Updated June 25, 2009
How to Learn to Speak English
Several people have recently emailed me with a simple question, "How can I learn to speak English?" They mean, "How can I really learn to speak English, not just prepare for the IELTS Speaking test?"
This thinking is an intelligent way to approach the IELTS Speaking test because the test really does assess your true speaking ability – it's not a test that you should approach by "preparing for the test" as if it were a high school physics or history test. Yes, some of that kind of preparation is a good idea but, on average, only about 15% to 25% of your Speaking test score is influenced by your specific "preparation for the test" – most of your score will reflect your "real" or overall speaking ability. It's a very accurate test and IELTS examiners are not fools.
This page is just a quick summary of my suggestions for improving your overall speaking ability. You might notice that some of the ideas I write here are the same as on this page: http://ielts-yasi.englishlab.net/Three_months_to_go.htm. Actually, there are some things on that page that I want to rewrite but the basic ideas are similar to what I have written below.
First, you should find some genuine reasons to be interested in English, besides just doing the IELTS test. With little or no genuine interest in the language, you will find it much harder to improve your English.
Second, you should move beyond the idea that studying English, especially learning how to speak, is similar to studying academic subjects in school. A language is a tool for communication. You have to recognize that you must practice using this tool in situations of genuine communication if you expect to make progress.
Third, you need to recognize that making big progress in English takes time. Most recent high school graduates in China are at the Band 5.0 or 5.5 level, and recent university graduates are, on average, only a little better. They need at least 6 months and even up to 1 year of (more or less) full-time English study and practice before they can reach Band 6.0 or 6.5 standard. (This is the total time spent on all the four basic skills; reading, listening, speaking and writing.) If you try to do it in a big hurry, you won't improve very much.
Many people in China have an attitude similar to this: "I don't have much time to study English because I have to go to England three months from now to start my Master's degree in Business Management. As well as that, I'm not really interested in English; I'm more focused on my career." With these attitudes, you will probably (= 很可能) neither do very well in the IELTS test nor succeed in getting to England to study for your Master's degree!
The last point is this: Not only do you need to give yourself time, you also should try to progress one step at a time, not two steps at a time. If you are Band 5.0 or 5.5 now, you should not begin by trying to study materials that are at the Band 6.5 or 7.0 (or 9.0!) level.
What to Do
Make Grammatically Correct Written Sentences
The first thing you need to do is learn to make sentences using correct grammar. Find a good quality book that teaches you this. (See Booklist.) The best quality books are those books that were originally written overseas by native English-speaking experts. On the other hand, books written by Chinese authors have easy-to-understand explanations for you and translations, especially translations of new vocabulary. So, use both but understand that books written in China tend to approach English as an academic subject, not as a communication tool. As well as that, the English is sometimes overly formal because the books are for writing, not speaking. A good grammar book should also include some new vocabulary but, at the same time, a grammar book should not overwhelm you with a large amount of new vocabulary in every 'lesson'.
I know studying grammar is a bit boring but it is necessary, just like learning the correct way to do mathematics.
Make Grammatically Correct Sentences in Spoken Dialogues
For speaking, using a book to learn to make sentences is just the beginning. You also need to make and speak grammatically correct sentences in dialogue situations. For this, you should use 'Side by Side', starting with Book 1. (Only those students who know they are at Band 6.5 level now but are aiming for a 7.0 for speaking should skip Book 1.) Of course, you must use the recordings with the Side by Side books – it's impossible to correctly use the books for self-study without the recordings.
The 'Side by Side' student workbooks also have excellent practice exercises for making grammatically correct sentences in writing, but those workbooks do not have detailed explanations of the grammar. For explanations, I recommend you use the Chinese Edition of Collins Cobuild English Grammar (英语语法大全). In fact, to some extent, you could just use 'Side by Side' and 'Collins Cobuild English Grammar' instead of the books I mentioned in Step 1, above.
Using 'Side by Side' will start you on the road to "thinking in English", that is, speaking straight from your store of English knowledge rather than translating from Chinese. This is an important part of improving your fluency.
Mimic Naturally Spoken English Recordings
In addition to Steps 1 and 2, you should find relatively easy and interesting English listening materials that you can mimic (模仿) in order to improve your pronunciation. Some people need to do more of this activity than others, depending on how good their pronunciation is now, but everyone should do some of this activity.
Mimicking does not just mean copying the pronunciation of each word. It means copying everything about the way the native English speaker speaks, such as how they link their words, how they put stress on one (or more) particular word in each sentence and how they might rise or fall in the tone of their speech. Obviously, you need to get the best materials you can for this activity because you want to mimic people who are speaking as naturally as possible, including at a natural speaking speed.
As much as possible, try to find recordings of people speaking in dialogue or conversational situations or speaking similarly to the way you need to speak in the IELTS Speaking test.
The best materials to mimic are probably the listening practice materials in Books such as #3, #4, #23 and #24 that I mention in the Booklist. I think mimicking some parts of the Cambridge Practice Test listening tests is also quite suitable for this activity, if you first spend some time studying the new language in the parts you want to mimic so that they then become, 'relatively easy'. Use the transcripts (抄本) as you mimic the recordings.
Communicate with Speaking Partners
After you have made a little progress doing Steps 1 to 3 (above), you should find one (but preferably more than one) person to be your speaking practice partner. This is a very important part of learning to speak English! If you omit this item from your study, you will definitely make much slower progress than those who do follow this suggestion. It's the same as saying, "I want to make big improvements in my basketball-playing ability" but only spending your time learning and practicing the skills alone. If you really want to improve, you need to also do the actual thing you want to improve. For the guy trying to improve his basketball ability, this means playing some real basketball games as a member of a team.
A speaking partner should be at about your level of spoken English. You should chat with your speaking partner, one-to-one, in a natural way. Imagine you are chatting with another student from Asia in a coffee shop at a university in Australia, a student who looks Chinese but who doesn't speak your language.
The aim is to practice communicating. For this activity, you should emphasize exchanging information (and don't forget, talking about your feelings and opinions is one example of exchanging information!) Don't worry too much about grammatical errors – Steps 1 and 2 are activities for concentrating on grammatical accuracy but this activity is mostly for improving your fluency and for using the tools (i.e., the language) that you have learned in your private study. Not only is this by far the best way to make big improvements to your fluency, you will also remember your grammar and especially your vocabulary much better if you actually practice using them this way. I repeat: Steps 1 to 3 give you the basic tools for speaking English but if you really want to make the fastest possible progress, you need to use these tools in real communicative situations.
This activity is the main way to progress beyond the step of, "thinking in Chinese" and then translating into English. By minimizing and then eventually almost eliminating the translation step, your fluency will increase dramatically.
One way to help you overcome the habit of translating from Chinese is this: Don't always try to speak English at the same level as you speak Chinese. Instead, be satisfied with communicating at a simpler level. People who are very well educated or very thoughtful often try to speak the same in English as they do in Chinese, with the result that they struggle to translate their rather complex thoughts and end up speaking with a low level of fluency. When you speak in a natural and communicative way with a partner, just go into your "memory bank" of English and choose to use vocabulary and expressions that you know as your tools of communication – be satisfied with that. It is possible for a person who has just a Band 5 level of vocabulary and grammar to reach a Band 7 or 8 level of fluency by constantly using his or her limited vocabulary and relatively weak grammar in situations of true communication. In other words, you need to repeatedly use the English you know in true communication with another person, no matter how limited your English is at the moment. Don't worry about repeatedly speaking the same grammatical mistakes. Yes, you should try to do something about your grammar mistakes when speaking and the best thing to do is to use 'Side by Side' to fix these errors. If you worry about turning your grammar mistakes into habits of speaking and use that as a reason not to try to communicate in English, you will never improve your fluency.
Let's return to the imaginary foreign student you are speaking to in a coffee shop at a university in Australia. Imagine the student is from say, Thailand or Korea. (And imagine your language partner in China is this person when you speak to your language partner.) Now, imagine that when you are chatting to this other Asian student in Australia, you really do want to chat, you really do want to communicate – your aim is not to "impress" this other person with your English. In this kind of situation, you will be satisfied with just using the English you know. You will, in fact, speak more fluently than you might speak in the IELTS Speaking test when you are trying to "impress" the examiner.
Speaking in situations of real communication by using simple English at first is a necessary step to go through when learning the language. If you include a speaking partner as part of your plan to improve your spoken English, the quality of your grammar and vocabulary will improve over time, while you will be quite fluent whatever stage of grammar and vocabulary you are at any particular time. It is much better to practice with a speaking partner right from the early stages of learning English than to learn a lot of English over a year or two in private study and then trying to improve your fluency by speaking in situations of genuine communication.
Of course, in the Speaking test you do need to impress the examiner to some extent, but you should not make that more important than communicating clearly. For example, you do need to show the examiner that you know how to begin some sentences with words that introduce your main answer (or link to what you have said previously, or both introduce and link) and you do need to use complex sentences rather than habitually speaking in short, simple sentences. After you have studied and practiced these things at home, you should try to include them in your natural communication with a speaking partner. Eventually, this higher-level English will become automatic for you.
Read and Listen to a Lot of Relatively Easy Material
While you are continuing with Steps 1 to 4, you should do a lot of listening and reading. However, I think many students make a big mistake in the way they do this – they always try to read or listen to materials that are quite hard, materials that have a large number of new words or expressions and other language that is too difficult. This is not learning in a step-by-step manner! Not only that, it will damage your enthusiasm for learning English. You need to read and listen to a large amount of quite easy material, material that has only a very small number of new words and expressions, for example, only one, two or three new words or expressions in every 200 words. Why should you read and listen to materials that are so easy? Well, guess what this activity is called ... it's called, "practice"!
There are several reasons why you need to practice reading and listening this way. Firstly, whenever a person learns to use a complex tool, such as learning to play a musical instrument, or learning something like playing basketball or doing wushu, this person doesn't always try to learn a large amount of new things every time they do the activity. Instead, they repeatedly do a lot of the basic things that they had learned earlier. In the case of language learning, you repeatedly read and listen to words and sentence structures that you have learned earlier, but in new materials that you haven't read or listened to before. Students who learn new vocabulary by studying vocabulary books and especially by learning new words from lists of vocabulary always complain that they forget many of the words. But by repeatedly exposing yourself in this way to words you have learned earlier, you will remember them better and have a much better understanding of how to use these words. Reading and listening are powerful ways to practice and revise the language you already have learned (and as a means of gradually learning new vocabulary) because reading and listening are natural uses of the language in communication; the writer or speaker is communicating one-way to you (it's not mutual communication but it is still communication).
The second reason why you should do this activity is rather common sense: It's much easier to know how to speak if you have listened to a lot of English and, similarly, it's much easier to know how to write if you have read a lot of English.
I realize it is a problem for many students to find suitable materials, at their level, for easy reading and listening practice. If you find English learning sites on the internet, you should be able to find some materials on those websites for doing this. Similarly, internet sites with materials in English for primary school and junior high school students (in the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa etc.) would be suitable for learners of English, like you.
But probably the best idea is to buy more than one general English language textbook (preferably originally written overseas) and practice reading and listening to the materials in the book that is one level below your current level.
Of course, as much as possible, you should try to use materials that have contents similar to the contents of the IELTS test, whether you are practicing with easy materials or learning new language from more challenging materials. For example, listening materials in which a person speaks naturally about his own life, sometimes speaks at length to describe something, and engages in discussion with another person. Easy reading materials should be similar to easier examples of the IELTS reading test.
It is also a well-known fact in language learning that students who read and listen to materials on subjects that interest them make the best overall progress. In other words, if you are particularly interested in basketball, pop music, films, art, world geography or history then you should give more time to reading and listening to materials on your favourite topic(s). By doing this, your reading and listening will feel less like 'study'. At the same time, you should also read and listen to typical IELTS topics because examiners will use a variety of topics to assess your overall vocabulary. For example, if you are a young man who likes computer games but is not very interested in clothes, you should not completely ignore the topic of clothes in your reading and listening. Similarly, girls should spend a little time reading and listening about the topic of sport.
At the same time, you should spend some time reading and listening to materials that are new and more challenging for you. That is, spend some time learning new materials such as in the textbook that is at your current level and by doing and studying the IELTS Reading and Listening practice tests.
I believe the best progress will be made if you spend about 3 hours on quite easy materials for every 1 hour you spend on more challenging materials. In other words, I believe this plan will, in the long run, lead to greater progress than if you spend 3 hours on challenging materials and only 1 hour on easy materials. 慢慢来!
Watching Hollywood Movies Won't Help You Learn to Speak English
And don't waste your time watching Hollywood movies. Ok, watch an occasional movie for entertainment but don't expect that to improve your speaking ability – it won't because it's not progressing in a step-by-step manner. Besides, you don't speak when you watch a movie! Yes, you are listening when you watch a movie (or maybe you're just reading the subtitles in Chinese, the 中文字幕) but Hollywood movies (i.e. films that were not made for language learners) will also only help your listening ability to a very small extent because, once again, it's not step-by-step learning.
Learn Vocabulary in Conjunction with Other Activities
You might notice that I haven't yet written much about learning vocabulary. It certainly is a very important part of language learning. And for people who are at the Band 4.0, 4.5 and 5.0 level now, a small vocabulary can be a great handicap.
The main reason why I have not specifically put learning vocabulary into an activity for you to do is this: I think learning new vocabulary is best done in combination with other activities, not as a separate activity. I know many Chinese students try to increase their vocabulary by studying those "IELTS Vocabulary" books, as a separate and isolated activity. However, I suspect that most students become frustrated and disappointed with their progress when using those books because, since the vocabulary is really meant for reading comprehension and writing, a lot of the vocabulary is too high-level or too formal. Not only that, it is a rather unnatural, academic way to approach building up one's communication skills or tools. I think you should spend less time with those vocabulary books and find other methods for building your vocabulary.
As I said, I think the best method is to combine your vocabulary building with other activities. For example, in Step 1, learning to produce grammatically correct sentences, you should choose a good book that adds to your vocabulary as you progress through the different sections of the book. Most good grammar books do that. If you get a good grammar book that was originally written overseas by native English speaking experts and has been republished in China, you will often find the vocabulary is already translated for you in the back of the book or in lists. Book #17 (by Martin Hewings), in my Booklist does that for you. Then, as you see the examples and use the vocabulary in the exercises, you will learn the real usage of these words and they will be better imprinted in your memory because you will have actually used these words.
Then, when you move on to using Side by Side, your will find another opportunity to increase your vocabulary. The Side by Side books not only use pictures to teach you vocabulary, they also have Chinese translations of words in the back of the books. By doing the speaking exercises you repeatedly use the new words and, in this way, will learn the new words in a natural way.
I know it's time-consuming to be frequently using your dictionary so the best idea is to try to find study materials that have lists of words already translated. So, as much as possible, try to find good-quality IELTS study books or oral English books written by native English speakers that include translated vocabulary lists. Book #19 (by Juliet Adams) is a good book for increasing your knowledge of some basic, everyday words that are useful for the Speaking test but that book is quite small.
One of the best books (with an audio recording) that I have seen for Chinese students to build their vocabulary for spoken English is 生活英语情景口语100主题. If you use the book and the recording as mimicking material, you will be learning new vocabulary at the same time as doing another activity. I don't think it is necessary to try to memorize a large number of the dialogues – there are hundreds of sentences in the book, although it is a good idea to test your ability to make the English sentences after first looking at the sentences written in Chinese. Just mimic a large number of the dialogues and, by doing so, many sentence patterns and new words will imprint themselves on your memory.
What about attending conversation classes at a language school? Is that necessary? Is is useful?
Yes, I think it's a good idea to attend classes at a language school for a few months, if you can afford the tuition fees. Everything that I have written above is for self-study but not everyone is mature enough or skillful enough as a student to learn to speak English by self-study, and self-study can be unattractive for people who don't like spending a lot of time alone. In addition to that, many people are too shy to find a language partner or there are other reasons why they can't find a language partner. A good conversation class should substitute for not having someone to practice with.
Overall, I don't think it's absolutely necessary to attend a conversation class if you have the maturity and ability to follow the self-study guidelines that I suggest and you can find one or more suitable language partners. But it is a good, additional way to learn to speak English.
See this page for my comments on choosing a language school conversation class.
Conclusion: Overall, those are my ideas for learning to speak English. If you do that for many months and then spend one or two months concentrating on preparing for the Speaking test itself, (i.e., preparing for some of the known, or frequently used topics and questions in the test), then you should be quite successful in the test.