One of the most common questions I get from my students is: “How can I improve my speaking?”
My answer is usually a two-part answer, depending on the person’s current level of English.
The basic idea is that in order to speak English well, with confidence, you must first understand English.
You do this by spending a lot of time just listening, not speaking. Once you have built a strong foundation of understanding, THEN speaking will emerge. Once speaking emerges, you will improve your skills by finding real reasons to communicate with others in English.
This answer is based on both my own personal experience learning Spanish as a second language and on research I have read over the past 20 years of being involved with ESL students.
When I was 15 years old, I went to Spain as a foreign exchange student. Even though I had taken two years of Spanish in high school, I can pretty much tell you that I didn’t really know much Spanish at all. I was still saying thinks like “Yo sabo”, which is completely incorrect, but shows my effort to apply “grammar rules” that I had been taught about conjugating verbs, though I didn’t actually know what I was doing.
I spent the first THREE MONTHS in Spain just listening. I may have tried to say a few phrases here and there, but I really spent the majority of my time in silence, listening to my host family speak to each other, ask me questions while using a lot of gestures and showing me things so that I could understand, and listening to my teachers give lectures and my classmates speak amongst themselves. Even when I went out with some new friends, I mostly just watched and listened, trying to make meaning of the sounds, trying to figure out what they were trying to communicate to me. If I did say anything, it was very simple and only in response to what they were saying to me. I didn’t initiate conversations at that point. Mind you, I was taking a full load of high school courses, including physics, calculus, literature, English (that was easy!), and computer science. It took a while for it to become comprehensible to me.
Eventually, just around the three-month mark, I began to speak, and when I did it was pretty fluent, even if not always 100% grammatically correct. Once I had past through that intensive listening period, I was able to speak and say pretty much anything I wanted, and everything snowballed from there.
Shortly after that point, I moved in with a family that had four teens and the discussions at mealtimes were much more lively than in the other household; my listening comprehension, my vocabulary, and my speaking abilities improved dramatically. I was in a safe, welcoming, family environment and I began to speak much more. I even began to get excellent marks in all my classes, as my reading and writing skills improved to that high level.
So when I read research by language experts such as Stephen Krashen, David Long or even the famous polyglot Steve Kaufmann regarding the importance of listening and not rushing into speaking, I can really relate.
So this is what I recommend to students.
I encourage students to relax, spend a lot of time listening to comprehensible input, and have confidence that soon you will begin to speak. By the way, comprehensible input is any type of English material that you can mostly understand. Once you have had a nice, long period of really listening, listening deeply, by using the strategy of repetition (listening to something over and over again), then you can start looking for opportunities to communicate with others in a REAL WAY, like via Skype with a tutor or with a language exchange partner or on the English Fluency Now Facebook page with me and other members.
According to David Long, a teacher using the Automatic Language Growth approach, “Good speaking ability grows out of a good foundation of understanding. Therefore, understanding is what must be gained, not practice speaking. Exposure to understandable, interesting experiences is the key to learning another language.”
I agree with this approach and this is what I strive to offer all English language learners here on this website, in the podcasts, on Facebook and Twitter, and with a new product I am currently working on. My mission for this site is to provide high quality, interesting, understandable English content to help you build a strong foundation of understanding, so that when you are ready, your speaking ability will emerge naturally and without a lot of “hard work” and frustration on your part.
This is how it happened for me with Spanish and this is how it happened for all of us as children.
Once you have built a STRONG foundation of understanding, then speaking will emerge automatically and you will speak with confidence, easily expressing yourself in your communications with others.
So, my best advice for any student who is anxious about their speaking skills is to relax and trust the process. Put in your time, of course! Listen, listen, listen.
I recommend a total of one hour per day, at least 5 days per week, of listening to comprehensible English. If you can’t understand it, it is too difficult and you must find something else that is easier to understand.
Allow speaking to emerge. Don’t push yourself to speak until you are ready.
When you actually understand what you are saying, rather than merely repeating words you really don’t understand, then you know you are on your way to speaking excellent English.
In his book From the Outside In, the American linguist Marvin Brown, who spent a lifetime learning how people become fluent in a second language, tells this story.
Zambi came from the village of Makui in central Africa a hundred years ago and her parents arranged for her to marry a man in the village of Mujambi, which spoke a completely different language. She arrived there not knowing a word of Mujambi and nobody there knew any Makui-not even her husband. During the day, while her husband was hunting with the other men, the women took Zambi along with them as they did their basket weaving and gardening. At night everybody sat around the fire and listened to stories. Zambi’s daily life could be described as ‘silently tagging along’. After a year of this she understood almost everything that went on around her and could say a few words and phrases. After 2 years she was quite fluent, and after 3 or 4 years she was almost like a native Mujambi villager.
- Mary’s way: “What does that mean? How do you say this? How do you spell it?”
- Zambi’s way: “Tagging along”- caught up in a cascade of everyday happenings without trying to say anything for nearly a year.
We don’t have to go to the Africa of 100 years ago to find people using Zambi’s way. We all used it ourselves. That’s how we learned our native language: tagging along without trying to say anything for the first year. It works for children. It worked for Zambi. Why doesn’t it work for everyone? The common belief is that we lose the child’s secret as we grow up. But what about Zambi? The answer seems to lie in the second part: not trying to say anything for the first year. You see, adults just can’t resist Mary’s way when it’s available. But it isn’t available to little children and it wasn’t available to Zambi. That’s the secret!
Now, am I telling you to not try to say a word of English for an entire year? No, not at all. But if you did wait that long, it would be just fine and maybe the end product would be even better.
However, most people learning English today want and need to be able to speak much sooner, and you can. Just don’t deny the value and the importance of the silent period. It is okay to listen without speaking. Give yourself permission to do that. When you are ready and excited about it, then speaking will become effortless.
Keep in mind, that the silent period may be different in length for each individual learner. There are many factors that will influence how long you need to listen before you begin to really understand. Just be easy on yourself and make sure that you are having fun. By keeping up your enthusiasm and positive attitude, you will soon be speaking English easily and with confidence.