‘Despite years of trying, I’m not able to speak fluently in English.’
‘I first think in my native language, then translate into English, and then speak.’
‘I often get stuck while speaking, because I struggle for the right words.’
‘I can read and listen almost anything, but I’m average at speaking.’
These, and other, thoughts may have crossed your mind while working on your speaking skills in English. But you’re not alone.
To give an example from India, here are few worrying statistics from National Spoken English Skills Report by Aspiring Minds (sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges in India):
Only 7.1 percent fall in ‘good’ or above category, with only 1.3 percent being in ‘very good’.
In this post, I elaborate on how you can speak fluent English. You may not realize this, but two of the biggest roadblocks that do not even let you begin are issues in mind, with nothing to do with English. I start with these two.
(Note that you can practice most of the activities outlined in this post during time wasters such as commuting and waiting.)
1. Overcome hesitation and mental roadblocks in speaking English
1.1 Fear of making mistakes
Remember, no one has ever become an expert at anything without making hundreds of mistakes. Neither will you. So, go out and make mistakes as long as you learn from them and improve.
1.2 Fear of getting mocked at by friends
Friends will mock. Friends will try to pull you back into the comfort zone of the group. But when you’ve to face the implications of poor communication skills in landing a job, career progression or something else, you’ll be the one who will face it. Not them.
Sometimes, it’s good to think about yourself.
1.3 “I just don’t have the talent to speak fluent English”
And because you think so, you don’t try hard enough. (Why try when talent – and not effort – is the reason for fluency?)
In reality, no one has ‘spoken English’ or ‘written English’ genes that make her/ him naturally gifted in English Language skills. Everyone has the same potential to speak or write. Becoming a fluent speaker is about practicing the skill and adopting the right methods.
1.4 “I’m too old to improve my English”
That’s not true.
Because hesitation and mental frailties stop so many people from even starting, the topic deserves space of its own. I’ve covered it in detail in the post on how to overcome hesitation in speaking English?
2. Have you grown too comfortable in your work?
You’re working in a role where your current level of English Language skills, even though below par, helps you accomplish your regular tasks easily.
‘Why work extra, why change things, when work is getting done?’
People just get stuck in a routine. Unless you take deliberate steps to raise the current level of your Spoken English, you won’t get better at it despite speaking for some time every day for months and years together. If that sounds strange, here is a little anecdote from the world of typing. Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, gives example of how his mother didn’t improve her typing speed despite several years of practice:
Think of how most of us go about our lives. My mother was a secretary for many years and, before embarking on her career, went on a course to learn how to type. After a few months of training she reached seventy words a minute, but then hit a plateau that lasted for the rest of her career. The reason is simple: this was the level required to gain employment, and once she had started work, it hardly seemed important to get any better.
Your thought process should instead be: “With better communication skills, I can possibly aim for better opportunities.” For many, communication skills can be the difference between the career path they’re in and where they could’ve been – nature of job as well as remuneration.
3. Create an immersive environment
I observed how students at Freedom English Academy (FEA), a non-profit organization to help students from underprivileged background get better at spoken English, make dramatic improvement in 12-odd months. The key is that during their 100-odd minute session, six days a week, students can’t speak any other language other than English.
Read, listen, and speak in English at least during few dedicated sessions every day. Resist falling back to your native language during such sessions even if you get stuck because of lack of vocabulary. If you can’t recall an appropriate word, go around the word and give a long-winded explanation.
Replace the content you read and listen in your native language with the one in English, if not fully then as much as possible. Replace at least some of your daily talk in native language with the one in English language, which can best be accomplished by picking 2-3 like-minded friends whom you can talk to in English for at least 15-20 minutes every day. (You can talk on phone as well and if your group comprises of 2-3, you can rotate among friends.)
Key is regularity – doing every day for some time.
Make the switch gradually though. Otherwise, you may find it hard to sustain.
4. Speak, speak, and speak in English
No. You’ve to jump into water.
You’ve to start speaking.
Many make the mistake of doing everything else – reading newspaper and novels, watching English movies, polishing off last of the grammar rules, building vocabulary, and so on – but not speak. They procrastinate, because they don’t like speaking (we covered reasons earlier).
Reading newspapers and watching English movies won’t improve your ability to speak English if you don’t speak a lot. You got to tax your vocal organs enough. Period.
What most do, however? Here is an example:
I asked a group of final-year college students who were trying to improve their communication skills to reflect on how much time they converse in English every day. They thought for a moment and replied, “Barely a minute when asking a question or participating in a discussion in the class.” And that too only few students do.
What’s your honest answer to the same question?
Reality: Most don’t speak much English.
So, speak as much as you can in English. (If you’ve to take just one advice from this post, this is the one.) Scheduling immersive sessions during which you speak only in English will help you achieve just that.
Here is how you can squeeze in lots of speaking practice, with or without a speaking partner:
4.1 Speak with others
Make it a habit to speak in English whenever you get an opportunity: friends, colleagues, clients, strangers, and even customer care. Without conscious, determined effort, you’ll drift to the default option – your native language – because that’s easy. You need to be deliberate about speaking in English, howsoever discomforting it may be.
To get a base level of practice every day, ask 2-3 friends (you don’t need a crowd) whose English-speaking skills aren’t too different from yours to become your speaking partner. Make sure they too are committed. You need not always meet in person to practice though. Most times, you can chat on phone. Also, super important, ask for feedback from your friends as well as others you speak to and try to incorporate that feedback.
If you want to practice even more or if your friends aren’t regularly available or you can’t find a speaking partner, you can even take to speaking alone. Speaking alone too will render most of the benefits that accrue from speaking to others.
4.2 Speak alone
You may not always have the luxury of having a speaking partner at arm’s length or phone call away. Speaking alone – loudly though – is the way to squeeze in more speaking practice.
All our skills are fundamentally rooted in the neural connections that form as a result of what we do in the physical world. Even if you speak alone, you’ll still build most neural connections related with spoken English.
You can speak alone when you’re away from prying eyes (otherwise, people may think you’re crazy). And if you can’t find solitude, just switch off your mobile phone and pretend you’re talking to someone.
What should you talk about?
Anything under the sun.
You can pick any topic to speak on. Topic is less important. More important is speaking, exercising your vocal organs, and spotting mistakes, if you can.
You can pick a topic you feel passionate about. You can speak on how your day unfolded. You can speak on a breaking news of the day. You can speak on any past event from your life. You can even give sound to your thoughts. (Unless you’re focusing on something, your mind will be tirelessly engaged in one or the other thought. Just express those thoughts verbally.)
4.3 Speak alone – mimic television or video
Mimic television (or any screen) programs. With inexhaustible 24×7 supply of content on television, this method will also solve the problem of constantly coming up with new topics to speak on. This, however, is not for beginners.
I’ve done this, and it’s effective. Here is what you can do.
Pick up any channel, mute the television (or video), and give a running commentary of what you see happening there.
If two persons are engaged in a dialogue, take turns to speak for each. Don’t bother about what they are actually speaking (television is on mute, right). Observe them and say whatever you think best describes their facial expressions and body language. You would be off on content more often than not, but that’s fine.
If it’s a narrative, say a car chase, just describe the scene as it unfolds. Speaking out a narrative is much easier than speaking out a dialogue because in the former you can see what’s happening.
You can add variety to your practice by working with different types of programs – movies, sports, wild life, and so on. A fight scene, for example, will force you to speak at a faster pace than, say, a canoeing competition.
Sid Efromovich, who speaks seven languages, did something similar to clock in speaking practice when learning a new language. He took to shower conversation (self-talk during shower), wherein he spoke for both the sides of a conversation, thereby getting a more complete practice, something you get mimicking TV on mute.
And it’s [shower practice] great, because you don’t depend on anything on anyone to get your practice, and I did this for years.
5. Think in English
Many non-native speakers of English language first think in their native language, then translate their thoughts into English, and then speak. This mental translation forces unnatural pauses, thereby derailing your fluency.
Speaking more English will definitely help you in controlling this tendency, but you can also proactively practice few exercises to stop mental translation. You can, for example, speak as many words as possible in a minute to describe what you see around you.
For example, if you’re in kitchen, a probable list of words you’ll say is cabinet, shelves, jars, sink, water filter, spoons, knives, forks, chopping board, dish cloth, scrubber, mop, trash can, turmeric, coriander, tea leaves, black pepper, red chili, and so on. Go for speed than for accuracy, even if it means skipping few words. When you speak instantaneously what you see, you squeeze out the little time you get to first think in your native language. You can perform this exercise outdoors or even through videos.
Gradually, you can take to speaking out complete sentences, and not just words. And eventually, you can graduate to speak paragraphs together, all the while going for speed than for accuracy.
You may see further details on these exercises in this post on how to start thinking in English.
6. Get plenty of comprehensible inputs, especially listening
Inputs = Reading and Listening.
Comprehensible inputs = Reading and Listening that you can understand to a great extent, say 75-80 percent.
If the inputs are too easy (95-100 percent comprehension), you don’t learn much. If the inputs are too tough, you quit sooner rather than later because you barely understand anything.
Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and a linguist with plenty of work in the field of second-language acquisition, has found language learning based on comprehensible input to be more effective than other methods:
Whereas blue bars show performance of people (on different language tests) who learnt by grammar and other formal methods, orange bars show performance of people who learnt by comprehensible inputs.
If you’re climbing the ropes in spoken English, get your daily dose of comprehensible reading and listening. Read whatever interests you – newspaper, books & novels, etc. With so much content out there on the web, possibilities are endless.
Through listening you learn:
As you listen more and more English content, you’ll notice difference between how you pronounce certain words and how the speaker does. If the content is reputable, you’re most likely the one who is on the wrong.
When you notice such difference, note the word down, play its pronunciation on any online dictionary, and speak the pronunciation out loud few times.
6.2 Intonation, stress, and pause
Intonation is the rise and fall of voice when speaking. Without intonation, your speech will be flat and you’ll put people to sleep. This video will explain what intonation is (duration: 06:04 minutes):
You can pick intonation by watching good speakers and then mimicking them.
Besides intonation, you also learn which words to put stress on in a sentence and where to pause.
6.3 Peculiarities of spoken English
Spoken English is less rule-bound than written English.
Unlike in written English, in spoken English, slangs, phrasal verbs, derivative words, and broken grammar rules are common. And you can learn many of these departures and nuances through listening.
For example, you’ll find plenty of conversational expressions such as ‘you wanna come for a movie’ and ‘I gotta leave now’ while watching or listening, but rarely while reading.
You may explore the topic of listening in detail in this post on how and what to listen to improve your English Language skills.
7. Read out loud
7.1 It exercises your vocal cords
All sounds coming out of your mouth are a result of your vocal organs such as tongue, lips, and throat working in some combination. If your vocabulary is limited – which is the case with most of us – many of your muscles in these organs would be under-exercised, because you pronounce only limited set of words. To give you a parallel, have you experienced multiple aches in your body after playing a new sport even if you had been exercising your body for years? Your body aches because the new sport exercises your previously under-exercised muscles.
Reading out loud exercises many more muscles in your vocal organs because you speak out few new words every day. Vocal organs accustomed to producing wide variety of sounds will produce more fluent sounds when you speak.
7.2 It acts as practice ground for many other components of spoken English
While reading out loud, you can also practice pauses, emphasis, intonation (the rise and fall in your voice), and pace (slow or fast). The exercise also reinforces pronunciations you’re learning.
(Note: if you’re at a place where reading out loud could be embarrassing, read with your vocal organs at full blare, but muzzle your voice. You’ll still reap most of the benefits of full-blown reading-out-loud.)
You may learn details in the post on how reading out loud improves fluency.
8. Learn common expressions and chunks
There’re plenty of short, standard responses in spoken English you can use in your own conversation. Note them down whenever you come across them, and glance through them once in a while. Here are few examples of such expressions:
Acing such commonly-used expressions will lend some fluency to your speech, and – as we saw earlier in the post – will also curb your habit of first thinking in native language and then translating into English before you speak.
In English, most words are used with few limited set of words. For example, you say ‘good morning’ and not ‘pleasant morning’. You say ‘drive a hard bargain’ and not ‘drive a great or profitable bargain’. You say ‘afraid of dark’ and not ‘afraid with dark’. You say ‘heavy rain’ and not ‘lot of rain’.
If you know such chunks, you won’t have to pause and think for a moment on what word to combine with what. In other words, knowing chunks lends fluidity to your speech.
To cap this section, we don’t realize that flawless, fluent expressions (such as the ones we just covered) coming from proficient speakers is a result of plain remembrance and use multiple times in the past. They rarely crop up out of blue while speaking.
9. Improve active vocabulary
(Some of the words in this section are in red font for a reason that you’ll find out at the end of the section.)
Do you sometimes pause while speaking as you struggle to think of an appropriate word? Inadequate vocabulary is the reason for such pauses, and they derail fluency, dent confidence big time.
BTW, even if you don’t pause, you may be describing a thing, a situation, or an action in a long-winded way, which again signals average communication skills. To give an example, you’ll impress others when you say ‘pluck a fruit from the tree’ but will look average when you say ‘took out the fruit from the tree’.
If the level of your vocabulary is too basic (zone A), it’ll seriously hamper your fluency. That’s why this is also the zone where you can improve your fluency the most by working on your vocabulary. Once you reach or are already in zone C, you’ll pause much less. In this zone, you’ll be largely fine on fluency even if you don’t improve your vocabulary much hereafter. Having said that, a strong vocabulary will help you use precise words such as those in red font and stand you out.
(Please note, here we’re talking about fluency attributable only to vocabulary. Fluency is a result of other factors too, which we’ve discussed elsewhere in the post.)
In nutshell, you need to reach certain threshold on vocabulary before your pauses disappear.
This vocabulary, however, needs to be part of your active vocabulary, the one that you can actually use in speech and writing. Passive vocabulary, in contrast, is vocabulary that you can understand while reading and listening (passive activities), but not use while speaking and writing (active activities).
To give an example, if you’re like most, you’ll understand words such as derail, dent, pluck, proficiency, and hamper while reading and listening, but struggle to use them while speaking and writing. Thus, these words are part of your passive vocabulary. In contrast, you use words such as get, sleep, goat, walk, and beat all the time while speaking and reading. They’re therefore – you guessed it right – part of your active vocabulary.
We associate our vocabulary with passive vocabulary (ability to understand in reading and listening), and therefore most of us mistakenly believe that we’ve large vocabulary.
Building active vocabulary is the holy grail of any vocabulary-building exercise. (Building vocabulary by going through vocabulary lists is largely ineffective because you can’t bring them to use when speaking and writing.) Learn more on the topic in the post on how you can build vocabulary that you can actually use in speech and writing.
Why did I write few words in red font in this section?
These words were earlier part of my passive vocabulary, but now I use them in my speech and writing.
10. Improve pronunciation
During conversations, do you sometimes hesitate speaking words whose sounds (pronunciations, in other words) you aren’t sure of? Few examples:
|Difficult to pronounce words||Difficult to pronounce words|
(You may download the above table as image here.)
If you’re like most non-native speakers, you do.
Mispronunciation is one of the fastest ways to stand you out negatively if the other speakers catch it. And, conversely, correctly pronouncing difficult-to-pronounce words will quickly stand you out positively.
Mispronunciation is common even among fluent non-native speakers. I’ve no statistics on this, but from many people I’ve observed I believe 90+ percent of fluent speakers working in white collar jobs in reputed organizations make pronunciation mistakes, degree varying of course.
It’s not surprising though.
Non-native speakers learn pronunciation by listening, and most of it comes from listening to others while growing up. But because lot of pronunciation going around is not correct, we absorb incorrect sounds and perpetuate this cycle. Since there is scarce institutional intervention, including from schools, on pronunciation, the vicious cycle largely continues.
Unless you take conscious steps to break this cycle, you’ll find it difficult to improve pronunciation. The most common way I’ve seen people improve their pronunciation is to make note of the word when it is pronounced differently (from how they do) by an expert (news anchor, native speaker, a renowned speaker, and movies to name few). They then type the word on Google or any online dictionary to listen the pronunciation and confirm what they picked from the expert.
After listening the audio of the pronunciation, you should ideally pronounce the word out loudly few times and then as part of few complete sentences containing those words. (This is to take your practice closer to reality. In the real world, you pronounce words as part of sentences and not as isolated words.) Reading out loud, if you do it regularly, will help you consolidate pronunciation you’re learning.
I’ve followed a similar process to correct my pronunciation of more than 3,400 words in English. Learn more on the topic in the post on how to build lasting pronunciation.
11. Are you attentive in practice?
That’s because of lack of attention while watching and reading. People watch and read, sprawled, with little to no attention on the content from the perspective of English. Let me explain.
While watching, do you notice difference between your pronunciation and the one in the content? Do you notice intonation and body language?
Same holds for reading and speaking.
This is in line with Richard Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis which states that learners learning second language need to make deliberate effort and notice (or pay attention) grammatical and other features of the language to learn it.
Learn more on the topic in the post on why attention is key to learning English fast.
More reading, more grammar doesn’t translate into better speaking
Let’s take each.
Reading can help you in speaking – especially if you’re a beginner – if you read books with lots of dialogues (found mostly in fiction books). Reading can also help you indirectly in speaking by improving your vocabulary. However, in the overall scheme of things, reading makes small impact, especially when you’re at a beginner stage.
Did you acquire your first language after learning lots of grammar rules?
To quote Stephen Krashen again:
Language acquisition doesn’t require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules and does not require tedious drills.
Moreover, in spoken English, we break grammar rules more often than in written English.
As long as you know basic grammar rules (tense, subject-verb agreement etc.) that help you avoid embarrassing grammatical mistakes, you’ll be fine. Remember, fluency doesn’t improve proportionally to gaining lots of knowledge. It improves proportionally to lots of practice – speaking followed by inputs (listening and reading).
Road to fluency is not easy. Keep these fundamentals in mind
I’ll end with the story of Demosthenes. As a young man, he suffered from speech impediment, but he was determined to improve. According to legends, he spoke with pebbles in his mouth, which made him exert super-hard to get the words out. This improved his diction. To improve projection of his voice, he practiced speeches while running and in the backdrop of the roar of ocean.
Demosthenes went on to become one of the finest orators in ancient Greece and a statesman par excellence.
However, fluency won’t come on a platter, like it didn’t for Demosthenes. It’ll require consistent work for several months to few years. It’ll require moving out of comfort zone. It’ll require change in mindset. Otherwise, you won’t last the distance.
Demosthenes went from one extreme to another in his speaking prowess. You can certainly go from one less-extreme to another.