How Can I Improve My Fluency In English?

Fluency In English: 12 Tips To Improve It
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Summary: You won't be able to start thinking like a fluent English speaker until you learn the basic building blocks of the language and how to use them.

12 Best Tips To Think In English

Before starting, you need to be clear about your fluency goal. In other words, what is fluency in English? What is a lack of fluency? You may experience communication issues like:

  • I hesitate when I don’t find the word/phrase/expression I need and I get embarrassed
  • It can take extra time to get to the point and other people lose attention
  • Sometimes I get strange responses or confused looks and this affects my confidence in using English around fluent speakers
  • I often have to repeat certain words or phrases; this makes me unsure if I sound clear in English

So, in summary, you don’t want to hesitate too much, be too slow or long-winded, be unclear about your meaning, be impolite, or mispronounce phrases. Well, all these goals can be achieved in order to improve your speaking fluency. How? By working on some basic principles of good English communication.

eLearning Strategies

It is worth noting that all steps to fluency listed here are based on activities I've designed for use as part of an eLearning strategy. Since almost all programs today blend eLearning with in-person or video conferencing classes, the fluency work we do capitalizes on many online and offline technologies. Sitting in front of your computer you have all the tools you need at your fingertips to work effectively on your speaking skills, as referenced below.

So, my number one best way to improve English speaking skills is:

1. Avoid Translating: Learn To Think In English

Of course, it’s the natural reflex when you can’t find the word or expression you need, to turn to your first language and translate. And it does work a lot of times! But it also leads to the problem of taking too long to make your point. This is because languages are more than just strings of words and phrases. Each has its own set of structures, everyday phrases, order of elements, verb forms, sound systems, cultural references as well as concepts that don’t translate directly from one to another. No wonder it takes so long to become fluent! So, you see that much meaning can get "lost in translation" as the film title puts it. What is the answer then if not translating? I have gone into some detail about the process in my article. Simply put, you will fail to speak English fluently if you don’t start learning how to think in English. The following points cover the basic steps you need to follow in order to improve your fluency in English.

The Role Οf eLearning In Fluency Training

eLearning technologies offer huge benefits in fluency training in terms of both online resources and means of interaction with trainers/other learners. As discussed in my article, using audio and video material is vital in fluency work. The vast range of speaker models and topics available online means that there is huge flexibility for trainers/learners in choosing the most relevant content. The process of hearing/seeing, understanding, identifying key languages, and immediately using them to retell (described in detail below) becomes hugely effective when the most relevant material is at hand online.

In terms of interaction with trainers, eLearning can include the use of recording apps to self-record, so learners can submit oral work such as short presentations. This creates real-world speaking goals while learners work at their own pace. Similar real-world interaction can easily be set up with teacher-led online forums. Learners can exchange views, on films or books for example, through messaging. This can improve speaking fluency as online messaging is closer to the spoken form than other kinds of writing.

2. Improve Self-Confidence In Speaking English: Learn How You Sound

If you don’t ever listen to how you sound, by recording yourself for example, then you won’t discover what difficulties other people may have in getting what you say. Your phone or PC recorder is the only tool you need and I use this method throughout my eLearning courses, most usually in offline exercises.

Learners often report, when they do this for the first time, that they’re surprised by how good they sound. This is surely the key to having confidence in using English, especially around fluent speakers. Others report that they feel they hesitate a lot. Sometimes this may be unfair as we all hesitate a little when we are tired, concentrating too hard, or unfamiliar with special terms.

But the real key to evaluating how you sound is to compare yourself to, say, a fluent colleague at work or someone being interviewed on the radio. The difference you perceive in the use of language generally provides the motivation and inspiration to go forward with fluency training work. It also builds confidence when you can evaluate how you sound and hear your improvement yourself.

3. Learn The Basic Building Blocks Of English

You won't be able to start thinking like a fluent English speaker until you learn the basic building blocks of the language and how to use them. This is where combining eLearning with in-person learning really excels. It is essential that learners have sufficient time to pace themselves to achieve proficiency in these basic building blocks, with support from live online sessions.

One important building block is an accurate choice of verb along with the correct elements of a verb phrase (tense, modal verb, auxiliary, preposition, etc.) In English, we place great importance on this part of a sentence as it carries a lot of information. A good online grammar course is ideal here and can easily be incorporated as a review unit in an eLearning program. There are also many excellent adaptive eLearning resources available online.

Another important building block is a good stock of everyday phrases and expressions or those related to a professional area. You need to have used them a few times before you’ll be able to produce them spontaneously when needed. Good ways to find and practice this language are discussed below.

A third important building block that people sometimes forget about is the sound patterns of the English language. You can speak with the most perfect language and it can still be misunderstood if you don't use expected sounds and sound patterns since they carry and support meaning too. Again, pronunciation practice using self-recording and online audio dictionaries (e.g., Cambridge Online Learners Dictionary) features widely in my eLearning programs, as well as pre-recorded audio/writing exercises on stress, destress, and rhythm.

4. Don’t Learn Long Vocabulary Lists

Why not? Personally, I’ve never been able to learn long vocabulary lists, despite really wanting to speak reasonable Turkish. I’ve met very few adults who find this easy to do. Well, the good news is: Now that we have vast internet resources, there’s another and better way to improve your fluency. Again, online learning provides huge audio/video resources not found in traditional methods. Words always occur in a meaningful context when speaking and we need to learn this word context as a single unit where possible. So, as you listen to podcasts, etc., note the whole phrase used by a speaker rather than individual words, and use these to retell the speaker’s points (read more below).

5. Learn To Speak English Fluently By Listening To Someone Speaking English Fluently

We spoke above about listening to English speakers you admire and it’s exactly this type of audio material you will need to work on to build your stock of the most useful terms, phrases, sentence structures, signal phrases, sound patterns, etc. You will find lots of links to useful podcasts, TED talks, recorded interviews, movies, etc., throughout my eLearning programs.

The idea is to copy, yes copy! Use the vast range of available online resources. Copy those who do well what you wish to learn to do. It can be a radio interview of someone you admire, a TED presentation by someone in your professional field, or a podcast of various kinds of speakers designed for learning purposes. This is where eLearning presents huge benefits for the choice of material to suit learners' interests, language level, and communication styles.

No need to reinvent the wheel! However, my top tip for listening is:

6. Listen To Radio Interviews

They are usually topic-based and so contain a lot of key languages associated with that topic. They also involve a wide range of question and answer forms and conversational styles full of the soft language second language users often miss.

7. Be An Active Listener

You’ve discovered where the gaps in your spoken communication are. You know where to find quality audio to build your stock of real English, but how do you activate this language for fluent use? Most of the time, when we listen to anything, we focus on understanding what a speaker is saying. However, when we want to improve our fluency through listening exercises, it’s not enough to simply understand a speaker. Why? Because in getting the point we have unconsciously translated the idea back into our first language. We know the "what" but we haven’t noticed the "how" needed to reproduce it well.

An exercise I do with new clients involves listening to a recording of a good story with a strong punch line. They should retell the story. The ones who succeed usually catch the verbs in particular as well as the punchline phrase. Audio is a great source of natural expressions which need to be used immediately once understood. The more immediate the retelling, the more language gets activated.

8. Speak More Fluently Using 3-Part Sentences

It’s much easier to speak fluently in chunks than in full sentences. Even when you have activated whole phrases, structures, sound patterns, it’s still not easy to put all these together to form full sentences. Hesitation between individual words is likely and it’s not the way natural English is spoken. Listen to a conversation and you’ll hear the pattern of 2/3 parts. So, try constructing your sentence in 2/3 parts and use a pause between the parts to give you time to mentally prepare for the next part. For example: Oh, I’m sorry // I thought you were waiting for // the number 26 bus.

9. Make "Schwa" Your Friend For Clear Pronunciation

This is the "smallest" vowel sound in spoken English and also the most common one! It’s the one that often replaces other vowels when they are not stressed. Stress patterns (both in words and phrases) are an important component of meaning. Many learners find it difficult to sufficiently contrast stressed and de-stressed vowel sounds and "schwa" is the key to success. In terms of eLearning strategies, pronunciation work online is an essential part of any eLearning program designed for fluency in speaking. Carefully graduated video/audio material on the key elements of the English sound system can be presented online for self-access along with interactive aural/speaking gap-fill exercises.

10. Don’t Use A Bilingual Dictionary

It’s good to start using an English-English dictionary to improve your fluency as it keeps you thinking in English rather than translating and it also gives you an alternative way of expressing a word or phrase. Cambridge Online Learners Dictionary is ideal. It gives you an audio of the British and American pronunciation and a list of different uses of a word, especially good for phrasal verbs.

11. Recycle Exercises From Your Course Books

As well as vast internet resources, your course books are ideal for recycling exercises. For example, you can practice imitating a speaker in audio pieces, sentence by sentence. You can memorize a whole sentence from a text or grammar exercise and say it aloud to give you confidence with more complex forms when speaking and help you use meaningful rhythm/stress. Record yourself doing this and repeat until you’re satisfied with the result. You can take any audio and try to retell it by noting the key language as you listen. You can do the same for any text.

12. Finally, Don’t Try To Be Perfect

It’s important to be realistic about your goals. As long as you’re clear most of the time and don’t hesitate too much or take too long to get to the point, nobody will even notice! It’s also important to understand that even native speakers can have fluency problems with unfamiliar language areas or when they’re nervous. Take your time, breathe in the pause and focus on the quality of communication rather than every language detail.

eBook Release: English for Professionals
English for Professionals
Providing online English coaching one-to-one, fluency training, Pronunciation training, special purpose English, engaging methods, blended elearning options for those who want better English conversations at work/professionally.

Originally published at english-for-professionals.com.