Confident spoken English: The journey from impossible to I(am)possible
“Language is not a genetic gift; it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club – the community of speakers of that language.” - Frank Smith.
Learning a new language or mastering any non-native one can be a daunting task, especially if the language in question is English - one of the most widely spoken, adaptable and inclusive languages in the world.
To learn English online is now more common than before thanks to the rapid rate of digitalization in today’s globalized markets, at a pace accelerated unprecedently by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Online spoken English classes are now more evolved in terms of their course curriculum, online lesson delivery with a more customized approach to addressing individual students needs as well in the form of one-on-one online English classes.
The best (read faster) outcomes for an online English speaking course is the conversational style learning method. Conversational online English classes emphasize much more time on spoken English practice than traditional learning formats. Other than individual attention towards the learner, the online English teacher also is able to customize lessons at a progressive pace.
I have spent many years as a student learning and as an online English tutor teaching this beautiful language because when I see hesitant English speakers mold themselves into self-reliant and dynamic individuals through their patience and dedication, it gives me immense joy, pride and sense of achievement.
This article has three aspects - firstly, to analyse what the term ‘fluent spoken English’ means; secondly, to understand the challenges faced by people who flounder in their use of English; and finally, to address these challenges with the best possible solutions.
What does the term fluent spoken English mean?
Being fluent in any language means two things - knowing and understanding the language and then appropriately implementing that knowledge according to the required situation.
In order to be fluent in any language,
- we must understand the meaning of the words and phrases that we speak.
- frame the sentences according to acceptable grammar structures.
- avoid repetition of words and phrases and verbal fillers like ‘hmmm’, ‘aah’.
- speaking confidently with proper intonation, diction and pronunciation.
- Listening and understanding the language spoken by others around us so that we can develop a proper conversation with them using vocabulary appropriate to the situation.
To be fluent in English, we need to master both the language and the way we speak it.
Challenges faced by non-native English speaker in learning English
- Lack of exposure to English in daily conversations: Non-native English speakers (meaning people whose mother tongue isn’t English) often don’t speak in English - in schools, offices, homes and with peers. It becomes very easy to speak fluent English if we learn conversing in this language, like we learnt speaking our mother tongue - being surrounded by the relevant words and phrases all the time. Less language immersion means less conversational and situational usage, hence hesitancy and reticence while speaking English.
- Non implementation of grammar structures and vocabulary while speaking: It is not only important to know the grammar rules and list of relevant words but it is far more imperative that we start using them while speaking. Only when we start speaking, will we know our faults. There are many reasons for not using our knowledge according to situations ranging from peer pressure, public scrutiny and the common notion of ‘what will others think if I get it wrong’.
- Lost in translation and transliteration: It is a very common but incorrect practice to learn to speak English by understanding through translations and transliterations. Translations in the vernacular or mother-tongue can help the learner understand what is being spoken but in order to be a fluent English speaker, we should learn, understand and implement the grammar rules, pronunciations, vocabulary and language structures in English only. So we should understand in English to speak English.
- Peer and societal pressure to excel at spoken English: Due to its fluid and inclusive nature, English is one of the most widely spoken languages all over the world. It is a well-known fact that fluent English speakers get an easy pass at interviews, immigration and travel to coveted nations. It is the most common instruction and social connectivity medium, hence achieving fluency in the said language is often seen as a measure of one’s standing in the society.
- There is immense and often unrealistic pressure on rusty learners or beginners to achieve this pot of gold at the end of long and unrelenting review classes - reducing MTI, learning grammar rules, mending pronunciation, improving listening, extempore speaking without missing a beat… and the list continues. In order to be a fluent speaker, we need to first identify and empathize with our challenges and then improve on them patiently, without the fear and embarrassment of failure. In order to learn a new language or improve on a rusty one, we should first learn patience and perseverance to overcome the mountain of peer pressure, societal scrutiny and performance apprehension.
- Paucity of experienced teachers and customized syllabus: It is important to have experienced teachers to understand the requirements of the students who come to attend spoken English classes. More often than not, students aren’t aware of their shortcomings while speaking English because they lack a rubric to measure their performance. This is where a good teacher comes to rescue, one who is able to understand the discernible challenges and fulfils the requirements of the students.
- A good spoken English should make the class so interesting, engaging and fruitful that the students wait eagerly for the next class, their hesitation obscured by their proactiveness. The students, too, play an equally important role in this process of learning. They need to be diligent, mindful and curious in the classes and during their home assignments to overcome their shortcomings and develop into fluent speakers.
Tips to be a fluent English speaker: How to get that elusive A+ from everyone
- Language immersion: The first step to learn and master a new language is to surround yourself with it. As much as possible, we should watch movies, read books, newspapers, online content in English to learn the language structures, pronunciation, intonation and phrases. Making friends with other fluent English speakers is also helpful. As a beginner, you might find it difficult but with conscious and diligent practice, it boosts our exposure to the said language.
- Focus on whole phrases instead of single words: While listening, reading or speaking any sentence we should comprehend the context by understanding the phrases instead of single words. Knowing the meaning of each word may help in building our word bank yet it seldom helps in deciphering the context. So, let’s start by thinking about phrases that we use frequently in our native language, and then learn how to say them in English.
- Technology to rescue: Unlike earlier times, when the non-native speakers were entirely dependent on a limited number of language institutes, today, technology has democratized English learning and speaking. Online classes (live and recorded); speech to text settings on smartphones, AI translator apps, audio books and e-reading websites have made improving English reading, listening, speaking, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation accessible, approachable, affordable and flexible.
- Practice active and mindful listening: It is a proven albeit lesser-known fact - that to be a good speaker, we need to be a keen and observant listener, because only after listening, do we understand and reply to others. Audio books, listening comprehension activities, listening to English speakers of various accents and understanding daily-life/ mundane English conversations - be an active listener everywhere to improve vocabulary, pronunciations, and diction. Make a list of your doubts so that you can clarify with your trainer/tutor or English-speaking friends later on. The more you hear, the easier it will be for you to speak better English. You’ll start speaking more fluently and confidently in English conversations, learning how to give your opinions in English with new expressions and idioms.
- Talk yourself through everyday activities: We should start thinking about and talking to ourselves in English while performing our daily chores or activities. It is a self-motivated form of language immersion - harder, challenging and often the target of some mockery. Derision aside, it is an effective method to practice short conversations and an excellent tool to correct basic grammar. Stop thinking of yourself as someone who is learning English, and start thinking of yourself as someone who speaks English. It’s a small change, but it’ll make you feel more confident and help you to better use the English you already know. Making others aware about your efforts at self-improvement might also fetch admiration and laurels - so try it, even if you have a bulls-eye painted on your back.
- Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fluentest of us all: One of the oldest and time-tested hacks to learn confident public speaking is seeing and listening to yourself speak the language. Practice reading passages, speeches, debates and model conversations in front of the mirror. Better yet, record the same. This recording and self-analysis helps in scrutinizing our diction, pronunciation, intonation, body language, vocabulary, facial and hand gestures. Real fluency happens when you move ahead from mentally translating conversations and listening to others speaking, to actually seeing yourself speak to others. This is the biggest leap of faith - from just learning English to being an English speaker!
- Be curious and unafraid of mistakes and missteps: Sometimes, it can be difficult to put all the grammar rules and appropriate words together into a simple sentence. Don’t let the fear of saying something wrong stop you from speaking at all. Even if you think you’re making a mistake, keep speaking anyway. Most of the time, people will understand what you’re trying to say, even if you make a mistake. Plus, the more you speak, the easier it gets, and the faster the right words will come to mind. Giving ourselves the time and patience to learn from mistakes is very important. Mistakes are inevitable and necessary, but to lower the chance of repeating the same mistakes, you must learn from them, instead of abandoning the ship. Real progress comes when you get over the embarrassment of putting yourself in English-speaking situations, and allow yourself to make mistakes.
- Learning never stops: Being a fluent speaker isn’t a mountain peak waiting to be scaled but the constant process of training for the next summit. Meaning, you should practice what you have learned - techniques, rules, word banks, comprehension activities. Without a proper structured review, you can easily forget a lot of previously learned material. This can hamper our fluency knowledge bank because advanced English constantly builds upon basic, easier concepts. That’s why you must frequently test your skills. You can review your learning in a number of different ways. Practice makes perfect. Constantly look for opportunities to test out your spoken English.
Every time you talk to someone in English is an achievement. Every single interaction you have, no matter how small, will help you improve your skills over time. Be proud of your progress. Being self-motivated and setting achievable targets to reach and continue with the goal of spoken English fluency is the most important feather in any beginner’s cap. Have fun while learning so that you are an inspiring role model to others. Nothing is impossible - it’s I(am)possible.
Contributed by - Durga Jyothi Vajjhala