Many students manage to master the fine points of English grammar; yet find it difficult to start and carry on a conversation with native speakers. Fluency in speaking English, though, only comes with sharpening your listening skills, rather than just your reading and comprehension skills, given that listening is the basis of speaking. Unfortunately, when we learn languages at school there are really not many opportunities to speak English. The following are some actionable tips to help improve your English speaking skills within the shortest amount of time possible.
1. Speaking Out Loud
You could start by reading an italki article out loud (no murmuring please!). The magazine, blog or newspaper you usually read are also good sources of content that you could read aloud. You may even act out a script of your favorite TV show. In short, whatever you would enjoy reading, do so in a louder fashion!
Another good idea is to start recording audio podcasts or videos on your smartphone about whatever you feel like talking about while, say, you are commuting to work or working out. Or you could talk to yourself when you are alone at home (i.e. doing the chores or having a shower). No need to make elaborate sentences; simple and short, precise ones will do.
Other ideas you could try:
- Sing English songs.
- Make a list of “sentence starters”, such as “From my point of view...” or “Off the top of my head...” and use them when you start speaking out loud or having a conversation in English.
- While you are speaking, think aloud if you have no clue what you should reply to a question. (i.e. “I have no idea what the answer to this question is”).
The more you hear yourself speak English, the more your mouth will get used to forming English words. And, don't worry about how your English sounds like. Eventually, your pronunciation will become more similar to a native English speaker's pronunciation (see shadowing section below for extra help). Even if you feel you are not clearly understood or make mistakes, it is okay. The more you move on with reading this article, the more you will understand why!
Just remember that even native English speakers make mistakes when they speak. Not to mention the different accents people from English-speaking countries have. Do you think than an Australian can be clearly understood by a Brit? Yet, they both speak English! That aside, your spoken English might not sound as weird as you may think to a native speaker. It is just your fear; so get over it. The key to your success, at this phase, is to speak freely and not care about how others perceive you or whether you make grammatical mistakes.
Shadowing is a technique where you listen to some English, be it a monologue, audiobook, radio show, conversation or anything else, and repeat it right after. Just make sure whatever you choose is to your level or slightly more difficult. The key is to have something fairly easy to exercise.
Modeling native English speakers you like (preferably those with a speaking style similar to your mother tongue) is the next best thing you can do to learn proper pronunciation. Shadowing helps train your ear to listen carefully to how words are pronounced (also the rhythm and tone in which phrases are spoken) and how ideas are turned into words. Pay close attention to little things, such as the number of pauses and the length of the speech so you can copy what you listened and then repeat properly. This will not only “teach” your mouth muscles to move in the right way but also allow your ear to become accustomed to the way native speakers speak. Your spoken English will become smoother through making the right sounds.
2. Improve Your Listening
Mastering your listening skills will help you more with improving your English speaking skills. Listen to as many English materials as possible, from podcasts (i.e. ESL Aloud or BBC's 6 Minute English) and book recordings to songs (mind the lyrics) and conversations on YouTube. Watching movies, interviews, short TED talks, and TV series (always with native English speakers) without subtitles can also help. At first, chances are many words will appear to be unfamiliar and the accent of a native English speaker may not be too understandable on your end.
There are many different accents depending on one's origins. For example, a British speaks differently than an American and an American from Texas speaks differently than an American from New York or an Australian. It is perfectly fine if you cannot understand every single word. Just be patient, persistent, and choose which accent you like the best and then be consistent about what you listen and how you talk (don't mix, say, American English with British English). The more you listen, the more you will be able to comprehend different accents too while also learn new expressions at the same time.
- Try not to translate as you listen; just grasp the general meaning of what it is you are listening to.
- To enhance the way you listen to things, close your eyes and amplify your hearing sense. Repeat the sounds exactly as you hear them. You can start with small words and slowly move on to phrases. This exercise will also help boost your self-confidence too.
- Listen to something and then record yourself saying that same thing. That way, you will be able to address any weaknesses by comparing the two pronunciations.
3. Improve Your Presentation Skills
Although not directly related to languages, improving your presentation skills will also help you improve your spoken English. Being able to present clearly and effectively in English will allow you to gain the confidence you need to put your English speaking skills into motion. You may have an excellent level of English already but without the ability and confidence to speak freely to others, all that knowledge is wasted. Also, adapting your presentation skills according to your audience's expectations will eventually make you an eloquent orator!
Here is what you can do to better your presentation skills:
- Turn nervous energy into enthusiasm – Take deep breaths to get oxygen to your brain, listen to some music before making a presentation, or do some Yoga. Whatever relaxes you and makes you shed off negative thoughts and nervousness. If you are nervous, you will speak faster than what you normally do, which may make you less understandable by your audience.
- Implement positive visualization techniques- If you can visualize the success of what you are about to do, chances are that is what you will receive in the end!
- Release your fears – Nobody is there to laugh at you. On the contrary, they do understand how stressful this is to you and are there to watch you succeed.
- Smile – Besides exhibiting enthusiasm and confidence to the crowd, studies have also found that smiling increases the production of endorphins.
- Avoid voids – Pauses are inevitable when you are hosting a webinar or presentation. You can address them by slowing down rather than trying to fill the void with groans and grunts (you know, the “ermmm”, “uhhhh...” sounds). Instead, use pauses as a means to emphasize key points. Your talk will also feel more conversational too. Or you can comment on something before you make your statement (i.e. “This is a difficult question”, etc).
- Mind your articulation – Speaking in a fashion that makes you completely understandable by your audience will help people relate more to what you are saying and think highly of you.
- Come to terms that you may not have all the answers – Admitting not knowing every little thing about a given topic doesn't make you weak; it makes you human and helps improve your credibility.
4. Speaking With a Native Teacher
If you have people that speak English fluently, then do ask them if they would like to communicate with you in English so that you can practice your speaking skills. If you don't have anybody to help you, you can make friends with English speakers (i.e. through the social media) or exchange ideas with other people also learning English. People say that if you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people. Likewise, if you want your spoken English to sound as if coming from the mouth of a native speaker, surround yourself with English speakers! Having a so-called language buddy also helps boost your self-confidence. However, it is important your language buddy is better at English than you so that your skills can only go up.
Of course, there is nothing better than speaking with a qualified professional that holds expertise in English. At italki, we can match you to experienced English teachers and tutors who will make sure your speaking skills are taken to an upper level the soonest possible. It is a superb opportunity to practice what you have learned or read in English with a person that not only speaks English as their mother tongue but also knows how to pass on valuable knowledge and advice to people trying to master every aspect of the language. That aside, italki teachers come from a vast array of backgrounds, which allows them to broaden a topic matter raised by learners and discussed in class to another level, giving learners the opportunity to expand their knowledge base.
Your communication errors are instantly corrected, you get to hear the right pronunciation, clear doubts related to sentence and grammatical construction, have the chance to sound like you were born in an English-speaking country, and progress much faster than without professional help. And, if you feel shy, you can always have one-on-one audio sessions rather than video calls; as simple as that!
Other Practical Tips:
- When you get stuck, use vague language (i.e “I suppose...”, “I guess...”) to give yourself time to think how to explain something you are struggling with at the time, or explain it using other words/phrases you know.
- Avoid putting too much pressure on you or being too harsh on yourself. Let yourself go with the flow
- Try to improve your speaking speed, without stressing yourself over it, and have as much of a continuous flow as possible without distractions.
- It is perfectly okay to pause for a while (especially when you want to increase excitement about what you are about to say next), change your mind halfway through a sentence, correct yourself, repeat yourself, go back to something you forgot to mention, explain something and make grammatical mistakes while doing so. What matters the most is that you try to better your skills; the rest will come with time and practice.
- Respond to the easiest part of a question first. If, for example, you are asked “How and when did you find that cute puppy?” start answering with whichever part you feel is the easiest (the “when” or the “how”) and not necessarily in that order. Then give more details.
- Feel free to go off topic if you must. Use phrases like “by the way...”, say what you need to say, and get back on track with something like “Where were we?” (followed by “Oh, yes!”) or “Anyway,...”.
- Make sure you distinctly mark the end of your turn, either with the help of eye contact, body language, or using tag questions (“...isn't it?).
This is probably going to be a challenging road, which is actually a great thing because it will push you to get out of your comfort zone and explore your true potential. There may come times when you might think that practice isn't working for you and you feel frustrated. As soon as you embrace difficulty, you will realize that you are indeed pushing your spoken English to the next level. Dare to make mistakes and learn from them. Making mistakes is also part of the learning process; perhaps the most critical one. Your goal is clearly defined, right? You know where you want to go. So don't let anything get in between until you finally reach your dream. Along the way, you will find people willing and ready to help you out; to show you that you can make it! Yes, it takes time to make new brain synapses, but once you do, they will be there for the rest of your life.
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Tips for improving your English speaking skills and pronunciation