Two Tips For Better Speaking
Today we look at how to improve your speaking skills as an English student.
Many people finding speaking to be the biggest challenge when it comes to learning a language. Of all the four skills, reading, writing and listening, speaking seems to be the one that you master last. Having a fluent conversation in English about topics you love can sometimes seem like a distant dream. So, what are some practical ways you can improve your speaking skills?
There are many ways to improve your language skills in general and your speaking skills in particular. Any time you interact with the language will help you. For example, watching films, reading books, listening to music and writing emails, blogs or even stories are all great. But in order to specifically improve your speaking, there are two things you can do.
The first is, quite simply, to speak to people. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it is essential. Ideally, you will find a language partner, friend, colleague, etc. who you can practice with. However, finding people is not always easy. At the very least, try talking to people in shops any time you buy something. Although the conversation will be short, you can always extend it a little by asking the person: how are you? Trying to make these little situations longer and more important is always a way you can practice. What’s more, you can do this kind of thing every day.
A language partner is ideal. This is someone you meet, maybe once a week and you talk for one hour in your own language. Then you swap and talk for one hour in their language. This can be a very effective way of building your fluency and even of making new friends. Once your speaking is more fluent, you will also find that it gets easy to mix with native speakers. Native speakers seem more open to people who speak their language well and suddenly become much more open and friendly.
So, this is the first way. Long-form, free conversation practice with someone you have a good connection with. You can look for a language partner here. Although this is essential to improving your speaking skills, this general approach doesn’t help much with detail. Which brings us to the second point: how do you improve those little things which keep going wrong?
So, now you have some great ways to improve your general, overall fluency. But what about improving details? Is there some phrase or kind of grammar that you always make mistakes with? Maybe you feel as if you know how to say something, but every time you do say it in a conversation, it comes out wrong. For example, do you ever say, “interested about” instead of “interested in”? What about “it depends of” instead of “it depends on”? Many students seem to have this experience. After saying the phrases incorrectly, they then correct themselves and say: I know this, so why do I always say it wrong?
The Third Conditional as a Mega Sentence
Even more complicated is a structure like the Third Conditional. For example, take a look at the following phrase:
If I had gone to bed earlier last night, I wouldn’t have felt so tired when I woke up this morning.
The meaning of this sentence is a little complex, but we can break it down in the following way. The sentence is about a hypothetical or “imaginary” situation. The speaker is imagining something which didn’t happen and speculating about the consequences. The real situation is: the person didn’t go to sleep early. However, if they had gone, they would have…. This is a Third Conditional sentence and is something you study at B1 or Intermediate level and above. Typically, students need three or four lessons to become comfortable with this topic. After that, they need a lot of practice.
Putting Ideas into Practice
So how does this sentence connect to speaking? Well, this kind of phrase is a little complicated to say. Let’s examine the form. First, we have Past Perfect (If + had + V3), then we need Would + Present Perfect (would + have + V3). To say this kind of sentence correctly, you need to understand not only the perfect tenses, but also to say them all together. You have to remember the third verb or Past Participle (e.g. eaten, gone, taken), and you have to remember the order of the sentence. This sentence is advanced because it has so many elements working together which you have to use at the same time.
Normally, the student experience of the Third Conditional goes something like this. Students study the form, they understand the idea, they practice writing examples and then begin speaking. The first three are generally fine, but when it comes to speaking, many students find it a bit difficult to say this fluently. It’s almost as if their conversation slows down when they have to say the Third Conditional. They were speaking fluently at a good speed and then suddenly they have stop, think about what they are going to say, ask themselves which is first – “had” or “have”, and by this time, they have interrupted their speech. The interruption can be frustrating and make people feel as if they cannot speak English. But this isn’t true. Have you had an experience like this?
So how do we learn to say something like the Third Conditional so that it comes out naturally during a conversation? Even though this may feel discouraging or annoying, it doesn’t have to be. One problem with the Third Conditional is that, while English people do use it every day, they probably don’t say it in every conversation. For the student, that means that we don’t practice it enough for it to ever really become natural. We get trapped in the position of understanding it, but without using it enough to say it when we need to.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
The solution to this (and to other word problems like “depend on”), is a question of controlled repetition. It is true that you don’t need to say the Third Conditional in every sentence, and this can make practicing it a little tricky. So, here’s how. When you learn the piano, you don’t sit down and play a whole song from start to finish. You learn the basic shape and then focus in on details.
For instance, there may be certain sections which are difficult to play quickly. Instead of trying to play the whole song, you focus on these little sections and repeat them. You play just one section again and again for ten minutes at a time. It might take you two weeks to learn to play a new song, and every day you practice one section on its own again and again. So, for two weeks, as well as learning the song, you learn the details, and you play the difficult bit for ten minutes every day for two weeks. The same is true for a language.
If you need to improve something like the Third Conditional, write an example on a piece of paper, then say it out loud. Don’t worry about remembering it or about the pronunciation, just say it slowly and try to understand it. Then, as with the piano song, repeat the same phrase (or other similar ones), for ten minutes. If you repeat this structure out loud for ten minutes every day for two weeks, you will be able to use it correctly in a natural conversation.
Because you are repeating this kind of sentence so many times, your brain is starting to recognize it as important. In fact, your brain is starting to record this information into your long-term memory. It is like a muscle. The more you do this, the more it going to become a reflex, and something you can use without thinking, any time you need to. To improve your speaking skills, this kind of repetition is key.
The frustration many students express when they say: I know this, so why do I always say it wrong? is simply because they haven’t repeated the idea enough times yet. It is true that they know it intellectually, but they don’t yet have it as part of their personality. In fact, you can only really use something like this when you don’t need to think about it. What’s more, you only reach this point by repeating something.
Active, controlled repetition is the key to mastering any skill, but it is also the key to mastering little tricky areas of language. This is as true for conditionals as it is for preposition combinations like “depend on” or “interested in”. In fact, it is true for any part of a language.
In summary, speaking is something you need to practice. But the word “practice” itself is a little vague. Practicing in two ways is very important. The first is general practice, which means speaking to anyone and everyone you can, whenever you can. The second is controlled practice. This means identifying the areas you need to improve and repeating them until your muscle memory takes over. By doing the two things together you will start speaking much more fluently, and you will be surprised at how natural you start to feel. There is a great book called Mastery by Robert Greene, in which he describes how one basketball player achieved greatness by focusing on his weaknesses.
Do you have any ideas or tips on how to improve your speaking skills? If so, let us know in the comments below.