The sun had barely crested the horizon; it was 6:00 in the morning. Tristam approached the old oak tree in the courtyard with a book in hand.
“Good morning, Mr. Tree,” he intoned. “Today I will read from...”
Thus, every morning, this university student in China practised his English reading and speaking skills.
English learners all over the world jockey for advantage on the international stage by studying the language that more than two billion people worldwide are more or less fluent in.
For those across the globe who live far from metropolitan areas – where language learning centres abound, finding quality opportunities to practise conversational English requires some imagination and innovation.
And maybe, like Tristam, a willingness to talk to inanimate objects.
Finding – or creating avenues of English practice is not difficult. Let's find out how. But first...
Let Go of Your Fear of Speaking English
Many who study English as a second language are so afraid to make mistakes that, oftentimes, they will not risk speaking.
Several cultures around the world stigmatize failure so heavily that, rather than a blunder, many students at intermediate level remain numb even as their ESL teacher exhorts them to speak out.
However, rote exercises – repeating a list of words or sentences spoken by the teacher are often partaken of with gusto, even in university-level classes.
Younger students are less concerned with social mores.
Their English lessons involve games, songs and role play, especially if a native English speaker is leading the class.
Completely uninhibited, students learning basic English in primary levels have no problem shouting out answers or even conversing in English with complete strangers, in spite of their limited vocabulary.
The key to speaking English is to let go of inhibitions and fears of ridicule.
Nobody has ever been consumed by flames whilst honing their English skills. To our knowledge, not one English learner has served a sentence of harsh punishment for misusing grammar or failing to use the proper verb tense.
Errors in English do sometimes make for great comedy but remember: those who laugh are not targeting your English expressions; rather the image your unintended statement creates.
You can only go forward by making mistakes. - Alexander McQueen
Making mistakes is an essential part of learning. If you want to speak English fluently, then speak out! Freely, with no fear or shyness.
Most likely, you will find your audience admiring your courage and encouraging your efforts.
Using Technology to Learn English
While the world wide web is crowded with sites to help improve your English, many of them focus on reading, writing & spelling skills.
Web pages that permit English listening - podcasts and other materials are also fairly common. What people studying English lack is an avenue to practice spoken English.
With no expressed preference or endorsement, we present these few sites:
- italki is a language tutoring website specifically for developing speaking skills. After registering, you choose which teacher you would learn to speak English with, and schedule a session.
- Conversation Exchange is a site that connects native English speakers with people focused on English learning. If you have the opportunity – if you are living in the UK, for example, you can arrange a face-to-face meeting for English conversation, or you could practice English online, from anywhere in the world.
- Speaky is a language learning community that has its own audio and video chat function built in. With an organization of more than five thousand people online at any given time, you are likely to find several conversation partners suitable to your needs.
To maximize your learning potential, it might be beneficial to register with and use all three sites. That way, you are guaranteed an English speaking partner anytime you wish to practise!
While some free English learning sites have their own video chat software built in, others might require you to use an external application.
If you do not already have it, you might consider downloading and installing Skype.
A Word on Video Chat
It is absolutely vital to watch how a native speaker's mouth moves in order for you to learn to make the sounds required for proper English pronunciation. Learn about different forms of speaking English here.
Many teachers of English as a second language emphasize proper mouth movement by exaggerating lip and tongue position as they speak, especially when working with basic or low-intermediate English learners.
Using video chat, your teacher can closely watch how you form words, and make suggestions for improvement.
Having a conversation with a native English speaker using audio only deprives you of that essential learning tool.
However, audio-only does have its benefits: your English teacher can focus exclusively on your speaking skills without the additional visual input.
If your Internet access is limited – for whatever reason, you can still gain from practising your language skills with a native speaker during audio-only conversations.
Besides Skype, here are some of the world's more popular chat apps that you can access online and/or download to your phone:
- Whatsapp is a platform that permits video chat, as well as sending pictures and text messages.
- WeChat features instant messaging, video-sending and video chat capabilities. You can also send short audio files.
- Line is considered by many to rival Whatsapp in video quality and ease of use.
- Viber rounds out this list of chat apps. It too features video call capabilities, along with all other common messaging features.
Google Hangouts and Facebook Chat deserve a mention here. However, because they may not be accessible in every location around the world, it might serve you better to consider other, more popular chat platforms.
Learning Your English Skills by Listening
Judging by the global success of British and American movies, it is clear that many non-native English speakers have found a way to listen to English... unless the movies are dubbed into languages native to the region they are shown in.
Nevertheless, people who stream movies online, all over the world, are likely to be exposed to the English language in spoken dialogue.
How can you use this popular form of entertainment to improve your listening skills?
Many Esl teachers advocate turning off your native language subtitles in order to force comprehension of spoken English.
A thorough understanding of English requires, at least in part, recognizing and understanding subtle language clues such as tone and inflexion.
Body position and movement go further to provide shades of meaning.
You can gain context clues that will help you understand nuances of the English language all while passively absorbing facets of the language that are generally not taught, simply by watching movies.
Learning English Tone & Inflection
Like so many other languages, English has its own rhythm. Discerning and adopting it is one of a language learner's biggest challenges.
Unlike Vietnamese or Mandarin Chinese, whose spoken language requires tones on individual words, in English, sentence structure itself demands tone to give them meaning.
Asking a question in English is similar to using Mandarin's falling-rising (third) tone on the last word of the sentence, for example.
Speakers of other (tonal) languages tend to adopt a monotone when speaking English, perhaps not understanding the significance of rising and falling pitch in their second language.
Stressing certain words while speaking changes the meaning of a sentence. The phrase:
I didn't kick that dog
can have various meanings, depending on which word the emphasis is placed when spoken.
"I didn't kick that dog" suggests that someone else did.
"I didn't kick that dog" implies that I kicked a different dog.
Learning from listening to English calls for understanding how tone, stress and inflexion can change the meaning of a sentence.
Distinguishing Inflection Through Audiobooks
While movies provide both visual and audio clues to English comprehension, audiobooks expose you to proper English speaking without the benefit of visual indicators.
Librivox has thousands of audio books free for download to any of your devices. You can listen to classic literature or modern tales of love and money on the go!
Amazon US also stocks a wide selection of titles. You can choose from classics by H. G. Wells, or modern tales of intrigue by contemporary authors, all at no cost.
Join a Speech Club to Learn English
Perhaps the best way you can gain proficiency in spoken English is by joining a club.
Meeting members who are as passionate as you in your studies will give you a feeling of solidarity, and the ability to practise your language skills in a safe environment.
Toastmasters' can help you develop your listening and speaking skills, and boost your confidence as you progress.
Tristam, that Chinese university student who started our story by talking to a tree, has won awards for his efforts at English speaking through his speech club.
He is now employed by a global firm and uses English every day.
You can mirror his success by taking every opportunity to practise listening and speaking English if only to thin air.
Learn how to perfect your English accent with our guide to pronunciation. Check out dictionaries of English slang as well...