If you’re reading this, I imagine you want to communicate with confidence and competence in English.
When we communicate effectively we are able to express our ideas and opinions, share experiences, and build relationships with others. When we struggle to express ourselves, we feel unvalued and insecure. As human beings, we want to participate in group discussions and have an impact on the society around us.
In the modern world, we communicate across borders. English is the closest thing we have to an international language.
By speaking better English, people all over the world can hear our voice. But, to speak better English, you need a teacher, don’t you? You need to take English classes, right?
Well, English teachers and English classes definitely help. But, studying English for a few hours a week may not improve your spoken English very much.
What you need is to become a self-directed learner, somebody who takes responsibility for their own learning and creates their own learning programme to develop their English.
Now, it’s certainly true that speaking is a social activity and is best done with other people. However, you could say the same about many activities. Leo Messi became a wonderful football player because he spent hours every day for many years practising by himself.
You can do the same with your English. Here are 33 ways to speak better English, without going to classes.
1. Record yourself speaking English. Listening to yourself can be strange at first but you get used to it. Listen to a recording of a fluent English speaker (a short audio file) and then record yourself repeating what they said. Compare the difference and try again. Humans are natural mimics so you will find yourself getting better and better. Soundcloudis an excellent tool for voice recording as you or your teacher can make notes about your errors.
2. Read aloud, especially dialogue. Reading aloud is not the same as speaking naturally. However, it is very useful for exercising the vocal muscles. Practise for 5 or 10 minutes a day and you will begin to notice which sounds are difficult for you to produce. Find transcripts of natural dialogues, such as these here, and practise acting them with a friend, you will also learn common phrases which we use when speaking.
3. Sing along to English songs while you’re driving or in the shower. The lyrics to pop songs are often conversational so you can learn lots of common expressions by listening to them. Humans are also able to remember words when used together with music which is why it is difficult to remember poems but easy to remember the words to songs. Here are some songs to get started with.
4. Watch short video clips and pause and repeat what you hear. YouTube is an amazing resource for language learners and you probably already have your favourite clips. My advice is to watch short clips and really study them. With longer videos, you may find your attention wanders. The key to improving by watching videos is to really listen carefully and use the pause button to focus on sounds and words. Many YouTube videos now have captions.
5. Learn vowel and consonant sounds in English. The Phonemic chart is a list of the different vowel and consonant sounds in English. Learning how to make these sounds and then using them to pronounce words correctly will really help you speak English clearly. This is a great resource from the British Council.
6. Learn and identify schwa. What is schwa you might be asking? Well, it’s the most common sound in English: Click here. We use it all the time in words like ‘teacher’ and ‘around’.
7. Learn about weak and strong forms of common words. When you know about the ‘schwa’ sound, you will listen to native speakers in a different way. English is a stress-timed language which means that we use a combination of strong and weak forms of some words. For example, which words do we stress in the following sentence?
I want to go for a drink tonight.
How do native speakers pronounce to / for / a in the sentence? We use the schwa sound so it sounds like:
I wanna go ferra drink tenigh.
Learn how and when to use weak forms and your speaking will improve overnight. You will also learn to focus on stressed words when listening to fast, native-speaker English and you will finally be able to understand us!
8. Learn about word stress. When words have more than one syllable, we stress one or more of them. For example, the word intelligent has four syllables but which syllable do we stress?Click here to find out. Remember that the small vertical mark above the word identifies the stressed syllable: /ɪnˈtel.ɪ.dʒənt/
9. Learn about sentence stress. Sentence stress refers to the word or words we stress in a phrase of a sentence. When we stress a word, we help the listener understand what is important. If we stress the wrong word or don’t stress the key word, the listener may get confused or not realise what is important in the sentence. A few years ago, I enrolled in a gym. I was asked to attend an introductory class at ‘five to six‘. The Hungarian receptionist stressed the word ‘six‘ so I arrived at 5.55. She looked at me and told me that I was late and the class had nearly finished. She should have stressed ‘five‘ and ‘six‘ so would have understood that the class lasted for one hour and began at 5pm! For more on sentence stress, read here.
10. Identify fixed and semi-fixed phrases and practise them. Fixed phrases usually contain between 3 and 7 words and include items like:
to be honest
in a moment
on the other hand
A conversation is made of grammatical structures, vocabulary and fixed or semi-fixed phrases.In fact, to tell the truth , on the whole, most of the time, my friends and I , communicate with each other in a series of fixed and semi-fixed expressions.
11. Learn about collocations.Words don’t like being alone. They prefer to hang out with their friends and, just like people, some words form close friendships and other never speak to each other.
Yellow doesn’t get on well with hair. Maybe yellow is jealous of blond because blond and hair are frequently seen out together having a great time. Yellow doesn’t understand why hair prefers blond because yellow and blond are so similar.
Listen carefully for common combinations of words. Short and small have similar meanings but people have short hair not small hair. High and tall are often not so different but people havehigh hopes but not tall hopes. Foxes are sly not devious. Hours can be happy but are nevercheerful. Idiots are stupid but rarely silly.
12. Replace regular verbs with phrasal verbs. Many learners of English don’t understand why native speakers use so many phrasal verbs where there are normal verbs (usually with Latin roots) which have the same meaning. English was originally a Germanic language which imported lots of Latin vocabulary after the Norman conquest in the 11th century. Regardless of the historical factors, the fact is that native English speakers use lots and lots of phrasal verbs. If you want to understand us, then try to include them in your conversation. If you make a mistake, you’ll probably make us laugh but you are unlikely to confuse us as we can usually guess what you want to say from the context. Phrasal verbs are spatial and originally referred to movement so when you learn a new one, make physical movements while saying them to help you remember.
13. Learn short automatic responses. Many of our responses are automatic (Right, OK, no problem, alright, fine thanks, just a minute, you’re welcome, fine by me, let’s do it!, yup, no way! you’re joking, right?, Do I have to? etc.) Collect these short automatic responses and start using them.
14. Practise telling stories and using narrative tenses. Humans are designed to tell stories. We use the past simple, past continuous and past perfect for telling stories but when the listener is hooked (very interested), they feel like they are actually experiencing the story right now. So, we often use present tenses to make our stories more dramatic!
15. Learn when to pause for effect. Speaking quickly in English does not make you an effective English speaker. Knowing when to pause to give the listener time to think about what you have said, respond appropriately, and predict what you are going to say does. Imagine you’re an actor on a stage, pausing keeps people interested.Great strategy if you need to speak English in public.
16. Learn about chunking. Chunking means joining words together to make meaningful units. You don’t need to analyse every word to use a phrase. Look at the phrase: Nice to meet you. It’s a short phrase (4 words) which can be remembered as a single item. It is also an example of ellipsis (leaving words out) because the words ‘It’ and ‘is’ are missing at the beginning of the phrase. However, we don’t need to include them. Learn more here.
17. Learn about typical pronunciation problems in your first language. Japanese learners find it difficult to identify and produce ‘r‘ and ‘l‘ sounds; Spanish don’t distinguish between ‘b‘ and ‘v‘; Germans often use a ‘v‘ sound when they should use a ‘w‘. Find out about the problems people who speak your first language have when speaking English and you will know what you need to focus on.
19. Find an actor/actress you like and identify what makes them powerful speakers. Do you want to sound like Barack Obama, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Homes) Beyonce or Steve Jobs? If you want to sound like David Beckham, I advise you to reconsider, unless you want to sound like a young girl!
20. Use a mirror and / or a sheet of paper for identifying aspirated and non-aspirated sounds. Aspirated sounds are those with a short burst of here, such as ‘p‘ in ‘pen, and unaspirated sounds have no or little air, such as the ‘b‘ in ‘Ben‘. Watch this video to learn more.
What a terrible tongue twister. What a terrible tongue twister. What a terrible tongue twister.
22. Practise spelling names, numbers and dates aloud. This may seem very basic to some of you but if you don’t practise, you forget how to say them.Have a go here at numbers here and at place names here.
23. Learn about common intonation patterns. Intonation (when the pitch of the voice goes up and down) is complex in English but it is very important as it expresses the feeling or emotion of the speaker. Here is an amusing introduction to intonation.
24. Learn about places of articulation. The articulators are the parts of the mouth we use to turn sound into speech. They can be fixed parts (the teeth, behind the teeth and the roof of the mouth) and mobile parts (the tongue, the lips, the soft palate, and the jaw). Click here for more information.
25. After looking at places of articulation, practise making the movements that native speakers use when they speak.Here’s a video and remember to open the jaws, move the lips and get your tongue moving!
26. Learn why English is a stress-timed language. The rhythm of the language is based on stressed syllables so we shorten the unstressed syllables to fit the rhythm. Syllable-timed languages (such as Spanish) take the same time to pronounce each syllable. Here’s anexplanationwhich might explain why you speak English like a robot or watch this funny cliphere.
29. Speak lower not higher. Studies show that you command attention and demonstrate authority with a deeper vocal tone, especially men. This is particularly important if you have to speak in public. Here is a quick guide.
30. Listen and read along to poetry (or rap songs) to practise the rhythm of English.Limericks (short, funny, rhyming poems) are really useful and demonstrate how English is stress-timed and how we use weak forms.
32. Learn how to paraphrase. Paraphrasing is when we repeat what we have just said to make it clear to the listener or when we repeat what the other person has said by using different words. Here are a few to get started.
33. Use contractions more. Contractions make your speech more efficient because they save time and energy. Say ‘should not’ and then say ‘shouldn’t’: which is easier to say? Very common in fluent speech.
Now, here’s your CALL TO ACTION.
In the next 33 days, spend 15 minutes every day on one of the tips. I’m sure you’ll notice a huge improvement.
And maybe one day you’ll speak English like Messi plays football!
Starting a conversation to get to know someone or breaking an awkward silence can be very stressful. To start a conversation when you have nothing to talk about, use these guidelines.
Part One of Three: Finding Things to Talk AboutEdit
Remark on the location or occasion. Look around and see if there is anything worth pointing out. Examples of location or occasion comments: "This is a gorgeous room!", "Such incredible catering!", "I love this view!", or "Great dog!"
Ask an open-ended question. Most people love to talk about themselves; it's your place as the conversation starter to get them going. An open question requires an explanation for an answer rather than just a simple yes or no. Open questions tend to begin with who, when, what, why, where, and how, whereas closed questions tend to start with do, have, and is/am/are.
Closed questions: "Do you like books?", "Have you ever been to this university?", "Is spring your favorite season?", "Am I intruding?", and "Do you come here often?"
Open questions: "What sort of books do you like?", "What did you study here at this university?", "Which is your favorite season? Why?", "What are you doing right now?", and "Where's your usual watering hole?"
Know how to combine general remarks with open-ended questions. Since either one of these might be awkward or out-of-place on its own, combine them for maximum effect. For example:
"That's a nice handbag, where did you get it?" This lets the handbag owner talk about the day that they went shopping and all this funny stuff happened, as opposed to: "I like your handbag!" "Thank you." (The end.)
"What an amazing buffet! Which is your favorite dish?" Asking an opinion is especially useful, as it can be followed up with the classic open-ended question: “Why?”
"Fantastic turnout! Which of the lecturers is your favorite?"
"I love your costume. What are your favorite sci-fi movies?"
Ask them about their pets. Animals are often common ground with people you have nothing else in common with. If you like animals in general, it's easy to relate to other animal lovers whether they prefer dogs, horses, birds, cats or wildlife. While talking about your own pet might be annoying to some people, asking them about their pets is a great way to get people to open up and start having fun.
Brush up on current events. Chances are they'll know about it too and if they don't then that's a good thing to talk about! Read or watch the news and when you're ready to start a conversation with someone, say something like, "Hey, did you hear about that helicopter crash? That was pretty crazy."
Draw on previous discussions. If you know the person, review a mental list of topics you’ve discussed previously and continue on one of them. For example, their kid’s milestone, one of their projects, or some bad news that they shared with you. This not only gives you something to talk about, but it also shows that you pay attention when you talk to them and you care about their problems and experiences enough to think about and remember them.
Ask questions that are easy to answer. Some questions are a little harder to answer than others. Has someone ever asked you your weekend plans and you thought, "I don't want to think about my weekend plans... do I really have to answer that?" Most people prefer easy questions, like "what are you up to today," or "is school killing you these days?" This should make conversations flow better and feel more comfortable.
Be sensitive to their feelings. Keep your questions non-invasive. Be sure you're not asking them questions about topics they'd rather not discuss. For example, some people might be very uncomfortable discussing issues that they feel touch on them personally, such as weight, lack of having a degree or qualifications, lack of having a steady date, etc. Try to be as thoughtful as possible even though you don't really know them yet.
Let go of your fears. When you suddenly feel that you're not able to engage in conversation with another person, it's likely that you're telling yourself a few negative things, such as worrying that you're boring, not good enough, too unimportant, intruding, wasting their time, etc. This can leave you feeling tongue-tied. Feeling self-conscious when carrying on conversation with others is not unusual but it's also not productive.
Relax. Chances are that whatever small-talk you're making isn't going to stick out in anyone's mind a few months from now. Just say whatever comes into your head, so long as it's not offensive or really weird (unless, of course, the person you're attempting to converse with is into weird stuff).
Try to keep in mind that everyone has these self-doubts from time to time but that it's essential to overcome them in order to engage with fellow human beings. Reassure yourself that the other person is not judging you. Even if they are, it's unlikely to have any real impact on your life, so just relax.
Introduce yourself if necessary. If you don’t know the person, breaking the ice is very simple: look approachable, tell the new person your name, offer your hand to shake, and smile. This is not only polite but it also is a good way to start a conversation. Sometimes introductions might be saved until after a conversation is started, however.
Keep the conversation going with small talk. This keeps the conversation light and simple, which is especially useful for people who are still getting to know one another better. Use small talk to establish rapport and similarities rather than set each other up for an opinionated argument.
Small talk encompasses such topics as your blog or website, the purchase of a new car, house renovations, your kids' artwork prize, vacation plans, your newly planted garden, a good book you've just read, etc.
Small talk is not politics, religion, nuclear disarmament or fusion, or criticizing anybody, especially not the host or the event you're both attending.
Although talking about the weather is a cliché, if there's something unusual about the weather, you've got a great topic of conversation.
Synchronize with your conversation partner. Once your partner-in-conversation has started talking, follow his or her cue to keep the conversation going smoothly. Use active listening to reflect what they're saying and to summarize their possible feelings.
Answer questions when they ask, ask them questions about what they're talking about, change topics when there is a pause in the conversation, and make sure they get the chance to talk at least as much (if not more than) you.
Say the other person's name now and then. Not only does it help you to remember them but it's a warming sign of respect and will make them feel more comfortable. It shows a more personal approach and makes the conversation feel more real and intimate. Once every other conversation "turn" and at least once per conversation is a good rule of thumb.
Give acknowledgement cues. You don't even have to say things a lot of the time; you can nod, say “ah-ha” or “wow’ or “oh” or “hmm,’ sigh, grunt convivially, and give short encouraging statements such as "Is that so?" and "Goodness!", and "What did you do/say then?" and "That's amazing!", etc.
Keep your body language open and receptive. Nod in agreement, make occasional genuine eye contact without staring, and lean in toward the other person. Place your hand on your heart now and then, and even touch them on the upper arm if you're a touchy-feely person. This makes people feel more at ease and leads to more natural conversations.
Keep a reasonable bubble of personal space if the person you're talking to is a stranger or someone that you don't know well.
Stay engaged in the conversation. Stay interested in the other person and focused on them. Keep your curiosity piqued rather than withdrawing back into yourself. This is important for keeping conversations comfortable and finding new ways to continue the conversation. It may even lead you to find openers for future conversations with the same person, as you can ask for an update on some aspect of their life that they're talking about now if you pay attention the first time around!
Respond naturally to situations.Smile and laugh when the other person makes a funny comment or a joke. Don’t force laughter, as this is cringe-inducing; smile and nod instead or smile, shake your head, and look down.
Practice getting conversations started. You may feel a little clumsy at first, but with practice it can become easy to start good conversations. Every time you're in a situation where you're called upon to converse with others, see it as part of your ongoing practice, and note how you're improving each time that you try it.
Part Three of Three: Keeping Things InterestingEdit
Follow your partner's lead. If he or she appears interested, then continue. If he or she is looking at a clock or watch, or worse, looking for an escape strategy, then you've been going on for too long. It's important to try to follow their cues in order to make conversations as pleasant as possible and to leave them feeling like they'd want to talk with you again.
This can sometimes feel like a hard skill to learn, but just practice. It's really the only way to improve.
Use words of a sensory nature. These are words such as "see", "imagine", "feel", "tell", "sense", etc., which encourage the other person to keep painting a descriptive picture as part of their conversation. This can make conversations more engaging and will also leave an impact on your conversation partner. For example:
Where do you see yourself in a year's time?
What's your sense of the current stock market fluctuations?
How do you feel about the new plans for renovating downtown?
Maintain the equilibrium. As the person who started the conversation, the responsibility initially rests with you to maintain the momentum. So what happens when the other person starts practicing active listening and open questions back on you? You have several options:
Relish it as their cue to let you start talking about yourself. Just don't overdo it; remember to keep engaging them back with open questions and active listening at the end of your own recounting.
Deflect it if you'd rather not be the center of conversation attention. Say something like: "Well, I like Harry Potter books, and I especially loved the last one. But you don't want to hear about me all night! What were your favorite moments in the Harry Potter series?"
Answer questions with a question. For example, "How did you manage to get away so early?" could be responded to with, "Well, how did you?" Often the other person will be so intent on filling you in on their side of the story that they'll forget they asked you the question first!
Don't be afraid of pauses. Pauses can be used to change topics, re-energize the conversation, or even to take a short breather. Letting a pause hang is the only time you should worry about silence in a conversation. As long as you move naturally to the next subject or excuse yourself from the conversation, then it's fine and you shouldn't stress.
Try not to make your partner uncomfortable. Respond respectfully to someone who remains awkward or uncomfortable in your presence. If your conversation partner appears withdrawn and uninterested in sharing information with you, don't persist too much. Try a little more before making a decision to move on.
Don't ask too many questions if your conversation partner continues to appear unresponsive.
Give yourself an out. A great entry into starting a conversation is to mention you can only talk briefly as you're meeting up with other friends or have a meeting to get to. This relieves your partner of a feeling of being trapped or obligated, and gives you both an easy out if things don't progress well. If the conversation does progress well, you can always delay leaving your partner for as long as you like.
Remember not to overdo it, because they might think that you don't want to talk to them, but prefer to be with your friends. Just use this trick once or twice.