How To Speak Fluent English with Limited Vocabulary!

by Robby on October 28, 2010

Speak Fluent English With Limited Vocabulary
If you can’t speak fluent English, you might assume that you haven’t got large enough vocabulary. Traditionally English learners think that English speech is formed by taking separate words and sticking them together while in fact any language is build from word chunks and phrases. In either case we can quite logically conclude that the more individual words or word combinations you know, the better and more fluently you’ll speak.

So you may be focusing on memorizing large English vocabulary lists even before attempting going out there and starting socializing and communicating with English speaking folks.

To a certain degree, you’re absolutely right. You can’t expect to speak fluently without having acquired minimum English vocabulary. There is a point, however, in English studies at which you can actually start speaking fluently even before you’ve learned advanced English vocabulary and sophisticated words :!:

Here it would be fitting to establish what actually fluent English speech entails and how you can know if you speak fluently or not. It will also help you set your English improving targets and realize what aspects of English you really need to improve upon.

So here’s how I define real spoken English fluency:

  • easy communication in situations you find yourself in on a daily basis;

AND ALSO

  • easy communication when speaking about topics you don’t discuss every day.

Notice that I’m not separating out correct grammar and sufficient vocabulary from easy communication. I think that one cannot communicate easily without those two, so ‘easy communication’ quite naturally implies that you speak correctly on 95% of occasions and also have enough English words to use when speaking.

So let’s proceed further while keeping in mind what we just defined! ;-)

How Many English Words Are Enough

How many English words are there in your active vocabulary (active vocabulary – words you CAN USE when speaking as opposed to words you only RECOGNISE)? A thousand? Fifteen hundred? Five thousand? In fact this question is rhetoric because you can’t really tell how large your English vocabulary is.

Purpose of this question was just to prepare you for more numbers that will follow. And this is where it gets very interesting because the first 100 most commonly used English words will enable you to understand around 50% of spoken English! Bear in mind that the English word list under this link pertains to written English, however, the distribution ratio remains roughly the same among spoken English vocabulary, too.

Please read an article HERE about English word frequency lists and their practical application – very interesting!

Let’s go further – if you know 300 most commonly used English words, you’ll be able to understand 65% of spoken English. You see – only 300 words comprise nearly two thirds of English vocabulary! Do you start getting the point I’m trying to make here? Then let’s take it one more step further – the General Service list of English words consisting of about 2000 words will take you very close to conversational English fluency – 90 to 95%!

The concept you have to learn from all these figures is that spoken English fluency begins when you’re able to USE JUST ENOUGH English vocabulary to communicate easily :!:

:!: IMPORTANT :!: I’m not advocating for settling for the mediocre and not improving English throughout your lifetime. I’m advocating for going for conversational fluency FIRST and then improving other aspects of English language!

How to achieve that? First – get familiar with the following concepts:

  1. Your passive (recognition) vocabulary is much larger than your active (spoken) vocabulary;
  2. Conversational English fluency means conveying a message effectively to the other party as well as understanding your chat partner;
  3. Any concept in English language can be described using other words.

Logical conclusions you can’t deny:

  • You can’t use all English words you recognize in your spoken English;

the next one, however, overcompensates for the previous one:

  • You can do with a minimum amount of words to express yourself clearly speaking almost about any topic (we’re leaving aside specific areas of English like legal, highly technical, scientific etc.).

So how does this help you achieve spoken English fluency? OK, here comes the best part ;-)

Most likely your vocabulary greatly exceeds the most commonly used 500, 1000 and even 2000 words because you’re very comfortable reading this website. (Not that this article contains all 2000+ English words in it – it’s all about the frequency rankings!) Of course, many words and phrases you come across wouldn’t be in your active (spoken) vocabulary, but you can always say something using other words (later on I’ll give you examples on this, too!)

So we can assume on pretty solid grounds that your active English vocabulary is already sufficient enough for fluent English communication. The only issue you might be having at the moment is that you can’t really use your vocabulary in a fluent manner.

Technical Aspects –
Dotting The I’s And Crossing The T’s!

Let’s imagine for the sake of clarity that your active English vocabulary contains X amount of words and you’re used to form your speech by sticking words together. Most likely you’re doing something similar to a direct translation from your native language in your head whereby you form an English sentence in your mind first and then pick out relevant English words. This way of speaking English is fairly inefficient because you limit yourself with your native tongue’s means of expressions AND your need to find corresponding words in English.

When you speak in this manner, your capability of speaking English is indeed limited because you constantly come across situations when you don’t know certain word’s meaning in English. Also your English fluency is impaired due to the simple fact that you form English sentences in your mind as if writing on a piece of paper – they don’t come out of your mouth automatically :mad:

So despite the fact that you have sufficient active English vocabulary you just can’t use it in a natural way. And here’s how a natural speech is formed.

You just have to forget about translating from your native language if you want speak fluent English! You also have to speak straight out of your mouth without preparing a whole sentence in your mind beforehand! To achieve this, you have to:

  1. Stop using your language as reference in everyday situations when you speak English;
  2. Get used to paraphrasing using simpler words in case you’re struggling with explaining a certain thing or concept;
  3. Learn important word groups such as phrasal verbs, filler phrases and small talk phrases!

The last two points might contradict each other, but you indeed have to become familiar with both to become conversationally fluent.

Stop Preparing Speech In Your Head Before Speaking!

Most of folks who learned English the traditional way have been using their language to translate new vocabulary words, and to form all kinds of written or spoken material. While in academic English studies it doesn’t manifest itself as a hindering factor; in real life you can’t get far with thinking in your native language and trying to speak English.

And here’s a good exercise to help you start thinking in English :!:

You definitely have some sort of a routine task that you perform on a daily basis. It can be a work or home related. For example, I work in a knitwear manufacturing company’s dispatch and most of my time is spent entering customers’ orders and packing them. When I enter the products on the computer or use the picking list to get them up, I have two options – I can ‘pronounce’ those product codes and colors in either my language or English.

As you can imagine, I’ve switched over to thinking in English ages ago, and it’s definitely helped me with English fluency. And so should you if you want to start speaking fluent English. Whenever you perform a mundane task – use that time wisely to either comment on your actions in English OR think in English about something else if your particular activity doesn’t occupy your mind. If you work at a manufacturing line your mind constantly wanders away so you can use that time to start thinking in English about things that are important to you.

It’s not easy at first, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you can substitute your native language for English :!:

When In Doubt – Put It In Different Words!

As we already concluded, chances are that you actually know all English words to express yourself in any day-to-day situation; it’s just that sometimes you come across a situation or concept that seemingly demands you to use more sophisticated means of expression.

In fact you can always get by using simpler words but for the most part foreign English speakers are under big stress to get something said. Eventually their mind just blocks up and they just can’t say a thing…

Foreigners also under impression that if they say something simple, they’ll sound ‘too’ simple and they’ll be perceived as poor English speakers. At the end of the day, when they try to sound smart and use passive vocabulary (the one that they’re not really comfortable with when speaking) – that’s when the real trouble begins!

Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to ask your team-leader at work if you can postpone a certain task because you’ve more urgent matters to attend at the moment. Your team-leader walks by and you stop him by asking: “Sorry Mike, I just wanted to ask you if I can…” and then you get stuck all of a sudden! You know the word ‘postpone’, but you might have forgotten it, or it’s just that you don’t use this word that often and it’s not really part of your active vocabulary.

Instead of frantically trying to remember the exact word ‘postpone’ you can simply say “Can I do the report later?” But quite often foreign English speakers are putting themselves under unnecessary stress when speaking so they end up struggling for words.

But as you can imagine, there’s ALWAYS a way of putting the same thing in different words :!:

Even if you find it hard to explain a fairly complicated abstract concept or a technical detail, I’m pretty sure you can use other words from your active vocabulary that will suffice for getting the message across clearly and efficiently.

By the way, there a simple version of English language called Basic English created by a linguist C.K. Ogden consisting of 850 basic words. C.K. Ogden proved by scientific analysis that one can communicate successfully enough using vocabulary of such a small size!

So if it’s possible to communicate efficiently using 850 English words, can’t you do the same operating with a whole lot more words and phrases? Sure you can!

— — — — — — —

Here’s another example on how you can use simple English words to substitute verbs that you may have forgotten at the given moment, or if you’re simply struggling for the right word to say.

If you’re struggling to produce a sentence “I became extremely irritated because of my financial difficulties”, you’re most trying to build an ‘ideal’ sentence in your head first and then speak it out. Stop doing it, take a short pause and speak using simpler words – “I got very nervous because I have money problems”.

Let’s just have a quick look at the sentence. The verb ‘got’ is among the simplest English verbs and can be used to describe nearly every action that involves change of shape and emotional state; you just need to attach the corresponding adjective to it. And if you were struggling with the word ‘irritated’, then ‘nervous’ is definitely something you can use because it’s an international word. And of course, even beginning English learners would know words ‘money’ and ‘problems’, so you definitely can use them with ease.

IMPORTANT :!: Never be ashamed of using simple words and sentence structures! If you have a choice between broken English and simple yet fluent spoken English – I think any reasonable person would go for the second one!

And as I already said in the beginning of this article – I’m not saying you don’t have to improve your speech and add more active vocabulary words to it. Of course you can and you HAVE TO do it!

I’m just trying to hammer home a message that you can start speaking fluent English with limited vocabulary and you don’t have to wait on some mystical day in the future when you’ll have acquired enough vocabulary to start speaking!

Learning Phrasal Verbs, Filler Phrases and Small Talk Phrases



Watch videos of English small-talk phrases above!

You could be struggling with fluent speech because in real life (just try to analyze what happens when you speak your native language!) conversations are filled with plenty of filler phrases like ‘on the other hand’, ‘I’m not really sure, but I think…’, ‘as far as I know’ and similar. They ‘bind’ other bits of your talk together and will create the impression of real fluency.

By now you might have used ‘eeeerrr…’ and ‘hmmmm…’ to fill pauses between sentences and words, but if you learn at least a couple of dozen of typical small talk phrases, you’ll be able to speak more fluently. And of course – most of them are made up of words you ALREADY know – so there’s no additional vocabulary acquisition required!

Then there are phrasal verbs – and they’re absolutely brilliant when it comes to described even quite complicated concepts. Phrasal verbs are formed by taking a simple verb such as ‘put’, ‘bring’, ‘come’ and attaching a preposition to it – like ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘off’, ‘on’ and so on. While many of them are self-explanatory – for example, ‘put it down’, there’s a whole lot of them that have abstract meanings. For instance, ‘you let me down’ means that you didn’t keep promise and I got into trouble or lost out on something because of you.

You see – you can SAVE plenty of words just by saying ‘You let me down!’ And if you learn at least the most commonly used phrasal verbs (which are made up from words that you ALREADY know!) – you can give additional boost to your fluency!

Of course, you CAN and you will use any number of words necessary to make your point – that’s what fluency is about and that’s what I kept reiterating throughout this article. Using phrasal words, however, will enable you to start speaking and thinking like native English speakers do :!:

In the beginning you may use just a few phrasal verbs and explain other things using simple, basic English words. As you progress, you’ll add more and more phrasal words and ALSO new words to your active vocabulary thus enriching your means of expression.

Imagine yourself saying to your friend “I finally had enough time to finish the essay.” You can also use a phrasal verb ‘to get around to’ and the previous sentence becomes “I finally got around to that essay.”

So as you can see phrasal verbs make your spoken English friendlier, more natural and that’s where true fluency begins! And let’s not forget the fact that using phrasal verbs enables you to get into the ‘English’ way of thinking; you learn to express abstract concepts with a single phrasal verb instead of saying ten words. It’s a time-saver AND steps up your fluency at the same time! AND – phrasal verbs are made up from words you ALREADY know, so you don’t even have to learn new words – just abstract meanings!

Just compare these two ‘How can you put up with it?’ and ‘How can you tolerate it?

You see – chances are that the verb ‘to tolerate’ isn’t in your active vocabulary so you may be struggling with it. But you definitely know words ‘put’ and ‘up’ so you just need to know that ‘put up’ can be used to describe a situation when you’re no OK with something but you allow it to happen for some reason or another ;-)

And here are the most important links you simply need to look at if you want to ramp up your spoken English fluency:

Thanks a lot for reading my website, and talk to you soon again!

Robby

P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

 

English Harmony System
Share this article with your friends below!

  • mir akber

    i’m a person who loves getting on with new words and putting them up in sentences. i want you to help me in, how do we improve our general speeches when we are chosen to speak something, with or without preparation( on the spot). i want you to come out with a unique answer and an innovative idea. reply me as soon as possible. awaiting for you’re reply.

  • Dr.Anila andleeb

    i loved it…..in very short and sweet way you told everything….now i wish i could follow your all the instructions….inshallah….thank you very much

  • http://englishharmony.com/ Robby Kukurs

    You’re dead right!!!

    One of my light-bulb moments on the road to English fluency was the realization that vocabulary drills make little or no difference to my ability to communicate effectively.

    Then I started noticing that I knew EVERY single word my Irish friends and colleagues were using in their conversations, yet I didn’t come close to their ability to produce fluent speech!

    That’s what lead me to discover the effectiveness of learning collocations and phrases and practicing spoken English as frequently as possible.

    And speaking of hesitation filler phrases – you’re 100% correct! Knowing only a bunch of them you can maintain a fairly fluent conversation whereas if you try to construct your sentences using sophisticated vocabulary words you may start struggling big time.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Robby ;-)

  • Butterfly-girl92

    There’s a lot in what you say(or, better, write). :)
    I’ve been involved with English for quite a long time now and come to think of it, the correlation between the actual amount of words you know and fluency is not as straightforward as it may seem at first sight.
    Being able to think in the language you speak is crucial. And what I’ve recently observed is that fillers do really great work!

  • http://englishharmony.com/ Robby Kukurs

    Well…. I don’t think improving slang would involve anything different that spoken English improvement in general so please read this article 
    http://englishharmony.com/how-to-improve-english/

  • http://englishharmony.com/ Robby Kukurs

    You’re welcome, and I’m glad you enjoy reading my articles!

  • Rehanraza00

    Do tell me how to improve my slang?

  • Khuzafa29

    I loved reading your stuff and from now onward will follow your instructions. They seem very useful..Thanks ! 

  • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

    Hi Anuj,

    The course contains 60 speech exercising lessons and there are 900 phrases, expressions, idiomatic expressions and sentences you’ll be repeating 20 times each over the duration of the study plan.

    As a result, you’ll imprint natural speech patterns into your mind and you’ll find it much easier to speak instantaneously and without much thinking!

    Best Regards,

    Robby

  • anuj

    i am good at english reading and understanding. Also i can speak daily english usually one or two sentences. but the problem with me is that i cant speak english in lengths? is your course is beneficial for long conversations ? 

  • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

    Hi Maira,nnHere’s an article you should readu00a0http://englishharmony.com/do-you-suck-at-english/u00a0and it will help you to change the perception of yourself as a bad English speaker.nnAnd please watch this video as well -u00a0http://englishharmony.com/conquer-fear-of-making-mistakes-when-speaking-english/u00a0- it’s all about how to conquer your fear of making mistakes which is quite often the sole reason why we’re not comfortable with speaking with others!nnRegards,nnRobby

  • Maira

    H! Robby me Maira I can speak english but I m scared to speak english in front of anyone so plxxx its a request to tell me some tips about how to gain confidence. thanks!!!!!

  • http://englishharmony.com Robby Kukurs

    Hi Yeliz,nnIt’s all about using your vocabulary efficiently rather than aiming for its growth, and that in turn means learning new meanings of words you already know and also how they go with other words.nnThe example you gave – “sensitive issue” is a typical English collocation – and it’s something you learn when you’re constantly exposed to English. You also acquire collocations when learning new vocabulary words in a context rather than on their own – watch this video where I’m explaining the importance of it: http://englishharmony.com/building-english-vocabulary-%E2%80%93-part-1/

  • Yeliz Bau015far

    Hi Robby,n You are completely right .I’m trying to follow subtitles of any english programmes or any films and I see that the vocabulary people use there are not strange to me:the words are all I know.n Here is the problem:I HAVEN’T seen such kind of “marriage” of the words before.for example:I know the word “sensitive” but never seen it in a sentence together with “issue” like “it is a sensitive issue”nor “impossible” in a sentence like “it is impossible situation”nor “kill ” in “the film kills me”nor “turn” in “my mom turns 81 “nngoodbye!

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