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 sections:
Section I: General tactics if you don’t have a speaking partner (Point # 1-11)
Section II: Have occasional conversations with others (Point # 12-14)
Section III: Unique challenges solo practitioners face (Point # 15-17)
Before we start with the first section, let me briefly share an experience.
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?
Most don’t speak much English. That’s where most learners of English language lag.
That’s why I’ve focused plenty on how you can practice speaking more (without, of course, a speaking partner) in this post.
Section I: General tactics if you don’t have a speaking partner
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.)
Immersive learning is the surest way to accelerate your fluency. 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.
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. Later on, look for words or expressions you struggled with in a dictionary to fill the gaps in your repertoire.
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 curb your tendency to first think in your native language and then translate by:
- Speaking or thinking spontaneously what you see around (see the earlier point). Spontaneity preempts mental translation. You can start with thinking or speaking words, then graduate to sentences, and finally take to narratives.
- Learn as many standard expressions as possible for different situations.
Example: “Can I have another helping of the ice cream?” (An expression used when you want another serving of something.)
If you know lots of such expressions, you’ll speak them directly (without translation) in your conversations.
We think for hours in a day. If we can change the language of our thoughts to English, imagine how much more practice we’ll get every day.
You may explore this topic in detail in this post on how to stop translating and start thinking in English.
7. Watch/ listen to English programs
Watch/ listen content in English, 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:
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.
7.2 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.
7.3 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.
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.
8. Read to get some indirect benefits
- Improving your vocabulary and grammar
- Teaching you how arguments are made
- 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.
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 leave poor impression of your communication skills.
But, fortunately, it’s also one of the easiest pillars of spoken English to fix, far easier than vocabulary.
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, and for that you don’t need a speaking partner. Do you?
Most online dictionaries these days provide audio of pronunciation. Dictionary.com is a resource I’ve used extensively, especially for it non-phonetic pronunciation. 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.)
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.
- 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 practice your intonation (covered earlier in the post), pauses, emphasis, and pace through this exercise.
Get more on the topic in the post on how reading out loud benefits your fluency.
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.
Section II: Have occasional conversations with others
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 miss two key experiences:
1. Interaction experience
When you interact with others, you get into real-time back and forth, and you constantly adjust what you say, don’t you?
Through interactions with others, you learn listening to others, modifying response on the fly depending on what the other person just said, convincing others, and empathy.
2. Interlocutor experience
You get nervous speaking to some. You’re relaxed speaking to some. 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.
Through interactions with people from variety of backgrounds, you can minimize interlocutor effect.
Last, 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, at least occasionally, 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 to practice speaking. Or if the thought did cross your mind, you may have hesitated because of fear of making mistakes or stepping out of 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.
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 and you need to remember that native speakers may not be the best choice for a speaking partner.
With this we come to the third and the last section of this post.
Section III: Unique challenges solo practitioners face
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 get better at 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 (or 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 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.
There are other factors (besides discipline) too that stop people from getting better at English Language skills. Know them and be ready for them.
17. Get feedback, if possible
You may plateau despite putting in the hours. You may be making mistakes without even realizing.
In such cases, feedback – even once a fortnight – from someone better than you can work wonders for your progress. Sid Efromovich, referred to earlier in point #2, underlines the importance of feedback from people who know the language better than you do (duration: 46 seconds):
So, be on the lookout for someone with superior communication skills who can provide that critical feedback or need be take professional help.