1. Be realistic about the level of interest in your national background by others.
Be proud of your origins, but don’t be obsessed with telling every single person you meet about your country, your nationality, how “How are you” sounds in your native language, the name of your president, your favorite national soccer team…
People will listen to you just to be polite, but don’t forget that for someone living in an English speaking country like the US, Australia or the UK, the name of your country might not ring any bells at all!
Personally I quite like it when people don’t ask questions about my origins right off the bat and I’ve realized by now that whenever they DO ask that question “Where are you from?” right after you introduce yourself, it’s just small-talk really.
So I think we foreigners should be realistic about the interest of locals in our culture and we shouldn’t be too enthusiastic!
In my current job, for instance, I got two know two girls a couple of weeks ago and they didn’t seem to notice the fact that I was a foreigner. Not that they couldn’t tell it, but our conversations never went that far. Only recently they showed interest in my background, so I think it’s natural to speak about those topics when you get to know someone better rather than boasting to everyone how cool your country is!
Many years ago I used to work with a bunch of Romanian lads, and believe me – there was nothing more annoying than listening to hours long stories of their home country and how great life was back there, and how miserable their situation is in Ireland… For Christ’s sake, will you get a grip on yourselves?!?
Don’t take me wrong – I’m not saying there’s something wrong with being proud of your nationality, not at all! My point is – put yourself in the other person’s shoes and maybe you’ll realize the conversation is boring for your conversation partner.
IMPORTANT! -> Why I’m highlighting parts of text in RED?
2. Stop spotting mistakes in native English speakers’ conversations and pointing them out to others.
There is no such thing as correct English! English is spoken differently in many countries and regions so don’t be the perfectionist telling everyone how awful locals speak, and how grammatically wrong some of the most commonly used local phrases are.
Oxford English and real English are hundreds of miles apart, and you’ll be more practical by learning spoken English as it’s spoken in the country you live in than spotting mistakes and pointing out that according to proper English standards this or that particular thing doesn’t sound right.
I can tell you one thing I’ve heard quite often in the local Latvian community when we’ve touched the topic of English learning and improving – “Irish themselves don’t speak correct English!” I think it’s rather a handy excuse not to improve one’s English (if the locals don’t speak correctly, how they can accuse me of speaking wrong?), or just trying to show off one’s academic English knowledge which actually has much smaller practical application when going about the daily life.
We, foreigners, should realize one thing – theoretical correctness has little importance in dealing with real life situations. So don’t be the perfectionist by keeping saying “Has it been done?” if you hear everyone else around you using a much simpler colloquial phrase “Is it done?”
Also it’s important to understand that native English speakers don’t make mistakes because they lack spoken English skills. Their mistakes are “natural”, and we can’t use it as an excuse not to improve our English!
3. Coffee-break with a newspaper is better than a coffee-break without one!
Sticking with other foreigners most of the time? Getting very few opportunities to speak with other English speakers? Then at least read tabloids in English! It won’t make you into a fluent English speaker but at least it will greatly widen your passive English vocabulary!
Reading tabloids is how I started improving my English all those years ago after moving to Ireland and working with other foreign nationals in a warehouse. Yes, it did take me years to figure out that I’ll become conversationally fluent only through speaking practice, but still it’s useful to get additional exposure to English around you.
So pick up a newspaper to read while drinking your morning coffee before work, and see what useful new expressions you can find in it. Make notes of them, and try to incorporate at least some of them into your speech later on during the day when a fitting occasion arises.
Remember – they use very simple language in yellow press, and that’s exactly what you need for improving your casual English conversations!
4. Learn to IGNORE embarrassment when making mistakes during an English conversation.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes when speaking with other English speakers, especially the native ones. Even if your speech sounds terrible to yourself, they’ll still figure out what you’re trying to say from the context! If you keep your mouth shut, you won’t develop your fluency at all, so it’s better speak and make mistakes than not to speak at all.
Of course, you should aim for correct spoken English, but my experience tells me that in the first stage of settling down in the country EVERY single foreign English speaker makes plenty of mistakes when speaking, regardless of one’s general English level!
So ignore your embarrassment and fire away!
5. Learn to IGNORE others’ opinion on your level of spoken English.
Don’t be offended if others make assumptions about your English level, especially if you just met the person for the first time and will never see him or her again.
Did you get really annoyed by the girl behind the shop counter talking very slowly, pronouncing every word very clearly because she thought you might not understand you if she spoke at a natural pace? Fair enough, but did it ever occur to you that those two foreign nationals before you had real difficulties saying they wanted to buy a tuna sandwich?
6. Use Low-Call and Free service phone numbers to improve your spoken English.
Having phone conversations is a great way to improve your spoken English. If you share a house with other foreigners, volunteer to ring up utility companies just to get more spoken English practice. Even if you have a limited vocabulary you’ll learn essentials of making appointments, giving personal details and discussing issues, which is going to be invaluable in your future life in an English speaking country. Also, you can always ask the phone operator to explain something you don’t understand, and you don’t need to get embarrassed because the person you’re speaking with doesn’t see you, right?
7. “How are you? I’m fine, thanks! It’s very nice out there, isn’t it?” – you may hear these lines ten times a day, yet they’re useful for your spoken English improvement!
Small talk is an essential part of daily English conversations. Don’t get irritated by the seemingly meaningless conversations about weather, and how things are going and so on. Make it your habit to respond to such and similar questions and ask them yourself, and it will definitely make your own spoken English much better!
8. Don’t be overconfident when speaking English!
Have you spent a considerable amount of time in the country and you feel very comfortable speaking English? Be careful of trying to make an impression that your English is so perfect that you sound like a native speaker!
It may very well be true, but don’t forget that your accent, at least a slight trace of it, will nearly always remain. By trying to put on a pretence that you speak like a native, you may try to speak too fast to impress someone and you’ll eventually achieve quite the opposite result. You may start hesitating and stumbling upon words, so better restrain your ambitions a little bit!
9. Want to reach a near-native level of the English language? Marry a local! 🙂
Unarguably the best way to become fluent in English is by going out with an English speaking person. Of course, you won’t do it just for the sake of improving your English, but if you do get a chance to chat up a native English speaker from the opposite sex – don’t miss it!
10. Swap your MP3 player for a radio.
Listen to one of the local radio stations instead of listening to your MP3 collection. If you spend whole days performing mundane tasks, you’d be much better off immersing yourself in English as it’s used by the local people than having no exposure to spoken English at all.
Of course, if you’re a frequent reader of my blog you’ll recall me saying on multiple occasions that by passive exposure alone you won’t do a big service to your spoken English fluency. Yet here’s where repetition and mimicking comes into play so you can easily add newly heard phrases and expressions from the radio to your active vocabulary. Just keep the tone low so that others won’t think you’re some sort of a weirdo when they hear you speaking with yourself!
11. Embrace every opportunity to attend social events with your work colleagues or fellow students.
Even if you’re the shy type of a person and you haven’t got any real friends among the ones attending the party, go for the sake of having a few conversations! Every time you open your mouth and say something in English adds on to your English fluency and capability to function properly in an English speaking society. And if you really feel like a fish out of water, you can always come up with some excuse to leave!
12. Never criticize local customs, traditions and lifestyle.
People of every country have their own way of doing things, and you won’t make life easier for yourself by telling everyone how you miss your native cuisine and how awful local food tastes, for example.
You’ll only make your integration into the English speaking society much harder so you just have to get your priorities right – whether it’s living in your native community bubble or getting the most out of living in the States, Oz, Britain or anywhere else you might be living.
13. Don’t pin too much hope on the typical English classes for foreigners…
… especially the ones provided for immigrants by the state. There will be twenty or more other foreigners sharing the same classroom, and the main focus is going to be on written English.
Of course, if you’re a complete beginner, you’ll get something out of those classes. But assuming you’re one of those foreigners with decent understanding skills but poor spoken English fluency (otherwise you wouldn’t be able to read this article, isn’t that right?), such classes alone will contribute very little in your ability to communicate successfully.
Having said this, however, I admit that if you get loads of spoken English practice at work or studies, such English classes will be beneficial in terms of widening your vocabulary and correcting grammar mistakes you don’t even suspect you’re making.
The bottom line here is – whatever you do, make sure to hard-wire all new English knowledge into your brain by real-life communication!
14. Came over for a short visit? Better prepare to stay!
Don’t keep telling everyone – “I’m here only for a year or two!” Most of the immigrants I came to Ireland with still live here, and many of them with their families and kids. I don’t think you’d enjoy the prospect of not being able to help your children with their homework just because six years ago you didn’t give a damn about improving your English: “… I’ll go back to my country next year anyway!”
Most likely you didn’t make the decision of moving to this country lightly, and by trying to convince yourself it’s just temporary you may be just denying the reality.
Live here and now, and even though you might be going back to your home country in a couple years, you’ll make your live more enjoyable while you’re living in the English speaking country if you embrace it all – culture, lifestyle AND the English language!
15. Want to make plenty of enemies? Share a house!
The last and one of the most important pieces of advice for those living in an English speaking country – if you have a family, don’t share the house with others! You’ll make enemies with your best friends in no time, and it’s worth paying the extra buck to rent a place on your own.
I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way, and I’ve witnessed best friends and relatives falling out with each other. You’ll have enough arguments with your own partner over the coming years, believe me, so save yourself those sleepless nights when your housemates decide to throw crazy mid-week parties!
P.S. Would you like to improve your spoken English so that you can get the most out of living in an English speaking country? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!