Experiment and take risks to become more fluent in English

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Just recently, a learner of mine asked me how he could improve his speaking. In typical blunt fashion, I responded: “You need to take risks to become more fluent in English”.


HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO RISKS TO BECOME MORE FLUENT IN ENGLISH?

As American linguist, H. Douglas Brown, put it in his book, Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (2006:160): 

Risk-taking is an important characteristic of successful learning of a second language. Learners have to be able to gamble a bit, to be willing to try out hunches about the language and take the risk of being wrong.”

English language learners should not solely view conversation classes as a means to have a good old chinwag about their private affairs and the topic of an article. In contrast, they should see each conversation class as an opportunity to experiment and take chances by incorporating recently learned words, collocations and grammar points into speech.

It’s highly self-motivating to take risks when speaking English, regardless of whether one is accurate or inaccurate when it comes to execution. Indeed, It’s better to be wrong than it is to be always right by using the same basic structures and intermediate level vocabulary. 

Just yesterday, one of my Polish students attempted to use the future perfect aspect, thus: 

“in next month, we won't have been gone to the cinema for a year”

I told him that it’s unnecessary to use the future perfect because it sounds unnatural. It’s much more natural to use the present perfect, even though the emphasis on the length of time that has passed since his last visit to the cinema becomes less exact:

It’s been almost a year since we last went to the cinema

I haven’t been to the cinema for almost a year

The fact that his execution was a little off the mark is irrelevant. Most importantly, he was not afraid to take on a very challenging aspect of the English grammar system. For that, he should be congratulated.

risk taking quote

HOW CAN STUDENTS TAKE RISKS TO BECOME MORE FLUENT IN ENGLISH?

When it comes to individual discussion classes which take place online, I believe that most teachers share articles and materials with students before the next class. This means that students should have time to study an article and anticipate which discussion points might come up.

I often tell my students that they should be able to predict the questions I might ask them based on the content of the article. This fact should enable them to exploit a range of key features found in natural fluent speech. I outlined many of these features in one of my recent posts.

It might be an idea to focus on incorporating just one or two of these “features of fluency” into speech per lesson. For instance, let’s say a student keeps using pronouns with auxiliary verbs (full forms, e.g. he is) instead of the recommended contracted forms (he’s). This student uses full forms because that’s what his teacher told him to do at school. In other words, he’s the victim of that typical “formal English is correct English” attitude which infiltrates the minds of many state school English language teachers and syllabus designers. 

What would I recommend this student to do?

I would tell him to write the word ‘CONTRACTIONS! on a sticky note. He should then stick the note onto his laptop to remind himself of his “risk of the day”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with referring to reminders when it comes to experimenting and changing faulty habits. 

In the same post, I wrote about the importance of practising and creating personalised sentences with the gerund after verbs, adjectives and nouns + preposition. Same idea. Write three or four examples of verb, noun or adjective + preposition + gerund on a sticky note, and be prepared to try them out when speaking. For example:

1. LOOK FORWARD + TO + GOING

2. PREVENT ME + FROM + DOING (STH)

3. GET USED + TO + ING

If it’s easier, the student can write full sentences related to the content of an article, thus:

1. The type of anxiety that’s mentioned in the article certainly prevents me from getting out and meeting new people

prevent = verb

from = preposition

getting / meeting = gerunds

Naturally, these sentences should express genuine opinions. Personalisation is central to the language learning process.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I have written about the need to take risks to become more fluent in English. Language lessons provide the perfect opportunity for experimentation and risk-taking. I believe that 95% of the progress  language learners make is down to language learners themselves. The English teacher’s job should be to facilitate learning; getting students to go beyond the English grammar/tense system, and explore the lexical and idiomatic side of the language.


Reference:

Brown, Douglas. 2006. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Fifth Edition. Pearson Education, NY: White Plains

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