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My 5 Year Long Journey to English Fluency

Robby's Journey to English Fluency

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I got out of the plane in the Dublin airport. The weather was great despite rumors that it rains 360 days a year in Ireland.

I was full of expectations, and I was also slightly worried because all I knew for sure was that I’d signed up for a job in a warehouse. Everything else was left to my imagination and such insignificant details as where I’m going to live and how much I’ll have to pay for accommodation hadn’t been really communicated neither to me nor to other Latvian guys I met at the airport having signed up with the same international job recruitment agency.

I didn’t care too much about it anyway.

I’d nothing to lose because all I had was 50 euro in my pocket and a promise of a better life.

In a couple of weeks’ time it turned out I’d singed up with the right agency. I was working for a large multinational logistics company, pay was good, and I was able to start stashing away significant amount of money on a weekly basis which was impossible in my previous life in Latvia where I’d been barely able to make my ends meet.

Little that I knew back then, however, that my stay in Ireland wasn’t going to be just about making a better life for myself and my family.

I couldn’t have imagined that living in an English speaking country would challenge me as an English speaker in ways I didn’t even know existed.

It turned out that my English was quite poor for practical daily life and soon after my arrival in Ireland I started trying to improve my English so that I could function properly in an English speaking society.

It took me long years to figure out that textbook based grammar studies and learning large English vocabulary lists didn’t really improve my ability to communicate with other English speakers.

Now, 10 years on, long after I finally achieved English fluency I can say with honesty that it’s been one hell of a journey!

Want to find out more about it?

Then read the rest of this article! 😉

Year #1: Building Vocabulary the Old-School Way

English Vocabulary Building

What struck me when I first came to Ireland was my inability to have simple, casual conversations with other English speakers in normal day-to-day situations.

I’d always considered myself a good English speaker, yet the reality was quite different – I WAS NOT.

The funny thing is (for more phrases with the word ‘thing’ click HERE), I didn’t make the simple connection between my inability to SPEAK and my LACK OF SPOKEN ENGLISH PRACTICE.

For some reason – most likely my academic background – I assumed that my lack of vocabulary is the reason behind my fluency problems (by the way – I was also unable to clearly define the actual problem which was lack of ORAL FLUENCY!)

And so I started cramming hundreds of new English words into my brain using the old-school approach:

  • Translating from and to my native language;
  • Memorizing new English words with the respective translation in my language;
  • Learning meanings of separate words as opposed to contextual learning.

Sure, it wasn’t all a complete waste of time because a lot of that new vocabulary was taken from newspapers and books that I started to read on a regular basis.

Still, on many occasions I did more harm than good to my English fluency because of the wrong mental associations such vocabulary building created in my mind!

Year #2: Working Towards Reading Fluency

English Reading Fluency

Lack of understanding as to what exactly my English fluency problem was is responsible for all those years I wasted engaged in the wrong activities.

I couldn’t speak fluently, yet in the year two I kept using my pocket dictionaries for hours on end which meant a complete lack of spoken English practice and interpersonal communication!

I can clearly see in hindsight that I should’ve worked an awful lot more on my oral fluency, yet I was steering in the completely wrong direction – I took up reading instead of speaking.

I started buying English books about topics that I was interested in, and spent all my free time reading them and developing my passive vocabulary.

Make no mistake though – it’s generally a good thing provided you develop your overall English fluency along. But if you just read, learn new vocabulary and grammar rules, you’ll still keep struggling with your oral fluency. Just like I was in the year two!

Year #3: Advanced Grammar Studies

Another misconception of mine was believing that grammar knowledge will somehow make me into a better English speaker.

I’d write dozens upon dozens of English grammar rules with sample sentences in my notebooks.

I’d buy advanced English grammar textbooks and carefully study the most intricate aspects of the English language.

Yet, the English fluency wouldn’t come! 😡

I remember being capable of calling out lists of sample sentences illustrating usage of this or that particular English preposition, article and whatnot. I felt I was doing a brilliant job, and it made me feel quite good about myself.

I have a vivid memory of talking to another Latvian fella whose spoken English was very good and somehow we got talking about future plans and so on. I told him I was planning to get a better job and that in order to achieve that I was constantly working on my English. Then I started listing some of those English grammar rules off the top of my head, and he was truly amazed at my knowledge. He admitted he didn’t know one tenth of what I did and he agreed I was doing a brilliant job.

But deep down inside I envied him because he could speak freely with natives, while I was only good at boasting about my grammar knowledge!

Still, I couldn’t see what I should do differently in order to overcome my fluency issues so I just kept reading, building vocabulary and studying grammar…

Year #4: Speaking With Myself

Not everything I was doing in terms of my English improvement was wrong.

Unbeknownst to myself, I was engaging into something that would prove to be the key factor when it comes to spoken English improvement. Namely – spoken English practice.

You see, while at work, I spent most of my time alone driving an industrial truck and picking boxes – hence my job description ‘order picker’.

So it’s not surprising that while engaged in repetitious and boring manual task your mind starts wandering.

Initially I tried to fill up my time with going over new vocabulary words in my mind.

Quite naturally, I tried to come up with sentences containing those words, and so in no time I would spend my days at work speaking with myself in English.

My progress was slow, mostly because I didn’t learn naturally occurring speech patterns, phrases and collocations. I was going the trial and error way, but at least I was doing something in order to improve my SPOKEN ENGLISH.

Slowly but surely, my English fluency improved.

Still, I’d have terrible English fluency issues every now and then because of all the following:

Year #5: Repeating the Same Old Same Old… To No Avail!

I’d quit my job in the warehouse and started working in an international call center as a data analyst.

Things are improving, and now I’m spending a lot more time speaking with other English speakers… Which highlights my English fluency issues even more because amidst those few days when I can speak in English freely and comfortably I have really bad fluency days! 😡

At this point in time I’ve achieved a complete English reading fluency and I’m constantly reading English fiction. My vocabulary is thorough and I don’t have any problems with grammar when it comes to writing and providing online customer support.

Speaking with others, however, is a different story altogether and I’m starting to get even more desperate.

Am I really never going to achieve a level of spoken English I witnessed all around me on a daily basis? There were foreign English speakers from many different national backgrounds – Italian, French, Spanish, Polish, Chinese and Argentinian – but none of them seemed to be struggling when speaking despite making a few grammar mistakes here and there!

Eventually I figured that I might be having some sort of a mental issue which prevented me from being able to have normal daily conversations with others…

Lightbulb Moment – How Couldn’t I Think of It Before?!

It just happened.

One fine day it all came together and I realized why I was still struggling with my fluency:

  • I finally defined that it’s the ORAL FLUENCY I’m lacking – not grammar, or reading, or vocabulary!
  • I realized that vocabulary needs to be acquired in CONTEXT so that one can use it effectively!
  • I started seeing that if I memorized WHOLE PHRASES and sentences, I could use them automatically when speaking with others!

From that moment and on, my plan of action was straightforward with a clear focus on practicing my spoken English and learning phrases, idiomatic expressions and sentences as they’re used by native English speakers.

No more grammar studies (natural speech contains all necessary grammar in it).

No more boring vocabulary drills.

Instead, I started speaking with others and myself an awful lot more and I made sure I learned new phrases and expressions on a regular basis to make my spoken English more fluent and native-like.

The Moral of This Story

If your life story is similar to mine, there are valuable lessons you can learn from it.

First of alldon’t go down the traditional English learning road. Academic English studies are a far cry from real life English and won’t develop your SPOKEN FLUENCY (remember how long it took me just to define that it’s the spoken fluency I was lacking?!)

Secondly – you can spend long years improving your English the old-school way OR you can accelerate your learning big time if you engage in a lot of spoken English practice.

Lastlythe English language (just like any other language in the world) consists of word chunks and phrases, and you just have to get rid of the habit of sticking separate words together. Contextual learning is a MUST if you want to become a fluent English speaker!

Robby

P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

 

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thanks for dropping by Samuel, and speaking of job interviews – preparation is the key to a successful job interview, so please watch this video http://englishharmony.com/job-interview-preparation/ to see what exactly you have to do.

    And here’s some useful phrases to use when preparing for your future job interviews:

    http://englishharmony.com/job-seeking/

    and here’s how to speak during a job interview:

    http://englishharmony.com/job-interview/
    Cheers,
    Robby

  • Samuel Fagbemi

    Robby, this is exactly my life story, especially at the end when you said you thought u might be having some mental issues. lol. same thing I said to myself few weeks ago.
    I came to this site because I’m having an interview soon and i googled in “good word structures for interviews” and then I saw this page. After my interview I guess, I’ll be coming here a lot and I’ll take this phrase thing seriously because I believe that’s my main problem. Not being able to speak fluently has really affected my confidence down the years.

  • Hi Ari,

    You can’t become fluent just by listening, reading or other means of passive English immersion, so please read this guide http://englishharmony.com/start/ on what exactly you can do to improve your spoken English within a relatively short period of time!
    Cheers,
    Robby

  • Ari kurdish

    hi teacher and thank you for youre information it is so good to us but i have one problem i can understand 50_60% in english when i listen to an english audio but i can not use english very well please tell me what should i do ? Thank you so much teacher

  • No problem, and thanks for commenting Michael! I totally agree with you on speaking being crucial in learning the English language – just like I said in my story. Speaking of full immersion environment – yes, that’s the way to go, especially if one doesn’t have many opportunities to speak with natives on a regular basis. That’s exactly how I’ve achieved fluency, by the way, because believe it or not, just living in an English speaking country doesn’t guarantee you’ll be speaking with others 24/7. You’ve gotta make the extra effort yourself and do everything it takes – do self-spoken practice, read, watch TV etc.! 😉

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • michael

    It’s always interesting to share the best ways to learn a new language. I guess that if you truly want to be fluent, it is quintessential to live around native speakers and if you can’t, you need to create an entire environment so as to be immersed and to be constantly using the language somehow by developing the different skills such as the conversational and the listening skill which are both fundamental in our desire to make improvements.
    There are different different ways to chase after your goals and you will surely figure something out to do so. I am myself a French native speaker and at the beginning, I must admit , it was pretty difficult for me to follow the instructions and to memorize all the grammar lessons, I remember when I was struggling with the use of past perfect and then, I started speaking with many people in English, face to face and through Skype for instance and then it made all the difference, Speaking is the cornerstone of learning a language and once you started, you don’t want it to stop because in my case, I thoroughly fell in love with it and I just needed to know more about the culture, the society, history, all different aspects which all contributed in a way to reinforce my knowledge, my vocabulary and my ability to understand people even when speaking fast, so I suppose, everyone just needs to find to perfect way to pull this off but thanks Robby for sharing your experience with us.

  • In reality it’s quite simple – you want to improve your speech – you have to speak. You want to improve your ability to read – you have to read. You want to become better at understanding and listening – do plenty of listening.

    It’s the simple truth I didn’t realize back then; I thought that reading and grammar rules will help me with my spoken English but little did I know that those types of activities wouldn’t contribute into my oral fluency at all…

    And yes, spoken English self-practice will do wonders to your fluency, here’s more useful info on it:

    http://englishharmony.com/write-first-then-speak/

    http://englishharmony.com/recording-your-speech/

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • Dhanesh Rathore

    Inspiring story Robby… I also started by improving on my vocabulary. However the major improvement to speak English well started coming in when I really started to talk in English (courtesies my coaching institute: inlingua New Delhi). This made me believe and treat English as my native language. Taking cues from you, I would really use speaking with myself tip to become even more proficient.

  • Indrajit Kar

    Hi, Robby….firstly, whatever you are doing…i’ll have to say you are incomparable…well what i wanted to ask you is…me being an indian, here everyone is speaking in hindi all the time and when im outside with people i cant help but i too have to speak in hindi…although i bring in english in my conversations to keep the practice going…i think in english all the time and speak to myself too in english (all your suggestions) but the only obstacle that seems to me is the way i think in english is more or less influenced by hindi…like some slangs or some repartee…and even the daily things…it also happens sometimes that i know what to say in a particular situation in hindi but in english what i say is completely different and even worse i just keep running short for ideas and i simply cant say anything…what shall i do ??

  • Thanks for the positive feedback August, much appreciated!

    It really gladdens my heart to read such nice words and to be aware that my story and my experiences are helping my fellow foreigners like you – it makes running this blog and making my videos worthwhile!

    I hope you stick around my blog for more articles and videos to come in the near future!

    Also, you’re welcome to check out my other blog at http://accentadventure.com/ which is decidated to pronunciation improvement – if you’re interested in this aspect of English, that is! 😉

    Best Regards and всего хорошего!!!

    Robby 🙂

  • August

    Robby, I should say that you have a lot of experience which native English speakers/teachers lack, so your stories are steps foreign learners have to follow in order to avoid many mistakes and hidden traps of language aquisition, have more fun while learning and be more productive on the whole! You’re doing a great job and I hope your efforts are being rewarded adequately!

    Honestly, I didn’t even get that English is not your mother tongue, found out that you speak Russian (my native language) by accident!

    Some of your strategies are really effective and easy to follow, turns out many of them I’ve been following for some time subconciously or on advice, some of them I should include in my schedule definitely!!!

    Thanks a lot!

  • selma

    Hello Robby,

    I read some article about fluency speaking, could you please identify your differences when comparing to the others ? While living in the full of English atmosphere into the bargain ! I am really interested in your way, thank you in advance,

  • The only solution is to engage in A LOT OF SPEAKING – and I’ve got to tell you you’re on the right track with some self-practice. Keep it up, do a whole lot more of it, and when it comes to speaking with others, don’t compare your English with theirs!

    More articles you should read:

    http://englishharmony.com/don%E2%80%99t-compare-your-english-with-others/

    http://englishharmony.com/speaking-with-yourself/

  • I can happen, and I personally find ignorance is the best attitude to deal with such situations. Read this article of mine for more info:
    http://englishharmony.com/native-english-speakers-assumptions/

  • rahul

    One more query..Do non-native speakers whose English is not good face any discrimination in English speaking countries. I am getting unnerved at that.

  • rahul

    One more query..Are non-native speakers whose English is not good face any discrimination in English speaking countries. I am getting unnerved at that.

  • rahul

    I use Cambridge advanced learner’s dictionary. I listen to English music, watch English movies without using subtitles. But when it comes to speaking, everything goes out of the window. I have learnt many idioms. But as I am not in an English speaking country, I don’t get a chance to use them frequently. My fluency has improved a lot over the period of last 5 years.
    In my room, I can be found speaking with myself. But again, when I speak to a person whose English is better than mine, I start struggling for the correct word.

  • Hi Rahul,

    Yes, I think it’s more than realistic to become fluent in 6 years living in an English speaking country – especially considering you’ll be spending a lot of time at the university communicating with other English speakers on a daily basis! Just this factor alone will contribute greatly towards your fluency – let alone your additional efforts to build your vocabulary etc.

    You’re doing a brilliant job constructing sentences with new words; however, let me point out that you should most definitely look up EXISTING sample sentences containing those words! It’s a MUST because that way you’ll learn natural collocations containing those words whereas creating sentences just on your own you’re more likely to use those words in a way native speakers probably wouldn’t.

    Also, make sure you use English – English dictionary to completely eliminate your native language from the equation!

    Keep up the good job, and make sure you speak a lot with others and also engage in a lot of spoken practice with yourself to put all those new words and sentences to good use. It’s also a MUST if you want to become conversationally fluent, by the way.

    Best of luck,

    Robby

  • rahul

    Dear Robby,
    I am an international student who is seeking admission in graduate schools in the US. My TOEFL score is 95. Although this is good enough to land me in a university, I am a bit apprehensive about the life there. As I am going to pursue my PHD in a science field, I may not get enough time to devote to English learning. I am comfortable at reading novels, writing a scientific report. Still my spoken English is not up to mark.Whenever I come across a new word, I note it down and look it up in an advanced dictionary. Then I construct two sentences of my own. Is it possible to become fluent ( speaking accurately without stuttering) after spending 6 years in an English speaking country?

  • Well, I believe your fluency would improve for sure taking into account 24/7 English immersion you’d be having dating an English speaking girl – let alone moving in with her!

  • Thanks Ameera for your comment and I’m really glad you’ve changed the way you perceive English learning and improvement. Whenever you’re ready to try the System – just let me know and I’ll provide as much assistance as I can!

    Best Regards,

    Robby

  • Robby , Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story with us ::

    it will be great if you update us with your
    current situation , you are more like a friend to us now 😀

    i have to say that i can relate to your story
    , i “was” making the same mistakes BUT now and after i watched a lot
    of your videos and read almost all of your articles : i changed my mind
    completely

    i am seeking a better life too and English is
    the key

    So , i can grantee that i will try your
    program soon

    Wish you all the best
    ,

  • Francisco Javier

    A very educational story!

    By the way, do you think my fluency will improve if I date an Irish or British girl? Should I tell them I’m rich?