Today we have a special guest post from our friend, Jack Askew, at www.ToFluency.com, where he guides English learners from intermediate to advanced learning.
Does the following apply to you?
- I find it difficult to understand native English speakers and movies in English.
- I can speak about some things, but I struggle during natural conversation.
- I have been an intermediate speaker for a long time.
I receive messages like these every day from English learners around the world. Many of these learners have learned English at school, taken further courses, and some have even spent some time in an English-speaking country. But, they can’t seem to get to an advanced level, especially with conversational English.
But why does this happen?
Well, it is because:
1. Most learners don’t set goals, instead they just have dreams.
2. Most learners don’t do the right things.
3. Most learners don’t get into the habit of using English every day.
Let’s start with goals.
Do You Have English Fluency Dreams or Goals?
“Goals are dreams with deadlines” ~Diana Scharf Hunt
Before I introduce the different methods and tips, I want to talk about mentality. You won’t reach fluency in English if you don’t approach it in the right way. And firstly, I want to talk about setting goals.
You see, too many learners dream about reaching fluency, but they don’t plan to do it. Setting a goal of reaching fluency within a certain date (“I will speak fluent English [C1] by March 2016″) makes your dream real and helps you plan to reach this goal. And then adding in why you want to speak fluent English (there are many reasons why you might want to reach fluency) gives you the motivation to actually reach it.
For example, you might want to speak fluent English because it will give you more opportunities; or maybe because you have English speaking friends; or because you love American/British culture; or simply, because you love the language.
So, before you do anything else, write down your goal, think about why you want to achieve it, and then think about how this will change your life.
Once you have done this, you then need to do something about it.
Going From An Intermediate English Level to Fluency: Doing the Right Things
“Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results” ~Einstein
If you haven’t made much progress over the last year, two years or more, and your goal is to reach fluency within the next year, then you’ll need to make some changes. The bad news is:
Traditional methods won’t help you reach fluency
Spending time on grammar, doing lots of exercises, focusing solely on courses for English learners, and taking courses at your local language school is not enough to reach English fluency. You won’t get there with these methods alone.
Because, to reach a high level of English and to be able to have everyday conversations with English speakers, you need use English much more than that, and in a natural way.
But, the good news is this:
Anyone can reach fluency in English if they do the right things
It’s not about how good you are at learning languages; it’s not about where you live – it’s about how much you want to reach fluency and what you do.
And whatever methods you use, you will need to:
- Read and listen to lots of natural English
- Enjoy what you’re doing
- Internalize grammar and thousands of words and phrases
- Get the speaking and writing practice you need
Let’s first talk about input.
You’re not listening to enough natural English.
In fact, you can never listen to enough natural English. Listening is the best input you can get (this includes watching things in English too). The reason you can’t understand native speakers is because you haven’t practiced this enough.
To be able to understand native speakers you need to get LOTS of practice. Through listening practice, especially conversational English, you will get used to natural English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. No English learning book or course is going to give you the practice you need.
And, if you are taking an IELTS exam in the near future, then listening to natural English in addition to IELTS listening questions is something you should be doing more of.
But what if you don’t have the time to listen to English?
Well, listen while doing other things. Listen while doing housework, while exercising, while walking the dogs, while driving to work. And think about how much you watch and listen to things in your native language, then make the changes you need to make by watching and listening to things in English instead.
And although there are some great English learning podcasts, you should spend most of your time listening to natural English.
Just like listening, you should be reading more in English. In fact…
There is no reason to read anything (well, almost anything!) in your native language.
You can read novels, non-fiction, blogs, reviews, and do all of your research in English. You can change the language of your devices into English too.
Get into the habit of reading everything in English. You’ll soon get used to the language and understand everything.
Enjoy It And Make It Relevant
If you want to improve your conversational English, then listening to a conversation podcast is better than reading the newspaper.
Additionally, it is really important that you enjoy the English you’re reading, watching, and listening to. Most learners read things they think they have to, instead of reading things that they enjoy.
Not only will you learn more when you enjoy it, but also you’ll get used to the English that is relevant to you.
The Wrong and Right Way to Approach Grammar and Vocabulary
Learners spend far too much time learning grammar rules and doing exercises. But to speak naturally, you’ll need to internalize grammar (this is when it just feels right). The problem with spending time learning grammar rules is that, firstly, there are lots of exceptions to these rules. And secondly, rules won’t help you when it comes to speaking without hesitating.
Additionally, too many learners try to learn single words and phrases out of context. When you do this, you don’t truly understand the meaning of the word, and you can’t use it as part of a sentence.
To internalize English grammar and learn new words and sentences (and be able to use them), the following two things are going to help you greatly:
1. Get lots of and lots of input.
2. Use a method such as the Sentence Method.
We’ve already talked about input, so let’s now talk the sentence method.
The Sentence Method
The sentence method is the smart way to learn new words and phrases and also to internalize grammar. It works like this:
- You find sentences that are relevant to you and your learning.
- Enter these sentences into Spaced Repetition Software (like Anki)
- You then get smart repetition of the sentences when you need it.
Sentences are much better than learning single words and phrases. For example, if you learn the definition of the word excited, then you won’t really learn how to use it.
On the other hand, if you hear the following phrase in an episode of Friends, “I’m excited about going to the party,” then you learn that:
- We use excited with I am.
- We use about with this word too.
- And then the gerund (verb + ing) is used too.
And, additionally, because the sentences comes from context, then you’ll learn when it is used. The best thing about all of this is:
You will internalize these rules and it will just feel right.
You don’t need to memorize rules or definitions. You just internalize natural English through the repetition of this sentence, and thousands of others that you can use with The Sentence Method.
What About Speaking?
Speaking practice is a very important part of reaching fluency; you need to practice to make progress.
And the good news is that because of the internet, it is easy to get speaking practice these days. There are many ways that you can connect with speakers through online lessons, make friends online, and take part in language exchanges.
Additionally, you can practice your speaking without actually speaking with someone by using the LRRC method.
LRRC stands for “Listen, Repeat, Record, Compare” and works like this:
- You find audio that is relevant to you.
- You listen to it and then repeat.
- You record your version and then compare it to the original.
Recording your own voice allows you to be more objective with your pronunciation. And comparing your version with the original means that you can make changes to your pronunciation.
There is more to it than that, but this is the overview of the method. Doing this helps you make the right sounds and builds the muscle memory in your mouth so you can speak naturally.
Taking Action and Getting Into The Habit of Using English
After setting your goals and knowing what you need to do to attain them, you now need to take action.
A big part of this is starting small and getting into the habit of using English. For example:
- Watching a TV show every evening.
- Listening to a podcast on the way to work.
- Listening to music while working.
- Doing the sentence method every day before breakfast.
Becoming fluent isn’t about doing one big thing (taking an immersion course, for example). It is about doing lots of small things every day. It’s about getting into the habit of doing the right things and having a routine that is sustainable and enjoyable.
It’s about using the motivation you have to learn English and setting up systems to ensure you constantly do the right things. Too many learners go through cycles of learning: this is where they spend 2-3 months learning English, but stop because they run out of energy and motivation.
Jack Askew is the founder of To Fluency, a website dedicated to helping intermediate English learners get on the path to English fluency.