Speaking English Fluently: What it Actually Takes
I had so many students during my time teaching in universities in South Korea asking me what they could do to become fluent in English. What I told them and what I’m going to tell you right now is the very non-technical answer based on teaching ESL for 10 years, as well as the bits of academic knowledge I took in here and there through the CELTA/DELTA and various conferences.
The Bad News First
The bad news is that there is no shortcut to becoming fluent in a language. No magic pill, no magic program. Of course there are some good uses of your time, and also some bad uses but the reality is that it takes a ton of hard work to become fluent in English, or in any other language unless you happen to be one of those rare people who are just freakishly good at learning languages.
The students who usually asked me that question about how to become fluent in English were usually the kind of lazy ones who saw their classmates speaking English like rock-stars and wanted that for themselves. They thought there would be some answer besides it’s a lot of hard work. There isn’t, unfortunately and there are no shortcuts to speaking English fluently.
Vocabulary Lists: Not Going to Cut It
Korean students love to do busy-work. They write down a million and one words on this piece of paper and then they write those words over and over again and feel like they’ve accomplished something on the way to learning English. They haven’t. They’ve mostly just wasted their time.
If they were serious about actually learning English vocabulary, they’d have made flashcards, with Korean on one side and English on the other. Then, they’d start with 10 new words a day and have those down solid. They’d keep adding 10 more into the mix every single day. They would also mix them up randomly, forcing their brains to learn them independently from each other. They’d go from English—>Korean, but also the much harder Korean—>English every single day until those words became imprinted into their brains forever.
Then, they’d start using those words in their daily writing and conversations, as well as keeping their ears and eyes open for them in whatever they’re listening to or reading.
Extensive Reading: Time to Start
Extensive reading is an excellent way to learn a language the natural way. Of course this isn’t possible for total beginners who would be much better off in a classroom, learning basic vocabulary and grammar. But, we’re talking about fluency here. The students I’m talking about have a good range of vocabulary and grammar already.
Where extensive reading can come in is that students start to see how these structures are used in the real world. They’ll see all the stuff they’re probably learned from a book in a natural context. The key is to choose something at just a slightly lower level than they’re at so they’re able to just read, for pleasure without having to stop and get out the dictionary every two seconds, which is way too frustrating.
I always suggest to my students in Korea that they start with teen fiction. The stories are quite interesting (I like reading them too!) and the language isn’t so difficult. Most university students in Korea who are half-decent at English could read one of these books without a lot of stress.
Once they’ve masted that genre, it’s time to start reading more difficult stuff like in-depth magazine articles, adult fiction, or academic articles.
Extensive Listening: Also Time to Start
I would always tell my students to find a TV show or podcast that they found interesting. Then, watch or listen, without the subtitles. Just enjoy it. Do that every single day for an hour or two. It’s how children learn their first language-by listening to what’s going on around them. Adults can learn a language this natural kind of way too. It just takes time, and one or two hours a week isn’t going to cut it. It takes that amount of time every single day on a consistent basis for months or years.
Going Abroad: Not The Magic Bullet
Many students in Korea seem to think that studying English abroad is some sort of magic potion for speaking English fluently. The reality is that for some students, it is. They’re the ones who went out into the world, joined clubs, made friends, had non-Korean roommates, etc. But, there’s an equal number of people who stay in their little Korean world, just in a different country. Their parents spent thousands and thousands of dollars for their kid’s 6-month vacation.
I’ve met a lot of Koreans (and locals from other countries while traveling) who were really good at English, despite never having been abroad for more than a week here or there. It’s really possible without wasting money on studying abroad.
The Younger the Better
There’s been a lot of research about when is the best time to learn a language. The consensus seems to be that around late elementary school, or the middle school years is the best time. The brain is able to handle some serious learning, but the neural pathways are still being formed. The moral of this story is that for learning a language, the earlier the better. Once you’re past the teenage years, it’s significantly harder (impossible?) to become fluent such that someone would mistake you for a native speaker.
Motivation: More than a Grade for a Class
The best students I had during my time in Korea were those who had some sort of motivation beyond a grade in a class or a score on a TOIEC test. They were learning English because they wanted a job that required it (working for a trading company, flight attendant, fashion designer, etc.), they wanted to go backpacking around the world, or they had some English-speaking cousins or friends, etc.
Basically anything is better motivation for speaking a language than just getting a score on a test. While I don’t think that tests in a language class are terrible because they force students to solidify knowledge that is perhaps kind of fuzzy (What exactly are those rules for comparatives and superlatives? How exactly do I spell those words?), there is certainly a whole lot more to it than just a test.
Language Learning Ability: Some People are Naturals
Finally, some people are just really good at learning languages. I met a few students over the years who just seemed to pick English up naturally without a whole lot of effort. But, the reality of it that for every one of those students, there are 10 who are good at English because they put in a lot of hard work!
In order to speak English fluently, students need practice. The best case scenario is that this happens out in the real world, but in a place like Korea that isn’t always possible. If you teach English conversation or speaking, check out this book on Amazon:
It’ll make your lesson planning easy and will get your students speaking English and having some fun at the same time. You can get the digital copy for less than a buck!
Speaking English fluently really is possible for your students!