‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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]
‘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:
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?
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.