Ultimate Guide to Learning to Speak English

Updated: 28/09/2021

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Strategies to learning to speak English effectively according to Cambridge
Speaking English is probably the biggest challenge that our students communicate to us so that is what we focus on; helping you to improve your fluency and confidence.
 
Cambridge judges speaking as a skill by using 4 main criteria: fluency, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. In this e-book, we break down what each of these individual criteria are and what you can do to improve. 
 
Let us remind you that it is not enough to simply read this book. You must take action and put this into practice by firstly practising autonomously and then, by interacting with proficient English communicators. 
 
Start speaking English every day, even on your own or if you can, find a language partner and meet regularly to socialise and chat and enjoy communicating in another language. This way, you’ll begin training your mind to think and react in English in a range of natural contexts, something that doesn’t happen in school. 
 
A skill that many learners overlook when considering how they can improve their speaking abilities, is listening. Listening is probably one of the most underrated methods of learning to speak, after all, it sounds counterintuitive; if you’re listening, then you’re not speaking, right? Wrong. You may not be speaking as you’re listening, but you are processing language that is being directed at you. All you need to do is receive this language, recognise it and reformulate it in speech and you’ll instantly be practising grammar and producing new vocabulary. Receive, Recognise, Reformulate. Listen to the person and use their vocabulary to enhance your own. For example:
 
“…the experience was overwhelming but if I hadn’t done it, I would have regretted it…”
 
There are various elements in this phrase that a non-proficient learner may not completely understand however that doesn’t mean you cannot use it. In fact, you have to reuse it, even if incorrectly, and in doing so, you’ll have started to widen your lexicon. You could reply:
 
“Why would you have regretted it if you hadn’t done it?” 
 
What has happened? Perhaps you don’t even appreciate that the grammar tense is the 3rd Conditional, but that’s not important. Simply listen to the phrase, recognise the elements of importance and reformulate the language to continue the story and communication. Receive, Recognise, Reformulate.
 
I have never seen a coursebook mention how fundamental listening is to speaking so I hope you have learned something new and even more importantly, put it into practice
 

Lexical Resource

 
Without vocabulary, you have nothing to say, it’s quite simple. Expanding your lexical range is essential to being able to adapt to different contexts and maintain high quality communication for academic study, business and work or personal. 
 
According to Cambridge, to get the highest marks in vocabulary, a speaker must, “Use vocabulary with full flexibility and precision in all topics and uses idiomatic language naturally and accurately”.  
 
What this basically means is that you are able to speak about a wide range of topics and avoid repeating the same language over and over again. That is one part, while the other is using idiomatic expressions, also important because as native speakers, we frequently use this type of language in conversation.
                                                               

Idioms

 
So let’s begin with the ‘easy part’: the idioms. Now of course the English language has possibly thousands of different idioms, all with different meanings and used in different contexts. We don’t expect you to learn all of them nor half of them nor even a quarter of them, but what you could do is start to learn five idioms at a time per topic. 
 
Step 1 - Topics
 
Take a moment to think about the different fields in your life; things that you often think about, discuss, see or hear or converse with other people. They could be related to study, what you do at work, what the people closest to you often discuss or believe or could even be what your friends share when they hang out together.
 
  • This is an example for me, 5 topics of interest:  travel, languages, food, teaching, technology.
  • I want you to write down five areas of interest that you’re involved in somehow, do this now. 
  • I will then proceed and choose only one topic to focus on, for this example I will use, ‘Travel’.
 
 
Step 2 – Search for idioms
 
Now I will go to YouTube and search “English travel idioms”. I’ll listen to some videos, find five idioms that are connected to travelling and write them down (What is important about using YouTube in this activity is that most of the videos will include audio-visual examples. This can be incredibly helpful for you, depending on what type of memory you have.
 
Example:  
 
                        Idiom                  -             Definition
 
·      Get off the beaten track – avoid common tourist areas
·      Rough it – sleep on the street
·      Culture vulture – someone who loves learning about cultural aspects
·      Shoestring budget – someone who’s on a very low budget
·      Spend a fortune – when you spend a lot of money  
 
 
I need to make sure that they are explained in the videos so I can write down the definitions for each one. This helps my comprehension and I can begin to understand the phrase’s construction. 
 
Find your idioms now.
 
 
Step 3 - Construction
 
I try not to spend too long worrying about the grammatical construction because when you hear a native using it (as you have already done in the YouTube video), you’ll already have a good idea of how to use it. However, sometimes it’s necessary and some learners just appreciate the mechanics. 
 
Some elements to analyse include the word order, prepositions, subjects and objects, not to mention word stress and intonation which shouldn’t be overlooked. 
 
Example:
 
“To get off the beaten track.” =  (non-transitive) Phrasal Verb + adjective + noun
 
 In use: I get off the beaten track by exploring new places and avoiding famous landmarks. 
 
Your turn. Construction + Example. 
 
 
Step 4 - Production
 
The next step is to create your own examples and produce them in written form, as in the example above. Try to write two or three examples for each expression using different forms if necessary (positive, negative, interrogative, gerund etc). Check the construction and when you finish, say it out loud to yourself and judge if it sounds correct to you or not. If you’re unsure, write it into Google and see if the phrases comes up as you’ve written it.
 
Write at least 10 examples using multiple forms. 
 
 
Step 5 – Practice
 
Once you’ve gone through all of the steps, the next thing you need to do is to practice using it in speech. If you have a language partner, agree to discuss this topic over coffee and prepare some statements and questions to ask him or her and try to use them in a conversation. Give your friend a piece of paper with your idioms written on it and every time you use one of the idioms correctly, your partner can tick it off. That way your partner has to listen carefully to what you say and you’re making yourself accountable to using this new language. 
 
If you don’t have a language partner you can always try using it alone. We really believe in this method; thinking and speaking to yourself, when you are alone and away from distraction can be tremendous. You can even record yourself and listen to your speech at a later date for some self-evaluation. Try it. 
 
 
Topics
 
You can do this the fun way or the less fun way. The fun way is a little bit more work but is more authentic whereas the less fun way is easier because the information has already been collected for you but is a little less relevant to you personally, or, you can do both. 
 
Find material using the same topics as you chose in the previous example when we were practising idioms. You can do that either by; A) finding them in a course book, which will have all the vocabulary selected for you, or, B) find and read articles or listen to podcasts with transcripts, and collect topic-specific words that you come across. 
 
The book option is more simple as it’s designed for your level and the key language has already been identified for you. Let’s explore that option for now. 
 
Step 1 – Locate vocabulary
 
Locate the unit that contains the topic of interest. Most books will have this explicitly written in the Contents section in the opening pages. Take your pick and find the topic you want to learn about.
 
Take action now. 
 
Step 2 – Vocabulary Activity
 
Somewhere in the unit, usually near the beginning, you’ll find a vocabulary section with an explicit dedication to learning new vocabulary 
 
 Example
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Taken from Cambridge, Objective Proficiency
 
 
Try to complete the activity that the book offers. They often apply the ‘Test-Teach-Test’ technique, where students try to complete an activity first and test their existing knowledge on the subject. 
 
Once you finish the activity, check your answers and analyse the mistakes. This is where the majority of the learning occurs and something that a lot of learners don’t do. 
 
Understand why the answers are correct, analyse the form and use and even read the language reference found at the back of the course book. This will help clarify anything you’re unsure of and provide you a better understanding. 
 
Example:   

 
 
Step 3 – Practice
 
Of course, next you have to create your own personal examples using this new vocabulary in combination with the idioms you’ve already learned, within the context of the topic. 
 
 
Example.     “Getting off the beaten track is never in vain, because it’s always fascinating to discover new places.”
 
“I’m on the brink of running out of money because I’m on a shoestring budget.”
 
By this stage, you have read the new vocabulary, written it and used it in context, so what’s missing? Two aspects; hearing it being used and saying it or using it in conversation. 
 
Search for the vocabulary on YouTube and you may be able to find it being used. If not, which can often be the case, we advise preparing some opinions on your topic, record yourself speaking for a few minutes and try to use the new language as much as possible. Play it back afterwards and check the accuracy. Are you using it grammatically correctly? Is the pronunciation and intonation appropriate? You should be able to gain a good idea by listening to yourself. 
 
Step 4 - Regular Review
 
You need to keep this new language actively in your mind. This is very difficult to achieve over time, especially if you’re not practising regularly which is why it’s fundamental to have clear goals that you are constantly working towards, so you have a reason to constantly review what you learn. 
 
Set a fortnightly reminder on your phone, computer or calendar to revise new vocabulary that you’ve learned and repeat Step 3, practising using the words in speech. This includes repetition of the idioms you should have also acquired. 
 
You should try and speak to a language partner at least twice a week as a minimum. Join some social groups or find someone who would like to chat online. There are no excuses if you really want to improve.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Grammatical Range and Accuracy

 
Once you have a foundation of vernacular that you can use to create conversation, the next element to consider is, how accurate is what you say? What use is having thousands of words at your disposal if you cannot put them into a coherent syntax that can be understood by your listeners? 
 
Proficient knowledge of English grammar is important for this reason. Many learners become obsessed with it which isn’t strictly necessary but equally, shouldn’t be ignored. 
 
Cambridge’s requirement for a proficient grammar speaker states, “Use(s) a full range of structures naturally and appropriately…produces consistently accurate structures apart from ‘slips’ characteristic of native speaker speech.”
 
Deconstructing the definition, we need to ensure we use multiple grammar forms in our communications and produce them accurately. 
 
                                                
                                                            Range
 
 
Write the words in the correct order:
 
Example. 
 
In, vain,  beaten, never, track, is Getting off, the 
 
Once you’ve written them down (correctly), cover what you’ve written and repeat the phrase 5 times in speech, getting faster each time.  
 
This is just 1 simple example. There is no quick way to learn and improve grammar. Some advice we can offer is use a good grammar or course book and use the ‘Test-Teach-Test’ approach, working your way through the book.
 
For each grammar section that you cover, ensure that you practice the language point by learning the construction and its use and then apply it in written and spoken form. We must always begin with learning receptively and transfer this knowledge into a productive form. 
 
An excellent grammar book for you to use is R. Murphy’s Grammar in Use or a course book appropriate for your level, which are usually organised in a coherent manner whereby each grammar point is connected to the next so that you can build on knowledge that you acquire and combine such structures in conversation. 
 
Another way is to group grammar into logical blocks and learn all the present tense grammar forms together first, the past and finally futures. Having done this, you will be able to converse in various time forms. 
 
Then move on to more detailed grammar groups such as conditional clauses or past routines for example. 
 
Group by group, the formula is the same. Read explanations and examples - Practice with exercises - Produce (speaking & writing). 
 
The art is then how to apply various grammatical structures in any one phrase. Try to follow a simple structure to help train your delivery:
 
  • What the situation was (past)
  • What is happening now (present)
  • What you expect will happen (future)
 
Example.
 
Friend: “How do you travel buddy?”
 
Me: “I used to rough it a lot when I travelled as a youngster. I would sleep on sofas or someone’s floor because I was always on a shoestring budget. 
Nowadays, I prefer something more comfortable so I usually rent a hotel room or ‘bnb’. 
Thanks to technology, it’s all changing though and I think we’ll be able to travel easier and more efficiently in the next few years. 
 
Follow this structure over and over so you become used to using multiple time frames in one communication. Use the framework and adapt the grammatical content as you grasp new grammatical concepts. As always, speak, record yourself and evaluate your accuracy. 
 
 
 

Fluency and Coherence

 
You’re doing incredibly well to get this far! We’re 50% of the way through unlocking the skills to improving your speaking abilities. If you’ve been applying everything that we have suggested, you should have already noticed a distinct improvement in both your confidence and delivery, accuracy and fluency, simply thanks to practice. 
 
You’re making progress. How good does it feel? Appreciate that feeling of getting better and use it to push you even further.
 
Fluency is having the vocabulary, knowing how to construct it into intelligible sentences and produce it with fluidity and rhythm and of course, reacting to responses. 
 
Our friends at Cambridge quantify that fluent speakers, “Speak(s) fluently with only random repetition or self-correction; any hesitation is content-related rather than to find words or grammar… Speaks coherently with fully appropriate cohesive features… Develops topics fully and appropriately.”
 
 
 

                                                            Fluency

 
In this section, forget about grammar and accuracy. We are focusing on how much you can talk about a particular topic, how you interact and react to other people’s opinions and how effectively you present your ideas. 
 
Remember, “…speaks fluently with only random repetition or self-correction; any hesitation is content-related rather than to find words or grammar…”
 
Even native speakers hesitate and pause during speeches; it’s perfectly natural to have to think about what to say next. The key is to be strategic about these pauses and use them to your advantage in order to deliver your idea coherently. 
 
Our advice is to have a set framework to base your communication on. This is a guide more than a rule as communication is often free-flowing and unpredictable however, you can use this when you begin a conversation:
  • Point – What you want to communicate
  • Example – Provide an example to clarify what you mean
  • Conclusion / Question – What is the result of your idea?  Conclude your idea by posing a question or interaction to the other person. Do they agree with you? 
 
 
Example:
 
Getting off the beaten track is never in vain… 
 
…because it’s always fascinating to discover new places… 
 
…and that’s what I love about travelling most.”
 
Is the structure clear to you? Point + Example + Conclusion. If you can follow this framework, you’ll be able to communicate with a lot more coherence and avoid repeating your ideas which is so easy to do when you’re focused on getting the information out of your head. This is often a problem for people in their own native language but mainly because many have never thought about it before. 
 
What do you think was the question that provoked this answer? Probably, “What do you like most about travelling.”, or something similar. We can understand this thanks to the conclusion. 
 
A good test is to start listening to someone who’s mid-way through a conversation and try to pick up what they’re saying. If their structure is in place, you’ll find yourself in one of the 3 parts and be able to recognise which it is. Obviously, conversations become more complex but the only thing that happens, the structure extends and/or repeats. 
 
Pauses
 
English is spoken in short bursts with regular pauses unlike many other languages, especially Latin based, whose utterances are a lot longer and faster. This is an example of British English rhythm compared to say, Italian:
 
British:  ABCD, EFGH, HIJ, KLM, NOP
Italian: ABCDEF, GHIJKL, MNOPQ
 
Confused? 
 
“It’s my opinion Brexit will change a lot in Britain (PAUSE). It’s going to change the way we travel and work (PAUSE) hence why it’s important to prepare for the future (PAUSE) and do what we can now to ensure we survive. 
 
This is an incredible advantage that non-native speakers aren’t using. Having so many regular pauses allows you the opportunity to think about what to say next. All you need to do is replace the familiar sound of “ummm…..errrrrrrr…..hmmm…” with “firstly, furthermore, what I mean is, therefore, in fact, hence…”. 
 
Action
It helps to be mechanical at the beginning. You now have a list of words you need to use. Choose 3. Start writing examples using all the vocabulary and grammar you’ve learned so far. Focus on the P + E + C form and insert your 3 words into the pause sections. 
Write as many examples as you need until it becomes automatic and then start employing it in speech. Almost robotically, repeat the technique until it’s second nature in your speech. When this become easy, start using another 3 words and repeat again. 
You’ll gradually improve by inserting more advanced linking expressions and metaphors to justify your points. 
 
Now use the following questions to put everything into practice:
 
Describe a cultural place you know.
·       How often do you visit ?
·       Which type of cultural place is popular in your country?
·       Why would you want to visit ?
·       Would you recommend it to others?

Describe your favourite photograph

·       Where was it taken?
·       Who took it?
·       What does the photo show?
·       Explain why it is your favourite.

Describe an important technological invention.

·       What is it?
·       Why do you think it is very important?
·       What are the advantages and disadvantages of the invention?
·       How do you think it will change in the future?
 
 
 

Pronunciation

 
 
We are now at the final criteria and perhaps one of the most complicated. 
 
Let’s start with an analysis. I speak Italian and Spanish, albeit not perfectly, but my pronunciation is advanced-proficient and very often you wouldn’t recognise I’m British. I have never studied Italian, a little Spanish, but I’m convinced that the reason I speak them without a British accent is because I have spent a lot of time in those countries, immersing myself in the sounds, melodies and rhythms of the language. Many people will say “ah….of course, if you live in the country…it’s easy that way…”. Yes, it’s easier to be immersed, but you still have to apply the skills, especially listening carefully and repeating accurately, in order to improve. 
 
This sounds very poetic but as I said at the beginning of this book, the key to speaking like a native is listening, hearing how a native speaks and replicating it. It’s not an ancient secret but may as well be, as so many students seem to ignore this basic skill. 
 
Cambridge says you should, “Use(s) a full range of pronunciation features with precision and subtlety…sustains flexible use of features throughout…is effortless to understand.”
 
This probably doesn’t mean much to you in practical terms so we’ll give you something more tangible: phonetics, intonation, word and sentence stress. 
 
Phonetics
 
Example of phrase in phonetics
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This may look like Egyptian hieroglyphics at first but in actual fact, it’s a hugely important way for you to say what you want, the way it should be. Obviously, before you can use them, you should study them, little by little. Use a chart like this which provides examples and images or you can find interactive charts online which also produce audio. 
 
You don’t need to memorise all the symbols at once. Many are intuitive and many are easily pronounced thanks to the associated image that represents the sound in question. 
 
Begin familiarising yourself with it by using this website www.tophonetics.com that we often use to teach our students. Type a phrase and it will translate the text into phonetics. Why? Because you should practice speaking from phonetics. Forget the original text and focus on the symbols – say exactly what you see. This should be intuitive for speakers from Latin countries who are used to pronouncing words as they’re written, unlike English, with all its silent letters and tongue-twisting sounds
 
Step 1: Familiarise yourself with the phonetic chart
Step 2: Begin reading idiomatic phrases aloud from phonetic script
Step 3: Listen to examples of the model phrase you’re reading
Step 4: Repeat and record yourself. Play back the recording and compare it to the example. Do you sound exactly the same as the native speaker? 
 
The following sounds are often the most difficult for foreign speakers to master (depending on your native language):
 
/θ/  /ð/  /ə/  /ʒ/  /ʤ/
 
Finally, speakers often automatically include sounds from their native language to ‘fill’ the gaps that would appear if they were speaking Italian, as most words tend to end in vowels. For example: 
 
“What-er, I want-er, is-er, to go-er, to the shopp-ing centerr, on-er, de weekend-er.”
 
These ‘extra’ sounds need to be cut. By simply stopping oneself from making this /-er/ or /ə/ sound, you will improve your pronunciation two-fold. Again, record yourself and hear yourself committing this pronunciation crime. 
 
 
 
 
Intonation
 
Clean out your ears and pay very close attention. We are now focusing on the musical sounds found in language. 
 
Try this example now:
 
·      Go to YouTube and search a Chinese actor / actress (choose another language if you speak Mandarin / Cantonese)
·      Find an interview
·      Listen to the conversation and focus on the sound of the speech
 
Is it a flat monotone sound? Does the pitch rise and fall?
 
Most people will notice that the sound is variable with lots of high and low pitched sounds. English is similar. It’s not a monotone language even if it’s not as musical as say Latin languages. 
 
Now repeat the example but listen to an interview in English. Do not watch the video, just listen to the sounds in the conversation.
 
Was it harder? Probably if you understand English, your brain automatically wants to interpret what’s being said rather than how it’s being spoken. You have to listen very hard to hear the sounds, past the words and into the melody. 
 
Step 1
 
Find a model to listen to. This can be a famous actor, singer or even politician. It should be someone you admire and respect so you are more encouraged to listen to them and behave as they do. Go to YouTube now and find an interview with this person. 
 
Step 2 
 
Listen to a few phrases in the interview. When you hear some distinct changes in intonation; surprise, disappointment, happiness or severity, replay the same clip and listen to it again. You should probably listen 3 times before you start to practice.
 
Step 3
 
Practice repeating the same phrase in the exact same intonation and pitch. Does the pitch increase or decrease at the beginning, middle of end? Repeat this several times and when you’re ready, record yourself. 
 
Step 4
 
Listen to the example in the video again and then compare it to your recorded example. Do they sound different? Why? Which part? Analyse it and try it again. You want to make it identical. 
 
Step 5
 
When you’ve done this successfully, continue watching and repeat the exercise with new phrases. 
 
On a final note considering ‘modelling’, it often helps to mimic the person’s body language and mood. If you mentally prepare yourself and imagine you are that person, your delivery will also be more similar to theirs. Try it. 
 
 
Word and Sentence Stress
 
I, am the greatest”, said Muhammad Ali. He didn’t say, “I, am the greatest”. Can you hear the difference? In the first phrase the emphasis is on ‘I’ while in the second phrase it is on ‘greatest’. This subtle difference does change the meaning of the phrase, at least to native speakers. 
 
You can actually do activities in the workbooks to practice this and we certainly recommend this method. However, we also suggest the more natural approach and repeat the same 5 steps from the previous activity and apply it to word and sentence stress practice.
 
Try this brief activity now. Which is correct, Column A or B?
 
                                    
A                                                                     B
 
 | We have to go now or we’ll be late. | We have to go now or we’ll be late. | Why don’t you love me? | Why don’t you love me? | It was absolutely incredible!  | It was absolutely incredible.
 
 
 
 
Conclusion
 
 
PRACTICE! Alone, with a language partner and/or with a teacher, the important thing is that you practice, regularly, and reflect and analyse your ability which is what most students fail to do because they feel uncomfortable with hearing themselves or realising their weaknesses. If you want to improve and overcome these weaknesses, follow the steps outlined, pin-point these areas of difficulty and work hard to change them. You will achieve it if you really want it. 
 
Create a weekly schedule and dedicate yourself to passive and active learning practice. You can allocate certain days to passive and others to active, or for best results, combine the two, beginning with passive (listening to models for examples) and then practice reproducing the examples you’ve been exposed to. 
 
Try this for 1 month and tell us if you feel any difference? Are you more confident, speaking more fluently or sound more natural? Perhaps it’s not working for you and we need to find another method or solution? Let us know. You are not alone, we are here to help you achieve your language objectives. 
 
 
By Steven Pigeon
ConvoAcademy.org

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