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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
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
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:
- I used to prepare my speech in my head beforehand;
- I still translated from and to my native language;
- I was terrified of making mistakes and it often backfired on my fluency!
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 all – don’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.
Lastly – the 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!
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!