How do we improve our English speaking? With lots of practice. Lots of correct practice!
Every piece of correct speaking practice takes us one step closer to confidence and fluency.
With practice, by being brave and accepting that we will make mistakes, we challenge ourselves to improve and we receive invaluable feedback, ranging from "Huh?" to "I think you mean..." and "Yes, I agree!"
Constructive criticism helps us make corrections and can keep us motivated.
But it's not just other people who provide feedback on our spoken English. We have our own job to do: evaluating our spoken English for the good and the bad.
We must self-evaluate and we must keep an ear on our progress. This helps to keep us moving, and gives us a clearer idea of where we're improving and where we need extra help, as well as which practice techniques are working and where we might need a change.
Self-evaluation can form an essential part of preparing for the spoken parts of exams such as TOEFL and IELTS. It's also a great way to improve your spoken English for social or work situations.
Listen to yourself! Listen to how you answer job interview practice questions, or how you describe your likes and dislikes to a new friend.
But how do we evaluate our speaking while we're speaking? How do we listen fully at the same time as speaking?
The bad news is that we can't.
Yes, we often can tell if we've made a grammatical error in our speech, and we all know the feeling when we don't have the vocabulary to express an idea or describe an object. Our own confusion or frustration is feedback enough!
But we can't comprehensively assess our spoken English while we're speaking. That level of multitasking is too difficult.
The good news is that technology has solved the problem, offering a fantastic opportunity to improve our spoken English with self-evaluation.
If you're reading this article, then you have a way to record your speaking. Whether it's a smart phone, tablet or laptop computer, you have a tool to hear your spoken English.
But what do you listen for? You're not a professional English teacher, so how can you evaluate your speaking in a helpful way?
More good news. Below are the seven questions my Working English students use to assess their English speaking.
1. Am I rushing? (Talking speed)
The faster we talk, the easier it is to make mistakes. Take it easy! If we're self-conscious about speaking, it's tempting to speak quicker, to rush to the end (as well as speaking quietly) in the hope that we get away with our mistakes.
Don't do this. Friends shouldn't laugh or be overly critical about your mistakes, and a professional teacher certainly won't.
Yes, native English speakers talk quickly. But they're not rushing, they've just had a lot more practice!
One way native speakers speed up their spoken English is by using contractions. For example:
I will → I'll → "I'll tell you later."
You are → You're → "You're my best friend."
He would → He'd → "He'd rather go shopping."
We don't have to use contractions to be understood, but doing so speeds up our spoken English in a way that is smooth and natural.
Remember: contractions in spoken English aren't "wrong" or "bad" English. They're the natural form, especially when speaking, and all native speakers (British, American, Australian and so on) use them. This means that in a conversation with native speakers, we're going to hear them all the time!
2. Are there gaps in my speech? (Hesitation)
Working on fluency will increase both how confident you sound and how confident you feel.
Hesitation comes from anxiety, from a lack of correct practice and, yes, from a lack of vocabulary. Reading is the best way to expand your vocabulary but don't use not knowing the exact right word or phrase as an excuse for not speaking.
The time to improve your fluency is now. Look around right now. How would you describe your surroundings to someone on the phone? Practice finding other ways to describe something. For an object, how big is it? Can it fit in your pocket? Find alternative ways to get your meaning across.
And, yes, you're right: the bigger your vocabulary, the easier this becomes, which brings us to the next question.
3. Am I using the best words? (Vocabulary)
Am I using the best words to explain, to describe, to instruct, to negotiate and to persuade?
This isn't just about advanced or complicated vocabulary. It's about using the most appropriate words to provide a clear picture of what you mean.
Never stop working to expand your English vocabulary. There will never be a day when you've read "enough"--this is a lifelong project!
Remember: reading in English is an essential part of building your vocabulary. Choose to find time to read in English every day. There's no shortage of free and interesting material.
4. Are my ideas easy to follow? (Structure)
Is your speech coherent? Does it follow a clear pattern and lead to a logical conclusion?
Using signposts--on the other hand, for example, finally--help English ears understand where you're heading.
Listen to skilled presenters in English; ted.com is a great example. As well as getting some fascinating listening practice with a wide range of accents, you'll hear great examples of how gifted speakers use signposts to guide listeners through a story or presentation.
5. Am I clear? (Pronunciation)
Repeated pronunciation errors are distracting and will interfere with understanding.
Repeated, bad practice wires in bad pronunciation, and it's not easy to correct bad habits, but the better your pronunciation, the smoother your communication with others.
Let's be clear: this is much less about sounding British or American and much more about making the clear sounds necessary for effective communication in English.
Correct listening and speaking practice will help improve your pronunciation, and self-study with the phonemic chart (here's a British English example) should help you hear and produce the sounds of English correctly. Keep in mind that while you can do some of this work independently, a professional teacher will likely be the most effective way of replacing bad habits with clear sounds.
6. Am I emphasizing the correct parts? (Word and sentence stress)
The appropriate use of emphasis, or stress (hitting the right part of the word or sentence), helps make ideas and opinions clear.
Don't underestimate how important stress is in English. Sometimes word stress can be even more important than making the right sound.
For example, with the noun "present" and the verb "present". Same spelling, same sounds, but different stress signals a completely different meaning.
7. Is my pitch natural and consistent? (Intonation)
Using correct pitch, or intonation, helps engage the listener but is also essential for clear communication.
Are you lifting your speech at the end for yes/no questions? Do you raise and lower your speech when making comparisons?
Becoming an expert at English intonation isn't easy. The rules for pitch are less rigid than for vocabulary or grammar.
However, understanding English intonation patterns will increase not only your speaking skills, but your listening comprehension as well.
Now you have the questions--record your speaking!
Remember, it's impossible to fully evaluate our own speech while we're speaking.
That's why it's necessary to record yourself and then ask yourself the questions above. Be consistent, self-evaluate regularly, and soon this method of evaluation will be automatic.
I often record students in class, but I encourage students to do this outside of class as well. You have the tools, it's an essential part of improving your spoken English, and it's also a great way to hear how much progress you've made.
Want to practice your listening as well? You can check out the video version of my advice on YouTube.
Thanks for reading, I hope you found this helpful. Record yourself speaking, ask yourself the seven questions, and I'll see you in class.