Start by setting some realistic targets for your spoken English that are achievable in the near future. For example, “I want to improve my pronunciation of English vowel sounds” or “I’d like to write and conduct a short presentation in English for work”. Once you have several clear goals in mind, the following tips will help you to improve your English speaking skills…
Imagine a newly-born baby. In the beginning, the young child does not understand language as such but communicates through body language, crying and so on. Then it starts to engage more actively with its parents, who speak to it constantly. The baby is a great listener but lacks the ability to speak properly for several years. Our understanding is always one step ahead of our practical ability to speak and this is especially the case when learning English as a foreign language. Work on improving your understanding of English by exposing yourself to the language as often as possible. Great listeners and observers make great speakers!
Some of the most active and vocal students in any classroom are often the most confident ones. Being afraid to make mistakes in English will almost certainly lead to nervousness, which in turn produces a higher incidence of speech errors. At the same time, being overly confident can mean your ego gets in the way of progress. There is always room for a little constructive criticism and self-analysis but we should be proud of our achievements and sure in our ability to speak English well. If you are ever shy or embarrassed about making mistakes when speaking English, remember this: the vast majority of our mistakes in a foreign language come directly from our mother tongue and this is a 100% natural process. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as we try to understand and learn from them. Most native English speakers are monolingual and are unlikely to speak your language so the fact that you are making an effort to communicate in English deserves their respect and appreciation.
Knowing more words in a language gives you greater choice and power when trying to express your thoughts and ideas. Having a larger vocabulary will help you understand native speakers better and read more complicated texts. Learning thematic vocabulary and discussing topics connected with it can expand your lexical horizons. Remember that there are always several ways of saying the same thing and knowing more words will simply mean you are able to express an idea faster and more directly. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the new words and phrases you learn. Avoid overusing idioms – many are outdated and no longer in use. Always learn vocabulary in a context – don’t just swallow the dictionary!
There are now many websites that allow you to download audio books free of charge so there is no excuse for not having a few in your collection. Choose an interesting audio book (perhaps one you are already familiar with in your native language) but don’t start listening to it straight away. First take the original text and read chapter one. Then underline any new words and translate them. Once you are sure you have understood everything, listen to the first chapter in the audio book and follow the text version as you progress. When you next go for a walk or drive to work, put on the audio book again but without the text version – you will understand much more! This approach will also help you make the connection between how English words sound and how they are written.
Poor pronunciation is a barrier to fluent spoken English and if you fail to clearly distinguish certain sounds you may be misunderstood. Native English speakers often use contractions and connected speech to make pronunciation easier. It is a good idea to select a speech model you like – for example, the BBC news or a favourite actor – and try to copy how they speak English. Notice where your pronunciation differs from that of the native speaker (you may want to record yourself speaking). Practise pronouncing minimal pairs (words that differ in just one sound) to sharpen distinctions between difficult phonemes. Work out which English sounds present the most problems for native speakers of your language and focus on these through drilling and repetition. For example, short æ and e in words like “bad” and “bed” are often difficult for Russian speakers of English so practising utterances like this can help: “She said she was sad because her bed was bad”. It is also worth learning the phonetic alphabet so you can check the correct pronunciation of words in a dictionary.
Films provide great listening practice and insights into “real” speech situations involving native English speakers. Material of this kind often contains a wide range of vocabulary, including slang, professional jargon and popular expressions in the modern language. If you regularly watch new films and TV programmes, you will always have your finger on the pulse of current English usage. If you find watching full-length films tiring, try a short documentary or serial – these are often shorter (around 30 mins). Download subtitles in English if you have difficulties understanding fast speech and native accents. However, avoid subtitles in your language as they will prevent you concentrating on the English original. If you watch the same types of English video material on a regular basis, you will soon find that words and expressions start to repeat. The more you watch, the easier it will become for you to understand native English. After this, you can try using the words and expressions you have learnt in your own speech.
If you are a music lover, this tip is for you. Take several of your favourite tracks in English and download the lyrics from the internet. Read and translate these lyrics, making a note of new words and expressions. Remember that the language used in songs is often non-standard and can be literary or poetic so there is little sense in spending hours on a direct translation – just try to get the gist of the song. Now play the song and follow the lyrics you have printed out. After this, you can listen to the song any time without the lyrics and still understand what it’s about. If you have an ear for music, try learning some songs in English and then sing them in the shower each morning!
If you find it hard to stay motivated when studying English or just don’t like learning on your own, you may want to look for a study buddy. Ask your friends whether they speak English and would like to practise with you once a week. You can then meet up to watch English films, play games in English, attend a speaking club in your city, travel abroad together, etc. This could make studying the language more fun and provide you with a constant conversation partner.
There are numerous language exchange and pen pal websites on the internet where you can meet other speakers of English. Some will be native speakers, but the majority will be non-natives. In any case, sites of this type can provide a great opportunity to network with new and interesting people from around the world, perhaps make a few friends and practise your written and spoken English. If you enjoy travelling, maybe one day you will get a chance to meet some of your new friends face-to-face!
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for real conversation practice with a native English speaker. If you don’t live in an English-speaking country and don’t have native English friends, then a logical alternative is to take conversational lessons with a Skype English teacher. Regular 1-to-1 speech practice will give you the targeted approach you need to make fast progress with your English speaking skills.