‘Despite years of trying, I’m not able to speak fluently in English.’
‘I can read and listen almost anything, but I’m average at speaking.’
‘I often get stuck while speaking, because the right words elude me.’
‘I first think in my native language, then translate into English, and then speak.’
‘I hesitate when pronouncing certain words, not sure what others will think of my mispronunciation.’
These, and other, thoughts may have crossed your mind while working on your English speaking skills.
In this post, I’ll cover how you can address these and other challenges that may be coming in your way to become better at spoken English.
I’m convinced about these methods because I’ve seen them work for teens from underprivileged backgrounds who built their spoken English almost from scratch (some of my observations are covered in the post). I’ve also experimented many of the methods on myself to tighten my English language skills (mine is already at a good level, and further progress isn’t easy to pull off).
But before jumping into the core topic, I want to first cover how you can overcome mental roadblocks that afflict many trying to learn English speaking or, in fact, accomplish anything challenging. If you think you’re motivated and don’t have any mental demons to fight, you may skip directly to the next section ‘Create an immersive environment’.
How to overcome hesitation and mental roadblocks in speaking English?
No motivation quotes here. I’ll cover three points that work at a fundamental level:
1. How do you motivate yourself?
Fluency in English has a strong correlation with professional success.
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’.
Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and former CEO of Infosys (USD 10 Billion + revenue), in his keynote at IIT Madras convocation ceremony left two key messages with the graduating students: don’t stop learning and develop soft skills. He was addressing students at IIT, but he didn’t talk about technology or engineering. He spoke of fundamentals – if you’re good at these, you can very well master other things.
There are plethora of studies and anecdotal evidence that unequivocally point to role of verbal fluency in professional success. Graduates even from the best undergrad and grad institutions in the world have sub-par career results for want of strong communication skills.
If you’re fluent in English, you’ll pull away from many other job-seekers and colleagues, and open opportunities for yourself in fields where, otherwise, you may be an outcast.
Strong communication skills will also help you build a better and wider social network.
Getting better at something that plays such an important role in your professional and social life should be a strong motivator for you. Remind yourself of the benefits you’ll accrue or many opportunities you’ll miss if you can’t communicate well in English. And, very important, unlike math, science, history, literature, and others, English is not a subject. It’s a skill that will last your lifetime – all the more reason to be good at it.
I encourage you to read the following post to learn more on why it’s so important to have strong English language skills:
2. Everyone has the potential to speak fluent English
After years of futile effort, many think that they’re just not made to be a fluent speaker. They think that only intelligent, talented persons can reach the exalted levels. Or maybe those who’re blessed with the right genes.
And because they reconcile to this fallacy, they don’t even make concerted effort to improve. (Why would they if they believe that efforts aren’t going to bring in results?)
However, this belief that only few blessed can make it is far from reality.
To unravel this, let’s first briefly understand how human beings – and even animals – learn a new skill.
2A. How we acquire skills?
Human brain has around a billion neurons, and each is connected to around 1,000 other neurons, totaling around one trillion neural connections (or pathways). Our experiences in the physical world continuously arrange and rearrange these neural connections. (Widely believed to be first propounded by Eric Kandel, who shared Nobel Prize for this research in 2000.)
Watch this YouTube video to understand how this rearrangement happens (duration: 2:03 minutes):
For example, if you start playing tennis, some of the neurons in your brain will rearrange to form new neural connections to encode ‘tennis skill’ you’re picking. To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
As you practice more and more and expand your repertoire of shots, your neural connections change accordingly.
When you want to hit a tennis forehand, electric signals flow through the neural connections pertaining to hitting forehand, and in a split second your hand gets directed to move a certain way to complete the shot. As you improve your forehand, the concerning neural connections start getting insulated with a substance called myelin, which prevents the electric signal from leaking. (Imagine, plastic insulation on electric wires preventing current from leaking.) The thicker the myelin grows, the more proficient the forehand becomes.
(In the image above, a neuron insulated with myelin is shown. The four cross-sectional images of the neuron depict progressive buildup of myelin.)
Can you, a tennis newbie, pick a 125 miles per hour tennis serve? Very unlikely. But a professional tennis player would on most occasions. Why?
The professional, over years, has built relevant neural connections and insulated them with enough myelin to react to such a fast serve. You or I can’t because we haven’t developed those neural connections and insulated them with myelin.
To give another example, you, as a toddler, once struggled to even stand up. And then in a matter of few months you could walk, then trot, and then gallop. This transformation from crawl to gallop is the result of a similar building of neural connections, this time a different set of connections (remember, there are nearly trillion connections).
That’s why Michael Jordan, ESPN’s greatest athlete of the 20th century and unarguably the greatest basketball player of all time, failed miserably when he decided to quit the game and played baseball in 1994. In the solitary full season he played, he posted a 0.202 batting average and committed 11 errors in the outfield, the league’s worst. His brain was wired differently…wired for basketball.
I hope these examples have unraveled how we pick skills.
At the most fundamental level, we – even animals – pick skills through building appropriate neural connections and then insulating them.
Now, let’s come back to English.
2B. English language too is a skill, which you acquire the same way
Well, you would’ve guessed what I’m going to say now. I’ll speak out through the work of Dr. Paul Sulzberger, a researcher at Victoria University, New Zealand. In his 2009 findings on language learning, he said:
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.
It’s all about building relevant neural pathways and insulating them with myelin. There is no starting difference between yours and a fluent speaker’s neurons. You’ve to put in that work, make those improvements to build similar neural connections and myelin insulation. They won’t build on their own. (Many, despite being in an English-speaking environment for hours daily, struggle to speak effortless English mainly because they confine themselves to their friends who speak in native language. In short, they don’t build the requisite neural pathways.)
You may learn more about this topic here:
I encourage you to read the above-mentioned post. It’ll provide you insights on how the best in any field were once average like you or I. They weren’t blessed with any inborn talent or superior genes. It was their continued effort and constant improvements (deliberate practice, in other words) that made them experts. In the post, you’ll see that seemingly intractable problems such as shyness and learning art too can be overcome through appropriate practice.
Remember, lack of intelligence or inborn ability is not the reason for poor spoken English. Anyone can become a good speaker. (Further down in the post, you’ll see example of youngsters from not-so-privileged background improving their spoken English.)
After reading this subsection, you may be thinking, “Duh, I know this. The more you practice, the better you get.”
No, this subsection is not about that. It’s to tell you that you’re no way disadvantaged in terms of fundamental attributes required to learn English. So, you shouldn’t slacken your efforts for the reason that you’re starting with your hands tied, from a disadvantageous position.
3. How to overcome hesitation?
There are two fears people commonly have when speaking English.
First, your friends and other acquaintances may make fun of you because you’re speaking in English.
Second, you’re worried about what others will think of you when you make mistakes.
You can’t wish away people who make fun of you when you speak in English. You’ve to ignore them, keeping in mind your larger purpose (point # A earlier in the post: How do you motivate yourself?). If you don’t speak because of them, you’ll – along with them – eventually rue the missed practice. So ignore them and focus on what you ought to be doing.
On the second point, you can’t get fluent in a language without making mistakes. Period.
Here are experiences of few people:
3A. Matthew Youlden: he speaks around 20 languages
In his TEDx talk on the topic how to learn any language easily, Matthew Youlden, who speaks around twenty languages, mentions making mistakes as one of his three key rules to learn any language fast. To quote him:
Because we learn by making mistakes. It’s actually the only way we can get things right. As children, we’re even expected to make them. But as adults, we are apprehensive because they make us feel vulnerable.
3B. Sid Efromovich: he speaks 7 languages
Sid Efromovich, another master language learner who speaks seven languages, says making mistakes is one of the five principles of language learning he followed:
…the golden rule of language learning, the most important thing, is to get things wrong, to make mistakes.
He says – and that’s commonsense – that when we’re learning a new language we’re expanding our database of sounds and other language-related stuff and therefore are bound to make mistakes:
That [making a mistake] is the trigger that you need to look for. Because that is the signal that tells you that you’re going beyond your database and that you’re allowing yourself to explore the realm of the new language.
3C. Marianna Pascal: she has helped professionals speak better for 20+ years
Marianna Pascal has helped professionals in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries to speak better English for over twenty years. She says people who don’t feel embarrassed on making mistakes, don’t feel judged by others, don’t feel shy are the ones who communicate the best in English.
3D. Scott and Vat: they learnt 4 languages from scratch
To give another example, in ‘Create an immersive environment’ section further down in the post, you’ll see in the video that Scott and Vat were scratchy and full of mistakes in the beginning when learning four new languages, but because they kept trying they became fluent.
(Learning through mistakes holds true for organizations as well. Google, for example, has seen so many of its products bite the dust and so many acquisitions gone kaput. But because they’ve tried so many things, they also have several smash-hit products and acquisitions, lifting them to where they are.)
So by all means make mistakes, but also be keen to correct them and improve. Let people think what they think. Remember, without opening mouth, you’ll never become fluent.
Let’s now come to the topic we set out on – how you can speak effortless English. I’ll start with why creating an immersive environment wherein you’re constantly exposed to English is an important step toward attaining fluency. I’ll follow this up with the tactics you can use.
1. Create an immersive environment
A. ‘Language Pledge’ at Middlebury Language Schools
Founded in 1915, Vermont-based Middlebury Language Schools offer undergraduate- and graduate-level instruction in 11 languages, usually in 6-8 week programs. They require a strict ‘Language Pledge’ from their students, which means you’ve to speak, listen, read, and write only in the language of your study. If you fall back on any other language, you’ll be expelled from the program.
According to them, the Language Pledge ‘plays a major role in the success of the program’.
B. How these two learnt four languages from scratch in 12 months?
Scott Young & Vat Jaiswal learnt Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Korean by living in Spain, Brazil, China, and Korea, respectively for three months each. Watch their dramatic improvement from Week 1 to Week 12 in the four languages in their TEDx talk (duration: 63 seconds):
They started from scratch. In the beginning, they had to often refer to dictionary and Google translate. And after three months, they could live in those countries entirely in the local language.
However, it wasn’t living in these countries per se that helped their fluency. (In the full talk, they mention the example of an American businessman who married a Korean woman and lived in Korea for 20 years and yet failed to pull off a decent conversation in Korean.) What catapulted their spoken skill in these languages is the pledge to speak only in the local language. That is immersion.
Scott says that this immersive learning was so effective that his fluency in Spanish after three months was far better than his fluency in French after staying in France for a year and deliberately studying French on an earlier occasion.
C. My observation at a non-profit organization
I’ve visited few Delhi centers of Freedom English Academy (FEA), a non-profit organization founded by well-known spiritual leader Deepak Chopra. At FEA, students – mainly high school and older – from families with limited means get free grooming in spoken English. At its dozens of centers in Delhi and few other cities in North India, several batches, each 105-minute long, run through the day from 7 AM to 9:30 PM.
Many students make dramatic improvements in their spoken English in 12-odd months they spend here. And the most important reason for improvement is strict adherence to communication in English during those 100-odd minutes. No matter how lame your English is, you can’t utter a word in your native language. (When everyone speaks in English, good or bad, individuals naturally get comfortable speaking in English without the fear of being judged by others.) In other words, each session is an immersive experience (in English).
I observed that students who had access to an immersive environment even outside FEA hours did even better. For example, two sisters – both FEA students – who spoke in English with each other even at home and who also taught English to younger kids had better spoken English skills than other FEA students. Then there is a young boy who converses in English with his teacher where he goes for private tuition. He too is one of the better ones.
I’ve also spoken to few students who dropped out because of various reasons, and almost all of them admitted that their level (of spoken English) slided after they left FEA because they didn’t speak English as often as they used to when at FEA.
During my visits, I’ve come across students who switch to their native language, Hindi, at home even though their siblings at home can speak in English. This was revealing. They are more comfortable speaking in English at FEA than at home, even though they have access to person(s) to speak to at both the places.
FEA students improve despite not being enrolled (some are, most aren’t) in an English-medium school because they speak freely in English in those immersive sessions. (Attending an English-medium school doesn’t hurt though. It only helps.)
How to create an immersive environment?
You certainly don’t need to travel to a country where English is the first language.
You can create an immersive environment by speaking to, say, few of your like-minded friends only in English. (More on this later in the post.) No transgressions into your native language even if you get stuck. You don’t need to talk to everyone all the time in English, but whenever you speak to these friends, you should automatically switch to English.
If you watch programs on TV and other devices in your native language, switch to programs in English.
Do the same for reading.
The beauty of forcing yourself into an ‘English only’ environment is that you learn the most-used vocabulary, phrases, and grammar rules first (this is more true of a newbie in English), and therefore make quick progress in the beginning.
If you can immerse yourself in an environment wherein you’re constantly exposed to English – speaking, listening, and reading – and seek improvements, you too will improve.
Spoken English, in nutshell, is right words (vocabulary) in the right order (grammar) with the right sounds (pronunciation and intonation).
The tactics hereinafter will broadly address one or more of these three.
2. Listen a lot especially if you’re a beginner
Babies listen a lot – for several months, in fact – before they start speaking. Listening is the most important funnel to speaking.
How listening helps?
Listening helps your spoken English at several fronts, and, a good part, it can easily replace your time-wasters such as commuting:
- Listening exposes you to spoken English, which can be somewhat different from written English.
Grammar rules are more often broken in spoken English. Fragments – as opposed to complete sentences – are more common. So are contractions.
‘I want to complete this task by tomorrow afternoon.’
‘I wanna complete this task by tomorrow afternoon.’
You’ll sound stiff if you speak the way of the first sentence. Second is how you speak in real conversations. First is how you write.
‘How is it going?’ vs. ‘Howzit goin?’
‘How are you?’ vs. ‘How’re you?’
In conversational English, we use more phrasal verbs, idioms, and slangs, which you’ll pick more from listening.
- Listening improves your pronunciation.
In fact, that’s the way many catch mispronunciations (many don’t even know they’re mispronouncing words by the hundreds) in their speech, which otherwise can carry on forever. This has been dealt in greater detail later in the post.
- Listening teaches you intonation.
For the uninitiated, intonation is the rise and fall of voice when speaking. Whereas pronunciation focuses on the sound of words, intonation focuses on the entire sentence. This video explains intonation beautifully (duration: 06:04 minutes):
With the right intonation, you bring clarity to your message (emphasis at a wrong word can change the message) and rhythm to your speech.
- Listening, like reading, exposes you to new words in context, which you can explore later on in a dictionary. It also reinforces your existing vocabulary.
What to listen?
You can listen to almost anything. These days, you can find plenty of audio and video content on any topic on the internet. However, try to filter the content with few broad rules:
- You should be able to understand most of the stuff, say to the extent of 75-80 percent. If the English you’re listening to is too beyond your comprehension level, you’ll soon tune out, and you’ll likely not sustain your practice. If you’re a beginner, you can start with the content meant for children, and, as you improve, you can gradually raise the level.
- The content should be useful. For example, if you’re a working professional, you could pick the content from your industry. TED talks are an option for anyone. Don’t go for entertainment just to keep your interest alive. Why not kill two birds with a stone – improve your English and learn something useful.
- Listening to songs is not a good option because if you’re like most you won’t understand most of it (see rule # 1). Moreover, songs aren’t close to real conversations, because they typically exaggerate many words, which is markedly different from what happens in a regular conversation.
- Unless you want to work with American people in future, don’t feel compelled to watch American programs or movies. (However, if you’re comfortable watching them, then it’s a different thing.) Same applies to other accents.
How to listen?
If you’re listening to content only somewhat above your comprehension level, you wouldn’t have to strain yourself too much to comprehend it. While listening, observe if any word is pronounced different from what you’re used to, observe how some words are stressed more than others, observe the pauses, and note down any word whose meaning and usage you aren’t sure of (to refer to dictionary later on and add to your vocabulary).
Accomplishing so many things simultaneously may seem daunting, but it’s not that hard. If you focus when listening, you would.
In case you fail to grasp certain part of the audio, feel free to steel a glance at the transcript. (If the content is too far from your comprehension level, you’ll be referring to the transcript too often, spoiling your experience and likely making it unsustainable. Moreover, if your attention is constantly getting drawn to the transcript, you’ll pay less attention to listening.) Most video and audio content these days come with transcript, often referring to time in the audio/ video to make it easy for you to search. On YouTube, specifically, you can switch on the transcript-scroll on the right hand side by clicking on the three dots and then picking ‘Open transcript’.
If the transcript isn’t arranged time-wise on a content, just do a ‘control + F’ (keyboard shortcut for search function) on the transcript and type in a word you heard just before or after the stuff you struggled to comprehend.
You should also pause the audio/ video after hearing a sentence you find bit challenging or novel in terms of intonation and pauses, and say it loudly. After your take, replay the sentence and see how you fared. Such repetition will be even more useful if you’re a beginner.
If you’re a beginner, you can get more from your listening practice through…
If you’re a beginner, you can get more (and hence move faster through your beginner level) by occasionally pausing the audio/ video after 1-2 sentences and repeating what you heard verbatim, imitating pauses, stress, and speed of the speaker.
Better yet, instead of repeating verbatim, speak what you heard in your own sentences.
If you stumble, listen to the part again and repeat the above exercise.
3. Keep a speaking journal
There’re plenty of short, standard responses in spoken English you can use in your own conversation. Note them down in a diary whenever you come across them, and glance through them once in a while. (You can use the same diary to note down words for vocabulary and/ or pronunciation.) Here are few examples of such expressions:
Acing such commonly-used expressions will lend some fluency to your speech, and – as you’ll see later in the post – will also curb your habit of first thinking in native language before speaking.
You can learn many more common daily-use expressions and phrases in this post:
4. Read out loud
- 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.
- While reading out loud, you also discover words you mispronounce.
When you read something silently, you don’t hear your sounds. But when you read out loud, you do, and in the process you hear few words whose sounds don’t seem natural to you. This detection happens subtly, and you’ll get better at it with practice. I’ve stumbled upon most of my 3,400+ words whose pronunciation I needed to perfect through this method. I’ve covered this in detail in my post on pronunciation.
- Through reading out loud, you can also practice intonation (varying stress on different parts of the sentence).
I read out loud twice daily (each session lasting around five minutes). I started with newspaper, but after I noticed improvement in my diction – it took few months though – I added variety to my reading-out-loud material. Now I also have conversations (Google ‘scripts’ or pick fiction books) – that’s close to real situations – and few tortuously tough reads such as this.
Exaggerate when reading out conversations. Speak out as if you’re portraying the character in the conversation.
(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.)
Reading out loud has worked for me to the extent that it has helped improve my diction even in my native language. There are no shortcuts though. You’ve to practice regularly for few months before you notice the first green shoots. Because I’ve improved as a result of reading out loud, I’ve made it a daily ritual. (Progress toward a meaningful goal is probably the biggest motivator.)
5. Think in English
This can really do wonders to your English-speaking prowess.
Even if you’re at a decent level in spoken English, you likely first think in your native language, then translate into English, and then speak. This results in pauses and slows down your speech, affecting – no, killing – your fluency.
This thinking while speaking, however, is a tiny fraction of all the thinking you do in the day. If you’re not intently focusing on something, say at work, then most likely you’re engrossed in one or the other thought. Isn’t it? It just happens automatically all the time.
If you can think this thinking in English instead of your native language, you’ll not only get plenty of additional practice, but also eliminate the pauses arising out of silent language translation while speaking.
However, this is easier said than done.
One way to change this long-standing habit is to start thinking in simple English words and expressions. So, if you’re at home, take out few minutes and start thinking (or saying) whatever you see around in English – table, table cloth, juicer, lamp, kitchen sink, kitchen cabinet, trash can, doormat, carpet, and so on. (These are nouns, and you’ll soon exhaust them, at least at a particular place. So repeat the exercise at other places too. Even outdoors.) Key is to do this really fast (as soon as you spot the thing), even at the cost of accuracy. Otherwise, your propensity to first think in native language will get time to sneak in.
Add verbs too to your practice (to describe actions around you). For example, think ‘opening the bag’ when you see someone opening his bag. Or ‘whiling away time’ when you see two persons gossiping. If your vocabulary is limited, you’ll sometimes fumble for the appropriate word. But that’s OK. You can skip such situations without a word or expression.
Gradually, you can move to thinking (or speaking) in full sentences to describe things or actions around you.
Another way to control thinking in native language is to ace standard expressions in English (covered earlier in the post). If you know an expression well in English, you would be much less likely to think circuitously – first in native language and then in English.
6. Speak with others
I know a person who can comfortably read – and understand – almost any magazine or book. He is equally proficient in listening most type of English programs. But, as it may sound strange to you, he comes a cropper when speaking in English.
He has almost never spoken in English because his profession doesn’t require him to and otherwise too he doesn’t because people around him don’t speak in English in their day-to-day lives.
You can read and understand anything.
You can listen and understand anything.
But you’ll falter at speaking if you haven’t taxed your vocal organs enough. (Because the person in the above example can read and listen, he has some vocabulary and grammar. But without enough speaking, he can’t construct sentences and pronounce many common words.)
I observed the same at FEA, where some students could understand English before joining the program, but could barely speak. It was their continued effort at speaking in those sessions at FEA that catapulted their English from mere understanding to speaking.
Practice (or speaking) is the king to become a better speaker.
So, practice. Practice regularly. Make it a habit to speak in English whenever you get an opportunity: friends, colleagues, clients, strangers, and even customer care. If you leave it to the elements, you would 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. Can you learn swimming standing on the ground? No. You’ve to jump into water.
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.
You may find this post useful to get topics and learn best practices for such conversations: 150+ English Conversation Topics, with Best Practices (PDF Download)
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.
You can speak alone unscripted or scripted. The next two sections will cover the two.
7. Speak alone without a script
Earlier in the post, we learnt how 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 – and thicken them with myelin – 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.
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.)
8. Speak alone with a script
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, 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. To quote him:
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.
9. Improve vocabulary
(Some of the words in this section are in red font for a reason, which you can find at the end of the section.)
Do you sometimes pause while speaking as you struggle to think of an appropriate word for what you want to say? 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 less, but in this zone the incremental impact of additional vocabulary will be lesser (represented by relatively flatter curve). In this zone, you’ll be largely fine on fluency even if you don’t improve your vocabulary much hereafter. Having said that, however, a strong vocabulary will 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.
How do you improve vocabulary?
Only very few take proactive steps to improve vocabulary. Vast majority doesn’t. That’s why most adults improve vocabulary at a meagre rate of 25-50 words a year, which comes mainly from reading and listening we do in our daily lives.
However, reading and listening add words predominantly to your passive vocabulary – words you can understand when reading or listening, but rarely use in speaking or writing. They don’t add much to your active vocabulary (words you can use when speaking and writing).
We associate our vocabularies with passive vocabulary (ability to understand in reading and listening), and therefore most of us mistakenly believe that we’ve large vocabularies.
An efficient way to improve vocabulary is to leverage your large existing repository of passive vocabulary and shift some of it to active vocabulary. (That’s what I’ve done with 7,500+ words.) And the best way to achieve this is to note down words as and when you come across them, note their meaning(s), and, equally important, their multiple usages in the form of examples. You can easily look meaning(s) and usages of any word on online dictionaries such as dictionary.com and Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. Mere noting down, however, is not sufficient. You also need to review them at spaced intervals and use them.
I’ve covered this topic in detail in another post, which talks about my experience of going through the above process for more than 7,500 words in a way that enables me to use these words when speaking and writing, 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.) You can read this post here:
Before I end this section, let me explain why I wrote few words in red font. These are few of my earlier passive words which I’ve now shifted to active, and therefore I can 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 (you can take the above list as a benchmark) will quickly stand you out positively.
Bad pronunciation is rampant 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 (I commonly ask people what they do to 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). S/he would then type the word on Google or any online dictionary to listen the pronunciation and confirm what s/he picked from the expert. Otherwise, the cycle rarely gets broken, and people continue mispronouncing in perpetuity.
That’s the most practical, and easiest, way to improve your pronunciation. I’ve dealt with this topic in detail in another post. If you want to learn how to improve your recall rate of pronunciation when speaking and learn other ways to improve pronunciation, I encourage you to read this post:
Learning pronunciation is about getting familiar with the sounds. You’ve to first make an effort to hear those sounds 1-2 times in the beginning and then as those words keep coming up in your listening, they embed for long. (Reading out loud – covered in section 3 – also helps in consolidating new pronunciation you learn.) Pronunciation btw is one of the easiest components of spoken English.
Reading and grammar are less important for spoken English
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 smaller impact.
In spoken English, we break grammar rules many times more than in written English. They’re relatively less important, but nonetheless know the basic rules – tense, subject-verb agreement etc. – at least.
Speaking fast is not the same as fluency
Many, often influenced by movie characters, mistakenly believe that emulating rat-a-tat of a machine gun makes them ‘fluent’.
Have you listened to top political and corporate leaders speak? They aren’t express trains. They’re thoughtful. They’re measured. They’re full of pauses, sometimes too long for comfort.
The pace should come naturally to you and it should make what you’re speaking comprehensible. Moreover, a slower pace will provide you more time to think while speaking and hence you’ll make fewer mistakes.
Keep these fundamental tenets at the back of your mind
To cap this post, I’ll share few fundamental tenets I’ve learnt which will be useful to you:
- Reaching a high level of excellence takes time. Anyone offering a wonder solution that can make you fluent in 30 days is making a spurious claim. Progress will be slow. It’ll take several months or few years to reach an expert level. Your performance may even dip sometimes, which can be frustrating, but what’s important is an upward trajectory in the medium to long term. (A parallel would be a fluctuating, yet rising, stock, which may sometimes dip.)
- Discipline is important. Thirty minutes every day is many times better than five hours on a Sunday. (Will going hungry for three days and then eating one marathon meal work for you?) So make your practice a daily habit. And maintain the discipline even if the practice is discomforting for you.
- Observe your progress. It’s easier said than done, though. Because progress is slow, you won’t notice it unless you consciously look out for it.
Why observe progress?
Because progress toward a meaningful goal is probably the biggest motivator one can have. When you see your methods are paying dividends, you’ll gladly adopt even an uncomfortable practice. When I observed that I was using right pronunciation and more apt words in my conversations (that’s real progress), I streamlined and increased my efforts on improving my vocabulary (7,500+ now) and pronunciation (3,400+ now). Without progress, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain an arduous daily practice, which btw seems a breeze now.
- Repetition or regular use is the key. Otherwise you’ll lose it. As far as English is concerned, thankfully there are so many daily opportunities to surround yourself with it. Commute exercise has sort of become a default exercise for me, which not only has become a game (how many in 5 minutes) but a great way to keep up a high level of base activity. You may see few of them in the vocabulary post.
- You can squeeze in most of your English-learning activities in the time you otherwise waste – commute, wait time, standing in queues, or speaking to people in your native language.
- If need be tweak the methods to suit your style. Experiment, if need be.
- Your ability to speak fluently is not an ingrained quality that some have and some don’t. It also doesn’t have correlation with your intelligence. Anyone can ace it. If you put in the hours and constantly seek improvements, you too would be there in due course.
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 was a statesman and one of the finest orators in ancient Greece.
He went from one extreme to another in his speaking prowess. You don’t need to adopt his methods, but, with practice and improvements, there is no reason why you can’t become a fluent speaker.