for beginners. For example, red, head, and said are pronounced the same way though they’re spelt differently. Cut and put are pronounced differently though they’re spelt the same way.

Moreover, spoken English is less stiff than written English.

For example, you would speak:

‘What’re you up to mate today evening?’ [Less formal]

But write:

‘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, which gives rise to two distinct effects, unique only to speaking:

4.1. Interaction effect

When you interact with others, you get into real-time back and forth, and you constantly adjust what you say, don’t you?

4.2. Interlocutor effect

Though your ability to speak in English remains the same, you get nervous speaking to some and remain relaxed speaking to others. That’s interlocutor effect: how you speak is affected by whom you speak to. An example of this would be bouts of nervousness some get when speaking in a meeting or a small group.

Interaction and interlocutor effects, thus, complicate speaking further.

Many falter speaking in presence of others, especially when the setting is formal and/ or at least few others are present, because of lack of confidence. Would you lack confidence while reading, writing, or listening even if others are present? No, right?

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. Jason Leow, the Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement in Singapore, is a prime example of this. While describing his experience of learning English, Mr. Leow says:

It is precisely because I learned English by reading that I still struggle with spoken English today.

However, reading and listening aren’t wasteful

Reading aids your spoken English. So does listening, in fact more than reading does. 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.

But don’t fall into the trap that passive activities such as watching and listening English content such as news and movies and reading alone will improve your spoken English.

Summary

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.

The post you just went through belongs to the broader topic of speaking. Explore the topic further on this dedicated resource page:

Resource: Speaking

Find more posts on speaking and learn the topic in-depth:

Explore speaking
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Anil Yadav

Anil is the person behind content on this website, which is visited by 3,000,000+ learners every year. He writes on most aspects of English Language Skills. More about him here:

11 Comments

  1. You didn’t give reasons. Instead, you gave just information that looks like reasons.

  2. Jesus ! Are you talking to me 🙄

  3. You just narrated story of my life.

  4. Great text and great tips. I’m learning English on my own and I’ve never spoken in English, so my pronunciation is weak and I take lot of time to think what I want to say (when I’m trying to speak with myself), and also I’m still struggling to get better in writing too. I’ve been learning English for 4 years, but I still make lot of grammar mistakes and I forget words.

  5. I can write but not read. I use spelling to understand, but if it is lengthy, my brain yells stop. I have been trying to learn again, but I am failing. God, I hate this.

  6. Dear Anil

    I am currently taking major in English and History. However, in my country English is an additional language. The native language spoken here is tok pidgen but english is applied or used every day for social networking and business communication in which it remains a great challenges for a kid like me before going out in the real world.

    I feel so lucky to read this article finally. It is really helpful. It precisely explains my current situation. I have always been wondering when am I going to speak better English! This intention even bothers me a lot, demoralising me to speak.

    I have now discovered that the only solution is to practice every day. Please if you have any platform for English proficiency acquisition add me so I can develop my English speaking skills. And please do advise me some more tips to speak better.

    Thank you so much once again.

  7. Pretty well written and fantastically organized. It’s a real big problem to speak fluently for majority of non-native speakers. Nice tips!

  8. Wonderful… I think your are precisely talking about me and my friends

  9. I am experiencing the same problem. I can listen well in daily discussions and I can understand every sentence, but when my turn to speak comes, I find it hard to collect words and put them into sentences.

  10. Great Blog! Really helped me assess where I was going wrong, everything you wrote was relatable to be, right from the expectations I had of myself, the confidence I had, the nervousness I feel, everything.Great Blog! Really helped me assess where I was going wrong, everything you wrote was relatable to be, right from the expectations I had of myself, the confidence I had, the nervousness I feel, everything.

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