This post is about learning spoken English fast, and not about becoming fluent in 10 or 30 days. I don’t want to disappoint you, but it’s nearly impossible to become fluent in 30 days.
(Please note, this post is specifically written for the situation where you don’t have the luxury of time and you want to expedite your learning process. However, if you don’t face the pressure of time, few steps mentioned in this post should ideally be tweaked, few dropped, and few added. Overall, the content would change somewhat in that case.)
Here are the steps you can take to speed up your spoken English skills:
1. Know why you want to learn English
It’s hard to put in the hours day in and day out over a long period with several dry spells of flat progress unless you’re super-motivated.
How to find motivation to improve your spoken English?
Is it to succeed at job interviews? Is it to impress others? Is it to be socially mobile and enlarge your network?
Whatever it is, remind yourself how getting better at the language will improve your life. Conversely, you can also remind yourself how remaining average will adversely affect your life. This will keep you going in frustrating times, which will be quite a few.
2. Adopt Task-Based Learning if you’ve specific goal in mind
Learning a language with the goal of accomplishing a task is called task-based language learning.
If you want to move fast with your learning, there is probably a reason, a goal behind.
For most, it’s a not-too-distant job interview.
For some, it could be an international travel, ranging from an exchange program to plain leisure travel.
If your reason is job interview, you can tailor your practice to accommodate what you’ll face in an interview. You can, for example, try to limit your responses in practice to 2-3 minutes; answer questions in a way where you first give brief background of the situation you handled, followed by your contribution, and the result or lessons drawn in the end; and you can even practice questions you’ll likely face in the interview.
If your reason is an exchange program, you can specifically practice ice-breaking questions and striking conversation with strangers.
There is so much you can cover in spoken English, but if you’re short on time, focus will help you get more bang for your buck.
3. Create an immersive environment
Why do people learn a language fast when they live in a country where that language is spoken natively?
Because they’ve little option but to speak in that language. Everyone else around them is speaking the language, after all.
This is called immersive experience. It’s forced in the above example, but it’s not difficult to replicate such an experience in English at your own place in your own country.
At Freedom English Academy (FEA), a non-profit organization founded by well-known spiritual leader Deepak Chopra in northern India, students learn spoken English in 105-minute long sessions, Monday to Saturday.
Many students make dramatic improvements 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. In other words, each session is an immersive experience (in English).
And I’ve observed that those students who could create such an immersive experience even outside FEA progressed even faster.
Want to get convinced more on immersive experience?
Scott and Vat 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):
Scott says his fluency in Spanish attained through this 3-month immersive experience is far better than his fluency in French after staying in France for a year and deliberately studying French on an earlier occasion.
That’s the power of completely immersing yourself in the language you want to master. So, replace the native language content you read, listen, and watch with the one in English. And create ‘English only’ time zones – like FEA students do for 105 minutes – when you speak only in English. The more, the better.
The most important component of immersion is speaking. Let’s take this up first.
4. Speak a lot
This is the biggest of them all. If you’ve to take just one message from this post, take this.
You can’t learn swimming without jumping into water
Wouldn’t you learn swimming faster by devoting disproportionately more time to swimming than to reading a swimming manual or watching the moves of other swimmers in the pool.
Swimming is a skill that you can learn mainly through doing it.
Though not exactly the same, speaking is a skill which you will learn faster by actually doing it. You can read and listen for hours every day, but if you don’t speak you won’t go anywhere. Speaking will make the biggest impact on your speaking skills. (It’s not to say that reading and listening don’t help speaking. They do, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of speaking. Also, when you’re pressed for time, you got to focus more on things – speaking, here – that will move the needle the most.)
Guard against procrastinating on speaking
If you aren’t good at speaking you would tend to delay speaking because first, it’s an active exercise requiring effort and, second, you aren’t good at it. In contrast, you would happily listen and read for hours because these are passive exercises where you don’t need to make much effort.
Does it ring a bell?
If you want to learn fast, don’t delay the speaking part much. Try even if you stumble more initially.
You’ll get all sort of advice on this: “Read and only read for so many days. Then only listen for so many days. And then start speaking.”
Feel free to get all the advice in the world, but don’t forget to filter them through commonsense.
Whom to speak to?
All and sundry.
You can practice speaking in English even without a partner. Friends and colleagues. Yourself loudly. Yourself in thoughts. Yourself mimicking television on mute. Customer care.
Possibilities are endless. If you’re driven, you will find ways to practice no matter where you live.
But you’ll struggle to speak if you fear mistakes, embarrassment. That takes us to our next point.
5. Make mistakes. Get embarrassed
Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and a linguist with plenty of work in the field of second-language acquisition, points out that affective filter (factors such as hesitation, fear of making mistakes, and mood that affect language acquisition) inhibits our ability to acquire second language. (We know this intuitively, don’t we?)
So, make mistakes. Plenty of them. And overcome hesitation. That’s the way to learn fast.
Every polyglot, someone who can use several languages, swears by this rule.
Sid Efromovich, a 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.
Read more such stories in this post on why mistakes are the foundation of learning any language.
Let’s come to other components of immersion – reading and listening.
6. No grammar. Less reading. More listening
You don’t use complicated grammar rules in speech. So, unless you struggle with simple rules such as tenses and subject-verb agreement, you can altogether skip grammar.
Reading helps your spoken English… but much less than listening.
Reading helps you learn new words in context, which improves your vocabulary. It also improves your grammar.
However, most average speakers have enough vocabulary to make working conversations, and therefore learning additional words through reading won’t make big difference to your spoken English. (Remember, you’re short on time and would like to get the most out of it.)
So is the case with grammar. There are limited grammar rules and unless you’re too bad, you would be fine without knowing all the grammar rules. If you’ve the grasp on basic grammar such as tenses and subject-verb agreement, you can do fine without additional doses of grammar.
- Spoken English has a rhythm – the pauses, the emphasis (speaking more loudly) on certain parts of the sentence, and the pace (fast or slow). Through listening, you can learn these nuances and calibrate your own speech.
- You spot pronunciation mistakes you’ve been making for years.
- Spoken English can be somewhat different from the more formal written English. You’ll often encounter slangs, contractions, fragments (of sentences), and bruised grammar rules in spoken English. For example, ‘are you gonna come to the college tomorrow’ would be fine in spoken English, but would be too informal in most writings.
BTW, listening, like reading, too provides you the opportunity to improve your vocabulary.
What to listen?
Listen to audio or video content that you can understand to the extent of 70-75 percent, which means simple enough to understand the main idea without referring to an external aid such as dictionary and difficult enough to not understand word for word.
If the content is too difficult, you would either tune out or read subtitles which would divert your attention from listening. On the other extreme, if the content is too simple, you won’t learn much.
If you’re a beginner, listen to content meant for children. Try as much as possible to listen to content that is also useful to you in some other way (example: content from your industry if you’re working, TED talks etc.)
To learn more, read the post on why, how to, and what to listen.
7. Be aware of your weak areas and work on them intently
Indian cricket team has reached unprecedented heights in recent years. They’ve consistently been # 1 or 2 in all the three formats of the game.
The biggest reason for the rise has been their pace bowling. That’s where they’ve improved the most. Not long ago, it used to be the weakest link in their plans.
Your spoken skills too will rise fast if you address your biggest weaknesses on priority.
Do you hesitate to speak? Do you lack confidence speaking in presence of others? Do you stumble because appropriate words don’t strike you while speaking? Do you stop because you don’t have enough to say? Do you speak too fast or too slow? Do you use unusually high number of filler words and sounds while speaking?
It could be anything. Key is to be aware of your weak areas and work on them intently. That’s what Indian cricket team did.
8. Devote more time. Pay more attention
This is a no-brainer.
If you want to improve quickly, you need to shed more sweat and tears. Period.
Devote as much time as possible to the task of improving your spoken English. However, you may find it difficult to pull off astronomical hours (6-8 or more) because learning new things – unlike doing repetitive tasks – is draining on our brains and forcing too much in a short period of time may hamper learning.
Experiment and find your sweet spot (of hours).
Whatever the number of hours, make sure you devote them daily. Some people practice only on weekends, which is less effective than daily practice. Depending on your schedule, you may devote less time on weekdays, but don’t shut them out completely.
People watch movies, listen to radio, and read books and newspapers in English, but they don’t improve as much as they would like.
Lack of attention is an important reason.
Do you notice difference in pronunciation between how you say a word and how the speaker in a video you’re watching says? If you do and if you play the pronunciation on an online dictionary later on, you pay attention.
Do you notice how rules of grammar and punctuation are applied or broken in books and newspapers? If you do, you pay attention.
There is plenty to notice and learn.
However, what most do?
They read and watch content blissfully lost in their worlds and therefore they grasp much less English language than they can. Now, you don’t need to pay attention to every piece of content. That will take the fun out of it. But, even few minutes of attention a day can work wonders for your English Language skills.
9. Read out loud
Another act you can perform to hasten your spoken English is to read out loud from, say, a newspaper or an online article. You possibly can’t speak to others or to yourself for long, possibly because of lack of options, but you certainly can read out loud at will.
Reading out loud exercises the same vocal organs that you exercise when speaking to someone. We covered this in point # 6.
It’s an easy and 24×7 way to smoothen rough edges in your voice and get accustomed with your own voice especially when you don’t speak English regularly. However, reading out loud is not a replacement for speaking.
I’ve regularly practiced this exercise for ten minutes a day for the last few years.
Has it been effective?
I started with one session of five minutes in the morning and then increased it to two sessions of five minutes each. Need I say more?
Learn more on the topic in the detailed post on reading out loud.
10. If your vocabulary is poor…
You can either start reading newspapers and novels and start noting down words you find challenging. Or you can pick a word list and try to imbibe as many words as you can.
Improving vocabulary at a slow rate through reading is OK if your current vocabulary is decent and is not a stumbling block in your communication. But if you want to make quick progress (that’s what we’re focusing on in this post, right) and reach a level where your pauses while speaking are few and far between, then you need to adopt a surgical approach. Here it is:
- After you finish a conversation, note down the words (in your native language) where you paused. You may not recall the word in English, but you can certainly recall them in your native language. Right?
- Refer a bi-lingual dictionary or an online tool such as Google Translate to look for what words in English can replace the words you noted down. Listen to their pronunciations and see how they’ve been used in different examples.
- I’ll strongly recommend you note down these words along with few example sentences. Use them applying spaced repetition to retain them for long. More on this later in the post.
Through this method, you’ll precisely build the vocabulary you need while speaking and hence make quick progress. Note that just 2,800-odd words make for more than 90 percent of our verbal communication, and you might need just 500-odd words to reach respectable level. Learn more on the topic in the following post: Do You Get Stuck for Words While Speaking? Here Is a Quick Way to Improve
However, once you reach respectable level where you pause only occasionally, you should build vocabulary organically through reading and listening in a way that you can actually use it.