Are you trying to become better at spoken English, but don’t have partners to speak to, which commonly happens when you’re trying to learn English at home.
In this post I’ll cover several steps you can take to improve your spoken English when faced with this situation. This post is divided into three parts:
First, general tactics if you don’t have a speaking partner;
Second, how you can make your practice more holistic by having occasional conversations with others;
And third, few unique challenges that solo practitioners face.
Let’s start with the first part, comprising of 11 of the 17 points.
1. Create an immersive environment
I’ve observed students learning spoken English from scratch at Freedom English Academy (FEA), a non-profit organization founded by Deepak Chopra, a popular author and public speaker. At its centers in Delhi and few other cities in North India, back to back 105-minute sessions run through the day from 7:00 AM to 9:30 PM.
What struck me during my multiple visits to few of these centers was the pledge to speak only in English. No matter what level of English the students are at, they can’t utter a single word in their native language. In those 105-odd minutes, students speak, read, and listen only English. That’s what immersion is.
I observed that those who carried this immersive environment to their homes improved even faster. (Some of the students had their siblings too enrolled in FEA and therefore they could converse in English at home too. One young boy spoke to his math tutor in English. And a teenage girl taught younger students at home in English.)
If you want to progress fast in spoken English, you’ve to take the pledge – and, of course, execute – to replace your non-English content (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) with English-only content.
2. Mimic TV programs and videos
You can turn your TV or a video to mute and provide a running commentary of the scenes as they unfold. Because the scenes will move in a blink, you wouldn’t have the luxury to think and construct sentences at leisure, which is what you face in real communication.
I’ve played this exercise many times, varying the content type to get diversified practice. For example, you ought to be quicker on feet (tongue!) to describe a fast-paced sports program than when you describe a crime scene in a movie.
When you come across conversation between two persons, put yourself in the shoes of each, guess their lines, and speak. Don’t bother if you’re completely off the mark on accuracy. It matters less. However, when you describe a scene rather than a dialogue, you’ll be far more accurate, as you don’t have do the guessing.
Sid Efromovich, who speaks seven languages, did something similar to clock in speaking practice without any partner 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.
3. Speak to yourself
In case there are others present around you who may think a loud self-talk to be a weirdo act, you can switch off your mobile phone and pretend you’re talking to someone on phone.
What to talk on, though?
You can talk on what happened in the day. You can talk on any of your past experiences. You can pick any breaking news of the day to express your take on the issue. You can pick any conversation topic. Or you can just give voice to myriad of thoughts that swirl in your mind through the day. (If you observe yourself, you’ll find that unless you’re concentrating hard on some task you’re invariably thinking something or the other subconsciously.)
4. Speak in front of a mirror
While speaking in front of a mirror, you may find that your face looks expressionless, sullen, or even angry.
You may find you use lot of filler words such as ‘you know’, ‘basically’, and ‘um’.
Or you may find that you can’t stand still while speaking.
Mirror will provide you invaluable feedback, which you can use to improve. For example, if you look too serious while speaking, you can get more deliberate about forcing a smile.
Speaking in front of mirror also helps you improve your eye contact when speaking to people.
5. Speak out what you see around
Look around wherever you are – it could be indoors, it could be outdoors – and speak a word or full sentence, describing whatever you see. Don’t think hard on what to say. Just say on the fly. Go for speed, not for accuracy. Because you speak without pausing, your practice is close to what you’ll face in real situations.
Although you can practice this exercise anywhere, you’ll come across diverse situations to call out mainly outdoors.
6. Think in English
You first think in your native language, then translate it into English, and then speak it out. The mental translation fills your speech with long pauses and slows it down.
You can take few steps to curb your tendency to translate and, with practice, shake it off completely in due course:
6A. Speak out what you see around
The exercise in the previous step – ‘speak out what you see around’ – helps you to speak instantaneously, which preempts mental translation. The key is to speak on the fly even at the cost of accuracy.
6B. Learn standard expressions
Learn as many standard expressions as possible for different situations. Few examples:
“Can I have another helping of the ice cream?” [An expression used when you want another serving of something.]
“I’m stuffed.” [An expression used when you’ve eaten to your heart’s content and can’t eat anymore.]
“Would you care for a cup of tea?” [An expression used when you ask someone if they would like to have tea or other beverages and eatables.]
If you know lots of such expressions, you’ll speak them directly (without translation) in your conversations. However, you can master them only over a period of time.
7. Listen to English programs
Listen English a lot, more so when you’re a beginner. Listening is far more important than reading when it comes to mastering spoken English (reading is more helpful if you want to improve writing). Through listening you learn:
Intonation is the rise and fall of voice when speaking.
Stress. Pauses. Fast. Slow.
Without these, your speech will be bland and put people to sleep faster than sleeping pills. This video will explain what intonation is (duration: 06:04 minutes):
Pronunciation is nothing but how you speak individual words.
Ask yourself: can I learn pronunciation through reading?
Because you don’t hear anything in reading. In listening, you do, and that’s how you learn pronunciation.
7C. Peculiarities of spoken English
Spoken English is less rigid 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.
However, if you listen too difficult a content, your focus will shift from the important task of listening to reading subtitles. So, pick content that is 70-80 percent comprehensible. (If you understand 100 percent, then it’s way too easy.)
When listening observe the pauses, emphasis, rise and fall in tone, pronunciation, broken rules, and new words. Don’t get overwhelmed by the long list of observables I’ve mentioned. You don’t need to check all the boxes on Day 1. You’ll start picking most of them after going through the grind for few weeks.
If you’re a beginner, it’s also a good idea to imitate parts of what you listen, sentence by sentence. Listen to a sentence or two, pause the audio/ video, and speak the sentence(s) out loud, imitating the style of the speaker.
Where to source the content from?
English news can be one good source. I’ve also found TV channels on animals such as National Geographic to be really good because of high quality of vocabulary and easy pace. (You can also access National Geographic’s videos on their channel on YouTube.) There is no dearth of content on YouTube. Exercise your judgment to explore, keeping in mind that the content shouldn’t be too difficult for your comprehension.)
Coming to the immersion point from where we started, if you’re into watching and listening non-English content, replace most of it, if not all, with content in English.
8. Read to get some indirect benefits
- Improving your vocabulary
- Improving your understanding of grammar and how arguments are built
- Expanding your knowledge, which would enable you to articulate on range of issues
However, if you want to improve your vocabulary real solid, go a step beyond understanding the meaning of a word through context. Mark the word or phrase while reading and later refer an online dictionary to explore those words. Pay special attention to example sentences depicting usage of that word. If you want you can even note these words down along with their meaning(s) and example sentences for later review, which will improve your retention of these words manifold.
On the immersion point, replace your non-English reading as much as possible with reading in English.
9. Improve pronunciation
An overwhelming majority of non-native speakers mispronounce words by the dozen every day. And worse, they don’t even realize many of their mistakes.
Why so many non-native speakers mispronounce?
Because they’ve learnt how to pronounce different words from listening to others like them, who too are mispronouncing.
Mispronouncing even few words in a 15-minute conversation is the fastest way to outshine others, negatively of course.
But, fortunately, it’s also one of the easiest pillars of spoken English to fix.
What you’ve to do is develop the habit to check (rather, listen) the pronunciation of any word whose pronunciation you aren’t sure of. Learning pronunciation, at its core, is about listening to the sounds of a word and repeating it few times.
Most online dictionaries these days provide audio of pronunciation. Dictionary.com is a resource I’ve used extensively. Another good resource is Cambridge Dictionary, which contains both American and British pronunciations. (Pick one of the two. If you live or work in a Commonwealth country, pick British pronunciation. In any case, it’s not going to cause problem because most words are pronounced the same way in both the systems.)
10. Read out loud
- If you haven’t spoken certain words often, you’ll likely struggle to say them correctly or hesitate to say them at all in a real conversation. Reading out loud from a newspaper, magazine, or any text will force you to speak wide range of words (note: the vocabulary in these sources is much wider than yours and hence you’ll get exposed to sounds of many new words) on a regular basis, which will make you comfortable with their sounds and consequently you’ll be more likely to speak them in a real conversation.
- This exercise will also unearth plenty of words whose pronunciation you aren’t sure of. When you read a word silently, you don’t come to know of your ability (or inability) to pronounce those words. But when you move your mouth and tongue, you discover words whose pronunciation you fumble on.
- Reading out loud also reinforces the pronunciation you’re learning through online dictionaries (covered in the previous point), as these words keep cropping up in future.
- Last, you can also polish your intonation (covered earlier in the post) through this exercise.
11. Improve your pronunciation and fluency through tongue twisters
When your lips, tongue, and throat outstretch to say tongue twisters correctly, you exercise these vocal organs in ways that even reading out loud can’t, which improves your pronunciation and fluency. You may see this post for more than 200 tongue twisters.
So far in this post I’ve covered methods you can practice alone at home without a speaking partner.
Although you can make good progress through these, you’ll lack few key communication sub-skills such as listening to others, modifying response on the fly depending on what the other person just said, convincing others, and empathy. Talking to others will also help you gauge your level vis-a-vis that of others.
Therefore, it’s important to occasionally speak to others and make your speaking experience holistic. In the real world, after all, you won’t be speaking to yourself.
Here are few steps you can take to communicate with others if you’re struggling to find speaking partners:
12. Do a thorough audit to identify a speaking partner in your circle
Do a thorough audit to identify whom you can speak to, even if it’s just once a month.
Maybe you can convince your friend whom you talk to regularly on phone to switch to English for your conversations.
Maybe you can find one or two colleagues at your workplace or college whom you always talk to in English?
Take a long, hard look at all the possibilities. You may not have thought of tapping your existing network for practicing your spoken English. Or if the thought did cross your mind, you may have hesitated because of fear of stepping out of your comfort zone.
And you don’t need 5-6 options. Even 1-2 dedicated partners will do. I can tell you with confidence that if you speak to a person in English for few weeks, your default conversation language with her/ him will become English. You’ll feel bit odd to switch to your native language with them, just like you feel odd speaking to someone in English with whom you’ve always spoken in your native language. I’ve seen this happening at FEA.
Here are few other options you can explore to speak to someone in English:
13. Speak to customer support
You can call customer support of any organization and enquire about their products & services, price, return policy etc. You don’t need to be a customer to call them, which opens gazillion organizations to call. And no one stops you from repeating the call after few weeks.
14. Find a speaking partner on YouTube
You can find people to talk to in English on YouTube.
(You can search for words ‘Skype’ and ‘WhatsApp’ using ‘Control + F’ after comments load.)
You can respond to them if you want to speak to them.
Having said that, you need to be cautious when dealing with strangers.
As a solo practitioner, you’re the master of your own destiny. You’ve to deal with highs and lows yourself. I’ll cap this post with three more points that affect solo-practitioners more than others:
15. Find a strong ‘why’
Therefore, you need to pinpoint the real reasons why you want to be fluent in English.
If your reason is professional, then write all the professional benefits you’ll reap as a result of strong communication skills.
If your reason is to expand your social circle and improve your standing among peer group, then write it too.
If your reason is to influence public opinion by becoming a better communicator, then that’s fine too.
And your reason, as is for most, could be a combination of these and others.
Without a strong reason to learn the language, you may give up after few weeks or months when you don’t see expected progress.
16. Show discipline
Not even in few months.
You’ve to keep at it for long.
However, what doesn’t work is downpour (read, short burst of work) followed by long, dry spell. Can you fast for two days and then eat the quantity you missed in one sitting? No, right? The same applies here.
You’ve to digest slowly bit by bit. You’ve to take out at least 30 minutes every day to work on your English language skills. If you show this consistency, you can achieve terrific results.
As a solo-practitioner, you don’t have the luxury of an accountability partner or the forced discipline of a formal class. Therefore, you’ve to consciously make space for English language in your schedule every day.
17. Get feedback, if possible
You may hit a plateau and wonder why you aren’t improving or where you’re making mistakes. In such cases, feedback from someone – even once a fortnight or month – better than you can work wonders for your progress.
So, be on the lookout for someone with superior communication skills who can provide that critical feedback or need be take professional help.