Over the years I keep seeing the same mistakes being made over and over again by those who want to improve their English. But it’s really shocking to see that not only is reading and writing based English learning encouraged but speaking English is discouraged! Moreover, I found this genius approach of improving English by cutting out speaking on an authority website – I’d better not give its name here…
Well, it would be folly to hold the website responsible for all their contributors posts – after all, even Wikipedia.org is full of wrong and misleading facts. Still the first point on the article I read voices the standard notion in the industry – and here it is:
1. Talk less and listen more.
Brilliant, isn’t it? Shut your mouth, foreign English speaker, don’t practice your speech but instead focus on passive language input! This is the gem among all recommendations I’ve read online targeted to foreigners who want to improve their English, and I can’t stress enough how WRONG it is.
Talking less English is in fact a surefire way to kill your English fluency and speech confidence in its infancy. You see, first of all, there’s a misconception that by passive input such as listening you’ll acquire all relevant vocabulary and as a result you’ll be able to use it in your English conversations.
Here’s the kicker – listening (TV, radio, podcasts, audio books etc.) will definitely add to your English understanding (passive vocabulary) but won’t considerably increase your active vocabulary that you can use when speaking. When language acquisition happens in a natural way, all three elements – mind, hearing and mouth work in unison. You simply need to speak in order to retain the new English words or phrases in your active vocabulary for later use!
If you go by the traditional way which is primarily focused on keeping notes and memorizing stuff by reading it, your English will reflect that. You’ll become a good reader and writer but when it comes to speaking you’ll be no good at.
Believe me – you’ll go through the same vicious circle of hesitation and making mistakes when attempting to speak English if you heed by advice of talking less and listening more.
So don’t kill your English – give it a chance, start speaking! Let me remind you once more – only by speaking loud and memorizing you’ll retain the English text for using it in an actual live English conversation later on
And if you asked me how on earth anyone can suggest cutting down on speaking, I have a very simple answer. It’s all to do with traditional English studies which are based on memorizing stuff from textbooks and notebooks, and pushing the ‘play’ button on the cassette or CD player to listen to a piece of English audio recording. Sadly I have to admit the major shift isn’t happening yet, and the traditional English teaching industry still remains strong. But hey – websites like this can start making difference, am I not right?
Yes, WE CAN!
2. Speak in English as fast as you can because speaking fluently means speaking fast.
Sure – go for it! Speak fast and start wandering why your tongue keeps stumbling and you’re forgetting words and using the wrong ones. This is another way of going astray from the path to English fluency and unlike the previous way to kill your English it’s quite understandable why such an assumption exists.
In this case I don’t actually blame the English teaching industry; I think it’s rather something that foreign English speakers just assume.
When you learn English and later try to improve it, you’re always kind of aiming for a native speaker’s fluency and pronunciation. So while you’re still falling short of the fluency you may feel that there’s one aspect of spoken English that you can match native speakers at – SPEED. So you start speaking very fast thus reassuring yourself of your good English speaking skills.
But here’s how it can turn against you. While some foreign English speakers can indeed come close to natives in terms of speed (even with making grammar mistakes here and there), many of us can start struggling big time. It’s in fact very simple – the faster you speak, the bigger the chance you’ll stumble upon some word or make a mistake.
To understand how speaking too fast can adversely affect your spoken English fluency you can look at how you speak your native tongue and ask a few questions.
Do you always speak very fast when chatting with your family members and native friends? Don’t you have moments when you have to slow down when speaking your language to make a point – especially when discussing more serious issues?
I can definitely answer negatively on the first and confirm the second question and I guess it’s the same with most people. It’s the pressure of speaking a foreign language – in our case English – that makes us feel that we’re obliged to speak fast, i.e. native. But as we just figured out, there’s a fundamental flaw in this very assumption of equaling native English speech to a fast speech.
By the way – the same goes with native English speakers. Unless a person tells a simple story, there’s a high chance they’ll take time to think of what exactly to say.
So slow down and take your time if you don’t want to kill your English, simple as that!
3. Use sophisticated language when communicating in English.
You’ve heard some fancy word or phrase recently and you’re trying to use it when chatting in English? Fine – as far as you know what you’re about to say! The difficulties may arise if you’re attempting to use words and phrases out of your passive vocabulary and that’s when you can start struggling when speaking English.
Don’t take me wrong – I’m not trying to persuade you to keep using basic English vocabulary and not learn new words. What I’m saying is – if you feel you’re getting a bit carried away in the wrong direction when having a chat; go for simpler language to explain yourself
Let me bring you an example. Let’s say, you’ve heard or read a phrase ‘on the brink of insolvency’. The phrase has stuck in your mind, but if you haven’t put a conscious effort in memorizing it, the chances are it will remain in your passive vocabulary. That is – you’ll recognize it and you’ll know what it means but you won’t be fully comfortable with using the phrase in a conversation.
So let’s imagine you’re having a chat with your co-workers about the economical situation in the country at the moment. You start a sentence saying ‘Many companies are…’ and then you kind of know that you want to finish off the sentence with ‘… on the brink of insolvency’ but you just can’t say it out loud. Or it could be that you manage to speak a couple of syllables but you can’t say the rest of the phrase. This can start driving you mad due to the obvious contradiction between the fact that you actually know the phrase but you can’t use it!
In fact the reason behind this phenomenon is quite simple – anyone has difficulties with using passive vocabulary when speaking. So go for a simpler phrase instead – ‘Many companies are almost bankrupt’. It conveys the same message yet you’re much more comfortable with using it!
Also you have to bear in mind that written English and spoken English are different. Written English is generally more formal whereas spoken English has a whole lot more phrasal verbs and colloquialisms in it. Therefore it’s fare to say that spoken English is a bit simpler than written language and you shouldn’t feel compelled to use the same vocabulary when speaking as you’d do when writing
What you write on a job application letter is more formal than what you speak when speaking with your future employer, for instance. Company meetings are conducted using simpler language than company procedures described for ISO standards. And even English language professors substitute their usual way of speaking with a more friendly and easy-going manner when on a night out with their friends or colleagues (do they really? )
4. Put the main focus on reading English books, magazines and newspapers.
I don’t question the necessity of reading – illiteracy isn’t my goal and it shouldn’t be yours either. Moreover – I’m a keen reader myself and I enjoy a good English fiction book as much as anyone can.
The point I’m trying to make here is that by reading ALONE your English will remain just right there – buried deep within countless pages of your book collection.
What so few people seem to realize even in this day and age is that any language is supposed to serve as means of verbal communication. So if you like the old-school approach – stay inside and read all day long. However, if you want to enjoy life, meet new people and make lots of English speaking friends – get outside, chat people up and start experiencing what speaking English really means!
Here I have to touch once more the topic about most of advice about improving English being focused around passive language input like reading and listening. Yes, speaking is also mentioned (sometimes) as one of ways you can improve your English. But I’d rather give English speaking the top place on the activity list with all other aspects like reading, writing and watching TV programs subordinated to it.
So if you want to kill your English – do nothing but read. You’ll become brilliant at reading and useless at speaking. But if you think there’s no way your spoken English won’t develop considerably if you read a lot – listen to my story.
Back in the days when I was struggling with speaking to others in English I used to focus on reading. I had already achieved a complete fluency at reading but still I couldn’t figure out why my spoken English is falling behind by a million light years.
I can still clearly remember myself chatting with my team-leader at work on one occasion. I was trying to tell him about an interesting moment from a novel I was reading at the time, but I was struggling a lot. I had everything on the tip of my tongue but I just couldn’t form a fluent, coherent story about the events in the book.
There you go – absolute reading fluency vs hesitant and broken spoken English. Which one you’d go for? The first one? Well, if that’s what you want your English for – good for you! The second one? Bzzzzz…..! Also wrong!
Surprised? Don’t be – because you can easily achieve BOTH if you don’t put too much focus only on one aspect of English improving – in this case, reading.
5. Focus on studying grammar in order to improve your English.
Traditionally this is what English studies in school are about – English grammar. Fair enough, if not for one drawback – it’s quite boring. You see – once past the initial basic grammar, there’s no need to make grammar studies your main English improving effort.
Just delve a bit deeper into grammar with me and you’ll realize what I’m talking isn’t such non-sense at all!
What is grammar? I’m not going to look up the correct definition on Wikipedia but will use my own. I understand grammar as naturally occurring relations among words in a sentence. Grammar determines in what order the words are spoken, how they change and also – what words are spoken. Grammar is an inseparable part of any language and I think there’s no need to look at it seperately in order to learn the intricacies of a language.
Do you see where I’m coming from?
I believe that if you go the traditional way and study English grammar as a subject on its own, you’re putting your spoken English at risk. What tends to happen after a long period of time spent studying grammar is – you become really good at understanding HOW grammar works but you’re not that good at real English speech.
Your mind has got so used to analyzing the English language that you start doing it on the go. When you speak, you want to produce perfect sentences by applying grammar rules that you know so well. You try to stick separate words together using the grammar rules the very same way you’d do in your notebook while studying English grammar.
In real life, however, it doesn’t happen that way. Really fluent speech isn’t formed by sticking words together, it’s supposed to flow from your mouth automatically. You see – when you’ve acquired naturally occurring English language patterns by learning phraseology, collocations and idioms and such, you don’t necessarily need to know the grammar rules behind them
To speak correctly and fluently you don’t need to know why a certain thing is said in a certain way. Have a look at this example – ‘Do you mind looking after my dog while I’m doing my shopping?’ So the question is – do you really need to go through a list of words that require the gerund form ending with –ing to figure out that you have to say ‘do you mind looking’ instead of ‘do you mind to look’? Now I’d say it would be madness!
But guess what? That’s exactly how I spoke back in the days when I was improving my English by studying English grammar extensively!
I used to hammer lists of words that go with certain grammar forms in my head. I learned when certain grammar tenses are used and when they’re not used. And I’m not saying that it wasn’t helpful – it was to a degree!
But you can also acquire essential English grammar by learning THE language instead of learning ABOUT the English language. If you learn the phrase ‘Do you mind looking after?’ – you don’t really need to know that ‘looking’ is gerund. Unless you’re a linguist!
6. Use your native language as medium to learn English.
This is definitely one of the most powerful ways of killing your English.
Memorize every new English word by its translation in your native language. Construct sentences in your native language in your mind first and then translate them into English as you speak. In other words – think in your language and do the translation in English. And – don’t be surprised if you’re being told that you speak broken and incorrect English!
The key to understanding why you can’t use your native tongue as a medium when improving English and why direct translation doesn’t work is grasping the following. Abstract meaning conveyed in any language can be translated across any other language, but you can’t translate directly because every language has its unique ways of describing things and abstract concepts
If I were to translate directly from my native Latvian, then ‘candles’ also become ‘spark plugs’, but idioms like ‘go to great lengths’ don’t make any sense in my language if translated directly!
And if you improve your English by writing new words in your notebook followed by description in your language – you’ll always get stuck in translation! You’ll always keep referring to your native tongue when speaking in English and that will make you hesitate a lot and use wrong words as well. You won’t be able to get rid of the monkeys in your mind jumping around and chattering away in Spanish, Chinese, Russian or whatever your language happens to be!
Whenever I’m asked by other Latvians ‘Robby, how’s … in English!’ – I always answer reply with – ‘Please tell me the whole sentence, I need to hear the context!’ And when I hear what the person wants to say, I don’t translate every Latvian word into English. I just convert the whole ABSTRACT meaning into English simply because if I don’t, the resulting sentence is often totally wrong or at least it sounds terrible!
How to avoid using your language as medium for English?
Well, it’s quite simple! Avoid explaining new English words, phrases and concepts using your native language. Use other English words instead and look things up in English to English dictionaries. I always use websites like Dictionary.com or Thefreedictionary.com where you can find plenty of examples how a particular word or idiom is used!
By the way – an effective way of getting rid of monkeys in your mind is to develop a habit of speaking with yourself in English for 10 – 15 minutes daily. You can also comment on routine things you do at work, for instance, to make English ‘soak’ into your system. During long hours at warehouse I used to say out loud the product numbers I was picking off the shelves in English. Eventually I got myself thinking in English and if you can achieve it – you’re halfway to fluent spoken English!
7. Focus on building huge English vocabulary by memorizing long English word lists.
If you want to become a fluent English speaker you surely want to build up a huge English vocabulary, don’t you? Well, not really!
Hammering thousands of English words won’t actually kill your English (sorry for the hype!) – but it won’t drastically improve your spoken English either. You’ll add to your active vocabulary, but how many words of those you learn will be any good for you for later use?
Here’s what I can suggest you do instead of memorizing any word you come across!
First – you have to separate between vocabulary you need to use on a daily basis and the rest of English words and phrases.
You see – what I used to do a few years ago was – I wrote ALL new English words in my notebook and memorized them. Had I realized that big part of that vocabulary would never be used I’d probably not go the way I went. But I was so determined to improve my English back then that I was doing all I could imagine – and building a huge vocabulary was one of those things.
To build your vocabulary efficiently you need to be selective. Use your judgment to determine whether a word or a phrase is relevant for your personal life (work, studies, interests etc.). If it is – write it down in a notebook with an explanation in English. And it’s very important to use the new word in a word combination to see how it’s used in real life. Let’s say, you heard a word ‘impeccable’. Write it down with a word it was used with, for example, ‘impeccable record’. Follow it by explanation in English – ‘perfect, faultless record’.
Next thing – memorize the phrase by repeating a number of times over the next few days until it settles in your mind. Now you’ll be able to use the phrase ‘impeccable record’ and similar ones (as you know the meaning of the word ‘impeccable’) in your English conversations!
As for other words you hear but you’re not really sure what they mean – on many occasions you’ll guess their meaning from the context alone. If it’s not quite clear – ask others what it means. The best way is to ask a native English speaker for an explanation, but you can of course use a dictionary. And bear this in mind – you don’t have to necessarily make an effort to memorize the word – if you come across it again and again, it’ll settle in your brain effortlessly as part of your passive vocabulary.
So the bottom line when building your vocabulary is to memorize words and phrases that are relevant to your lifestyle – that way you’ll use them when speaking English and they’ll make up a big part of your active vocabulary
There were times when I used to memorize nearly every word I came across when reading English fantasy novels… As you can imagine, most of them aren’t used in everyday life, so I could do just as fine by simply looking them up in a dictionary!
OK, that’s about it about these 7 ways of killing your English!
I hope you liked this blog post and by the way – if you’re serious about improving your spoken English – check out my English Harmony System HERE!