3 Unique Tips to dramatically improve your spoken English

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Do you believe that the most trusted ways to become fluent in English are through watching films, doing grammar and vocabulary gap-fill exercises and listening to artificial dialogues in coursebooks?

If you attend a language school and lack the knowledge that a wide range of language learning strategies exist, the answer is probably yes.

Are these methods outdated and ineffective?

YES!

It is with pleasure that I am able to share some of the tactics with you which have helped my students to become fluent in English. Tips 1 and 2 enabled me to speak Serbian after quite a short period of time:

 

1: STOP FOCUSING ON  SINGLE WORDS AND BEGIN TO FOCUS ON COLLOCATIONS AND PHRASAL VERBS

One of the biggest mistakes that language learners make is they place too much emphasis on learning single words and directly translate them into their mother tongue for confirmation. Single words might help to fill in gaps in speech, but they do not help very much when it comes to promoting overall fluency. 

SOLUTION - focus on collocations, fixed phrases and phrasal verbs 

English is not the grammar-heavy language you might think it is. When I think about it, so many of the sentences that are uttered in conversation can be broken into smaller groups of words that are commonly found together, in other words, lexical chunks. I will now break down this mini monologue into lexical chunks:

* I made a big mistake last year when I gave a few of my acquaintances permission to make changes to my website. Little did I know that they didn’t have a clue about website development. It took me a long time to sort out the mess they had made *

So, the colours in the above mini monologue denote lexical chunks and fixed phrases which mostly do not depend on grammar. We have:

  • make a mistake 
  • last year 
  • give someone permission 
  • make a change 
  • little did I know 
  • have a clue 
  • website development 
  • take a long time 
  • sort out
  • make a mess

The moral of the story - move from single words to collocations and lexical chunks to help you become fluent in English.

 

2: RECORD PERSONALISED SENTENCES CONTAINING TARGET WORDS AND COLLOCATIONS IN A WORD-PHRASE TABLE

Now that you are aware of the need to focus on lexical chunks, I would advise you to create a Word-Phrase Table on a google doc. This will enable you to store all of the words and collocations you come across. It’s also great practice to write personalised sentences which contain targets words and collocations.

Many language learners are too untidy and inconsistent when it comes to recording vocabulary and collocations. 

Scribbling words and phrases into a notebook will simply not get you anywhere!

You need to be organised, pay attention to detail and be willing to get to know new words and phrases LIKE THE BACK OF YOUR HAND!

In order for me to describe the key features of my PELC Word-Phrase Table, I will put myself in the shoes of a Russian upper-intermediate student who is determined to become an accomplished speaker of English. Let’s imagine that my interests are travel, computers and Business English, and I have recently come across the following language items in a text related to travelling by plane:

1

Immerse oneself in a new culture

2

board a plane

3

get off a plane

4

scream

I would create deep associations with these language items by:

1. Translating the target language items into Russian:


1. RUSSIAN … immerse myself in a new culture
2. RUSSIAN … board a plane
3. RUSSIAN … get off a plane
4. RUSSIAN … scream


2. Becoming thoroughly acquainted with the new words and phrases by adding related collocations after a dash (-), synonyms, antonyms and word forms etc to the table:

opp. opposite

syn. synonym

n. noun

1. RUSSIAN … immerse myself in a new culture
- cultural immersion
2. RUSSIAN … board a plane
n. boarding
opp. disembark
- boarding pass
3. RUSSIAN … get off a plane
syn. disembark (a plane)
opp. get on a plane
4. RUSSIAN … scream
- scream loudly
- scream your head off

3. Adding TRUE, PERSONALISED SENTENCES which contain the target words and collocations, or any related synonyms, collocations and word forms etc (it is a very good idea to hire a native speaker of English to check and create audio files of your sentences!):

1. RUSSIAN…immerse myself in a new culture
– cultural immersion
* It’s never been an issue for me to immerse myself in a new
culture when I travel to a new country
* I know quite a few teachers of English who travel the world
to teach, yet they aren’t really interested in cultural immersion
2. RUSSIAN…board a plane
n. boarding
opp. disembark
– boarding pass
* If I carry a small suitcase or rucksack that I know I can put
under my seat, I never rush to board a plane first
* When it comes to putting a large cabin bag in an overhead
locker, space can sometimes be at a premium. Therefore,
I usually try to be among the first to board if I have a large bag
3. RUSSIAN…get off a plane
syn. disembark (a plane)
opp. get on a plane
* Personally, I can’t understand people who are in such
a hurry to disembark a plane, especially when they have
to wait for all the passengers to get off the plane and
onto a bus in order to be taken to the terminal
4. RUSSIAN…scream
– scream loudly
– scream your head off
* I’m usually one of the unlucky passengers who as to sit
close to a child who screams its head off from takeoff to landing
* I’m used to sitting next to screaming children on airplanes

4. Making use of visualisation to support the language acquisition process. The use of different fonts, bold font, italics and colour does not only help to make key words and phrases stand out, but also grammatical structures which are commonly used in spoken English. This is the case with used to + ing in 4. “Used to” has lexical qualities, but I have also highlighted that “used to” is followed by -ing as opposed to a to + infinitive structure.

4. RUSSIAN … scream
– scream loudly
– scream your head off
* I’m usually one of the unlucky passengers who has to sit close to a child who
screams its head off from takeoff to landing
* I’m used to sitting next to screaming children on airplanes
3. RUSSIAN … get off a plane
syn. disembark (a plane) opp. get on a plane
* Personally, I can’t understand people who are in such a hurry to
disembark a plane, especially when you have to wait for
all the passengers to get off the plane and onto a bus in order to be taken to the terminal
2. RUSSIAN … board a plane
n. boarding
opp. disembark
– boarding pass
* If I carry a small suitcase or rucksack that I know I can put under my seat,
I never rush to board a plane first
* When it comes to putting a large cabin bag in an overhead locker, space
can sometimes be at a premium. Therefore, I usually try to be among the
first to board if I have a large bag.
1. RUSSIAN … immerse yourself in a new culture
– cultural immersion
* It’s never been an issue for me to immerse myself in a new culture
when I travel to a new country
* I know quite a few teachers of English who travel the world to teach, yet
they aren’t really interested in cultural immersion

5. Now there is a chance to really exploit the used to + ing structure by adding another row into the table and creating further personalised sentences:

5. RUSSIAN … used to + ing
* I’m used to replying to emails in the morning and evening
* I’m used to walking everywhere and only use my car when it’s absolutely necessary

All in all, developing a Word-Phrase Table will help you to become engaged with words and collocations at a much deeper level far beyond simple translation from English into your first language. It is important to develop a regular and consistent schedule to revise your table, beginning with every day and moving to every second then third day as you begin to memorise target words, collocations and even personalised sentences. As mentioned before, the icing on the cake would be for you to employ a native speaker to create audio files of all your personalised sentences. To become fluent in English, you really must go the extra mile!


3: VIEW SCHWA AS A KEY TO SPOKEN FLUENCY AND NOT A BORING VOWEL SOUND

Most English language textbooks and teachers inform students that schwa is a common vowel sound. Indeed, according to some estimates, one in three vowels that come out of a native speaker’s mouth is schwa. You might also learn about the position of your mouth, lips, jaw and tongue when it comes to producing a schwa sound.

Unfortunately, so few teachers and books alert you of the fact that schwa is vital when it comes to speeding up your speech and creating that all-important perception of fluency. 

That’s right - the schwa sound really CAN help you become fluent in English!

Here are two ways in which native English speakers use schwa to speed things up:

  • REDUCING THE VOWEL SOUND IN FUNCTION WORDS TO SCHWA WHEN USING CONNECTED SPEECH - Content words - that is nouns, adverbs, verbs and adjectives - help us to convey messages and express the most important information. However, it is the words with a grammatical function, called function words, which stitch the content words together. Typical function words include prepositions (for, to), conjunctions (as, and), auxiliary verbs (do, has), articles (a, the) and pronouns (you, him). In everyday conversation, native speakers use connected speech and, therefore, routinely reduce function words to schwa. This sentence contains many function words with vowels that can be reduced to schwa:  

I don’t want to be a doctor any more as the pay is laughable 

  • THE ‘LINKING R’ - LINKING SCHWAS WITH /R/ 

When a word ends in a schwa sound and the letter ‘r’, and the following word begins with a vowel sound, the majority of British people join the words with /r/ thus: 

MOTHER_AND FATHER

FURTHER_AWAY

THE OTHER_END

This phenomenon sometimes occurs where there is no ‘r’ in the spelling, although it is not considered to be good English: BANANA_AND PEAR

MARIA_EDWARDS.

Overall, then, schwa is not just a vowel sound with a strange symbol!  It is a crucial element of spoken fluency in English as it enables native speakers to speed up speech by reducing the vowel sound in function words, and also to link many combinations of words with the insertion of an /r/ sound. 

Check out my Youtube vid for further confirmation about the power of schwa.

 

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS … 

There must be thousands of tips out there to help you become fluent in English. The tips I have provided you with in this post do require patience and labour, but the results will be well worth the effort.

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old-book-and-white-paperElizabeth Stocker Rowell