Whether you’re looking for love, employment opportunities, or trying to become a savvy traveler, speaking should be the skill that you really try to perfect. And true perfection can only come from practice.
Nevertheless, this can be very challenging for some students. When I was teaching English to Japanese native speakers, I found that many of my students enjoyed reading and writing, but were terrified of speaking. Some of this was due to the fact that in Japanese schools, English was mostly taught through reading and writing, with only minimal conversation practice. However, another significant factor was that many students in general have an innate fear of making a mistake, saying the wrong word, or causing embarrassment to themselves and those around them.
Fear is understandable, but remember, no one is born fluent in a language. We all make mistakes as children when learning our native tongue. As with professional athletes, a skill is perfected and honed through years of study and practice.
So, to become a great speaker, we must first become ignorant. And by this I don’t mean to be rude or mean to other people. Instead, we should aim to be ignorant of embarrassment, to be ignorant of the myths that surround spoken language, and to be ignorant of fear. In order to develop our ignorance, we should try to emulate great speakers, acquire mentors, and work hard to understand more about different cultures.
If your own culture places an emphasis on saving face and preserving your reputation in public, you can always be ignorant in the safety of your own home. This is because when you are in your room, away from prying eyes, you can be as ignorant as you like.
So, while I am not a public speaker for the United Nations, nor a presidential spokesperson, I nevertheless hope to guide you to becoming a clear and confident speaker. Please accept my humble, and very ignorant, advice.
What could possibly go wrong when speaking a foreign language? Well, a lot could go wrong for you. However, it is actually how you handle the aftermath of a mistake that truly determines how people judge you in life.
Remember, people's opinions are based on their own individual experiences. When looking at another country, you should not judge it by the masses, but instead by each individual citizen of that nation. And that individual is just the same as you. He or she is charmed by flattery, interested in those who are interested in them, and their opinion is easily swayed by someone with a smooth tongue.
The truth is that most people are surprised by foreigners who can speak even a little bit of their native language. This is especially true of the many people who do not speak a second language, being that these people are more easily impressed by those who are multilingual. Jason Bourne, for example, is a popular character in England. However, it is his ability to speak other languages and blend into other cultures that makes him the envy of many English people.
Therefore, as long as you throw some charm into your speaking and remember to use please and thank you, most people will welcome you with open arms. This is because the person you are talking to is a human being, just like you.
Train your people skills
In order to completely overcome your embarrassment, you must learn how to communicate with people just like yourself. Learning to speak a foreign language is a good thing, but if you lack skill in handling people, then you will struggle to communicate even in your own language.
Therefore, you need to be honest and ask yourself if you are a confident communicator in your native tongue. If you think that you lack confidence in handling people, it would be wise to spend time refining this skill.
There is in fact a way to improve this ability and make money at the same time. What I would suggest is to take a job, even if it’s only part-time, that revolves around dealing with the general public. A good example of this would be call centre work. It is currently a booming business and therefore, it may be worth your while to spend a few hours working in a service driven industry such as a call centre.
The advantages to this are clear. You will be speaking to a stranger on every call, and that stranger might be angry, happy, or even sad. Through this experience, you will learn to better understand human nature. Thus, your fear of embarrassment can be overcome with the knowledge that you are very good at handling people.
If speaking in a crowd is a struggle for you, then sign yourself up with a teacher on italki. Ask to practice a conversation one on one. It would be also worth your while to study the craft of presentations. You could plan a presentation and show it to your teacher via webcam.
I myself have taken advantage of this when I was teaching English. I would ask groups of students to work on a presentation in class. At the end of the class, they would come to the front of the room and take turns speaking during the presentation. This would of course make my students nervous. However, after the presentation was complete, they would walk back to their seats a little more confident and a little bit taller.
Study James Earl Jones
The voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies is one of the most distinctive and well-known voices in the history of cinema. As a result, it is absolutely incredible to think that Darth Vader's voice originated from an actor who at one time could barely speak one sentence at a time.
Thus, if you feel that becoming a good speaker is a difficult task, I would definitely recommend that you study the life story of actor James Earl Jones.
In his youth, James Earl Jones overcame speech difficulties through practice, patience, and by force of will power. He developed speaking confidence by reading Shakespeare out loud to himself. Through consistent practice, he overcame all odds and developed a powerful voice that was so unique, it was chosen to represent science fiction's favourite villain: Darth Vader.
I do not want to tell you his entire life story, as that would spoil it for you. Please study his life, the speaking exercises he used, and try to emulate the confidence that he developed.
The myth of perfection
When I was working in India, I met a young Indian woman who dreamed of working in England. However, she believed that she could never work there because in her mind, her English was not good enough. She truly thought that most English people would struggle to understand her.
The reality was that she spoke English better than a lot of English people. In fact, it is a complete myth that all native English speakers are perfect at speaking English. Downton Abbey is a great television programme, but not everyone speaks English so clearly and so perfectly. For example, I have worked in customer service on a number of occasions. It is not an easy job, but the hardest part is actually understanding people’s pronunciation and varied use of slang.
Thus, just because someone is a native speaker, it does not mean that they are a great speaker. As in your own country, you will talk to people who mumble, who speak too quickly, and whose pronunciation can be difficult to decipher. These are just some of the reasons why the phonetic alphabet was invented.
When you travel abroad, you will find that most native speakers will be patient with you if you are struggling to make your point. However, it might surprise you that you may occasionally have to extend the same courtesy to a native speaker.
Avoid new movies and soap operas
If you want to study other speakers, then I would advise you to avoid newer movies and soap operas.
This is because many new movies and soap operas are focused around a regional accent and over use slang. Thus, you can save a great deal of money on cinema tickets, and increase the clarity of your speaking, just by studying old movie stars. The actor Basil Rathbone in the old Sherlock Holmes movies is a great example of how to speak English clearly.
In fact, old movies, particularly those produced during World War II, were made to attract as many viewers as possible. For that reason, old movies contain simpler language that is more easily understood. On the other hand, many modern movies are made for a niche audience, and are not aimed at the general public as a whole.
Another good source of clearly spoken English are speeches. A good speech writer can craft a piece of writing that will be understood by people from all walks of life, whether they are carpenters, bankers, or hairdressers.
Therefore, you should select and study a speech given by a world leader to a group of news reporters. You will notice that the language used is mostly devoid of complicated jargon and contains strong, short, and powerful sentences that make a clear point.
Find a mentor
A great teacher will also be a great mentor. In order to be a mentor, that person shouldn’t just teach you how to speak, but should also explain the rules of social etiquette to you, whether it be in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Japan, or elsewhere.
Unfortunately, many foreign language schools will only recruit younger teachers, usually those under the age of forty. If you are being taught by a teacher in their mid-twenties, I would suggest you look for an older teacher in addition.
This is because, while a young mentor is great, an older teacher will have a great deal of experience to share with you and will be of great help towards your goal of communicating with native speakers.
You could also seek out an older mentor in the expat community where you live. This would be useful because you will need someone to guide you and help you understand how to relate to people from another culture, as well as how to reach them when speaking.
Moreover, a good older mentor will appreciate your interest in their experience, and will help encourage you to better relate to people using your speech and your emphasis when speaking. Plus, there are many older people who are also looking for an apprentice to pass their knowledge on to. Be sure to take advantage of this, and you may just end up with a good friend for life.