“I need to speak English fluently in three months” – can you help me?
I occasionally receive requests for trial lessons from students who expect me to produce a miracle by getting them to speak fluent English in three months.
I typically tell them that they shouldn’t set themselves such unrealistic goals and that I am not a miracle-worker.
I can also say that rushed attempts to learn foreign languages usually end in disappointment and abandonment.
Let us take a look at the concept of fluency and what English language learners can do to ensure that they make steady progress with the language and enjoy the language learning process.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE “FLUENT” IN A LANGUAGE?
Typical definitions on the Internet tend to point towards “speaking a language quickly without any hesitation.”
Well, such a definition is off the mark for a few reasons. Firstly, I have met quite a few English language learners who spoke like speed trains but had absolutely no control over grammar and intonation, while their vocabulary and collocation range was extremely limited.
When it comes to hesitation, it can be very context-dependent. Sometimes, language learners hesitate because they can’t recall words or grammatical structures. They might also stumble on their words because they have no, or little, knowledge or interest in the topic being spoken about. Even native speakers of a language hesitate!
What does it mean to be fluent in a language?
If I had to nominate traits which I believe encompass spoken fluency in the English language, they would be:
1. The ability to retrieve a wide range of vocabulary, collocations, phrasal verbs, grammatical structures and personalised sentences in a range of contexts
2. The ability to reduce vowel sounds in prepositions and function words to schwa. Function words are almost never pronounced in their full stressed forms.
3. Being able to maintain a reasonable tempo when speaking, so that one’s control of grammar and word choice do not go astray. There is no need to rush!
4. The ability to use transition words to link words, phrases and sentences. For example, “as well as”, “and”, “at the same time” and “in order to”
5. Having the capacity to use features of connected speech. These include vowel to vowel glides: when one word ends with a vowel sound and the next word begins with a vowel sound, we link the words with a Y or W sound
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH LEARNING THE SERBIAN LANGUAGE
Despite always being naturally talented when it comes to words, memorisation and learning languages, it was a tall order for me to become “fluent” in Serbian in three months.
I was lucky - I was surrounded by the Serbian language and Serbian people all day, every day. Very few people in my wife’s immediate family knew English. So, I was completely “immersed” in Serbian from day one.
I also had a decent appreciation of the need to develop language learning strategies which, I felt, would work for me. These include my Word-Phrase Table which helped me to record new words, collocations and personalised sentences which contained these words and collocations.
Overall, fluent after three months - not quite. Confident and communicative, but still not fluent, after six months - absolutely yes.
SO CAN you SPEAK FLUENT ENGLISH IN THREE MONTHS?
For the average employee who has a tonne of duties and kids, no.
Sure, you can learn lots of vocabulary, collocations and phrasal verbs, get to grips with some useful grammar structures and seek out lots of listening practice, but to speak fluent English in three months through irregular self-study and the occasional private lesson - no way!
The five-point plan for spoken fluency that I outlined in the previous but one section might be a little stricter than the criteria which many teachers and polyglots come up with. But there is a good reason for that …
Far too many teachers and language learning gurus on the Internet promise the impossible!
So, when it comes to fluency, I do my best to explain to students what being fluent actually means.
There are exceptional people out there who can reach a high level of fluency in three months. One such example is Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 months, who moved to several new countries with the aim of speaking local languages fluently.
But what about the average Joe who sits in an office for eight hours, does overtime, has kids, doesn’t have time to do any homework and is not prepared to develop their own language learning strategies?
I usually tell new students that achieving fluency is 90% down to them. If they are willing to put in the work, personalise new words and collocations and have short interactive classes with me every second or third day, they WILL make rapid progress.
So, can students speak fluent English in three months if they take classes with me?
But if students follow my advice, attend conversation-based classes regularly and have a moderate amount of free time to work on their language learning strategies, I have noticed that they their spoken English is rather smooth and impressive six months after their first class.
Individual circumstances matter most when it comes to being able to speak fluent English in three months or, perhaps more realistically, six to twelve months.
For example, when it comes to the learning of Polish, an experienced language learner and teacher of foreign languages who takes a sabbatical to live among Polish people for three months will obviously fair better than a stressed businessman who lives in a tiny Australian town, using the Internet as his only source to learn Polish.
In summary, I can help people who want to speak very good English, but I do not promise the impossible. Speaking English fluently is 90% down to the individual. As a teacher, I can only provide learners with the language learning strategies, advice, high-quality materials and my complete willingness to listen to their speech in order to help them improve.