Speaking: General Hints

There has been a lot of research into how people learn a foreign language, but the secret of success is still not clear. Researchers understand very little about why some people seem to make much better progress than others.

One thing, though, is clear: people who take a risk are usually better language learners than people who do not.

- If you saw a foreigner looking lost in the street, would you go up to that person and say, 'Can I help?'
-  If your teacher asks the class a question, do you offer an answer?
-  Do you speak to strangers at parties?
- Do you sometimes begin to say something in English even though you haven't thought exactly what you're going to say, and maybe don't know all the necessary vocabulary?
-  Do you say what you think even if other people might disagree?
-  Do you use gestures (signs with your hands or body) when you speak?
-  Do you copy phrases and expressions you have heard other people use?

If you answered 'Yes' to several of these questions you are probably a good language learner. The two biggest blocks to speaking are probably (1) planning everything you are going to say in Japanese first and then translating it into English (it takes too long!) and (2) not saying anything until you are sure that it is completely grammatically correct. Like children saying dechu and achichi (desu and atsui), we learn through our mistakes; people who try never to make a mistake will learn much more slowly than people who make mistakes and learn from them.

Here are some more hints for becoming a good English speaker:

1) Learn the words to your favourite English songs. A lot of good speakers of English have found that by singing English songs they can learn a lot of useful expressions. Perhaps more importantly, music speaks to the heart, and by singing in English you will feel much closer to the language, the culture and the people. (See the section on Listening.)

2) Spend a bit of time every day thinking in English. If you speak a foreign language, you always have the choice of thinking in your own language or thinking in another language. Most of us have moments in our day when we can easily practise this. For example, when we are in the kitchen, we can say to ourselves, 'Kyou wa nikujaga wo tsukurimasu' or we can say, 'I'm going to cook nikujaga today'. Or when we are on the train we can describe the person sitting opposite in English. If you are like me, you may even carry a pocket dictionary about with you, so you can look up words you want to use but don't know!

3) Record your own voice. Most people don't like the sound of their own voice, but think about it like this. I don't like the sight of my face in the mirror (especially first thing in the morning!), but if I want to comb my hair properly, or shave, I need to look in the mirror. It's the same with a tape recording. I don't like it much, but it certainly helps me to realise what is wrong with the way I speak. My experience with students in the language lab also shows me that students learn much better from hearing their mistakes than from being told about them by the teacher. I can say 'It's "thank you", not "sank you"!' a hundred times, and students still make the same mistake; but just hearing themselves once in a recording is often enough to cure them. One way to do this is to watch a video such as the Mr Bean series, that doesn't have much spoken language, and record what you see; you may not understand everything Mr. Bean is doing, but it doesn't matter; just say what you think he is doing! You can also do this with action movies, etc.

4) Listen and repeat. These days, you can listen to almost anything on the Internet. YouTube is a good place to start. You can find speeches by President Obama, interviews with John Lennon - the choice is almost endless! You can also often find a transcript of these speeches and interviews by searching on Google. Listen to the speech or interview and record your own voice in one of two ways. (1) "Shadow" the original speaker, repeating what he or she says a second or two after you hear it. (2) Listen to a phrase or sentence, pause the video, and record your own voice repeating the same phrase or sentence.

5) Make English-speaking friends. A lot of people say the reason they came to Sophia University is because it has an reputation for being "international"...and then, when they get here, they do not make friends outside their own language community! There are all kinds of ways to make English-speaking friends. one of my students made friends with some Australian people on MySpace and then went to vist them in Edinburgh. A couple of years later, they came to Japan to pay a return visit. Another student met some people in an Irish pub and became a fan of Celtic folk music, going out every weekend with native speakers, enjoying himself and becoming a very good speaker of english at the same time. You need to be sensible about what kind of people you make contact with, of course, and you also have to be genuinely interested in meeting them as people, not just "using" them for language practice but, done properly, this can be one of the most effective ways to make progress. Check my page on finding English-speaking friends for more ideas and details.

6) Take Extra Classes. The Speaking Classes offered by the English Literature Department will give you strategies and ideas for developing your English, but two 90-minute periods a week is not enough practice time. For real language development you probably need about 12-15 hours a week. If you feel you need extra practice, why not join a language class? There are plenty of language schools around, and the Community College at Sophia offers English conversation classes at all levels.

Home Page  |  Speaking Skills  |  Contact Me

Back to Speaking Skills