Applying grammar when speaking

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Applying grammar when speaking

So. You think you understand the most basic rules of English grammar. You feel confident when you’re speaking. You never allow fear to silence you. Somehow, however, you find it impossible to combine those two strengths: knowledge of grammar; and confidence.

You are perfectly capable of talking about the past, the future, your hopes and wishes – provided that you are writing your thoughts down. The difficulty appears when you try to express yourself orally in anything but the present tense. Even in the present, you sometimes have doubts.

The answer is obvious. Revise the grammar. So you do that. Your writing improves but your speaking still seems too simple and child-like. You begin listening to BBC Rado 4, for four hours a day or more. It really helps. So do the audiobooks. You’re practising with them every day, listening, pausing, reading aloud, recording yourself and listening again to compare yourself with the narrator.

All that listening – and watching movies or TV without subtitles – increases your fluency as well as your understanding. Let’s face it, comprehension is just as important as clarity of speech when you’re talking to someone. Conversation is a two-way activity.

But you recognise that, in those conversations, you are still not using all the language structures you know. You feel limited, restricted, frustrated. You are afraid other people will be judging you. Is your spoken English too simplistic? Is it incorrect? Do listeners struggle to work out what you mean, when you get the grammar wrong?

There’s only one solution. Use your English. Create sentences that have unique value for you. They might be funny (your opinion of a local politician or your brother-in-law) or otherwise memorable. Inventing phrases and sentences that describe your work, family or social life is extremely effective. Write them down. Check them. Read them out loud. Again and again and again, with all the emotion they require. Use your best pronunciation and intonation.

Then find a way to introduce them into your conversation over the next week. Even if the listener doesn’t speak English, you can include some “foreign” phrases from time to time. It’s normal for languages to adopt vocabulary from other countries. Don’t worry if your colleagues or family have to ask you to explain. That’s their problem, not yours!

If you pass a dog in the park, it’s quite acceptable to say “What a beautiful day!” or “How are you today?” in English. The dog won’t ask for an explanation and the dog’s owner will assume you are a tourist. If you’re lucky, the owner will be a tourist, and a conversation will begin.

Getting started

If you’re not sure where to start, try this: invent a personalised sentence that begins with the word “Yesterday”. [For example, Yesterday, I went to the bank; Yesterday, my mother complained that her kitchen is old-fashioned; Yesterday, I decided to improve my English].

Make the sentence as easy as you like. When you are certain you have mastered a structure, move on to more complex grammar.

Try adapting the following list, inventing at least one sentence for each example word or phrase.

  • Today
  • This morning
  • Tomorrow
  • Last night
  • Last year
  • Next summer
  • In 1999
  • In 2012
  • In 2018
  • In 2048
  • On Monday
  • On Mondays
  • Last Saturday
  • Next Tuesday
  • During the week
  • At the weekend
  • On weekdays
  • When I was a baby
  • When I was 18
  • When I am tired
  • He said
  • I saw
  • Sometimes
  • Occasionally
  • From time to time
  • I
  • You
  • He
  • She
  • We
  • They
  • My parents
  • My
  • My job
  • My boss
  • After
  • Before
  • During
  • In spite of
  • If
  • So
  • Then
  • Some people
  • Many people
  • My friend
  • My best friend
  • My favourite
  • London
  • Britain
  • The UK
  • Wales
  • Cats
  • I arrived
  • I hope
  • I like
  • I would like
  • I’d like
  • I think
  • Five years ago
  • In two hours

Get the idea? If you practise these in the way I suggested above, they’ll be sitting in your brain ready to pop out when you need them in a conversation.

Don’t forget to practise questions! They are a great way to keep the conversation flowing.

  • Have….?
  • Are….?
  • Will….?
  • Would….?
  • Could….?
  • Can….?
  • Do….?
  • Does….?
  • Did….?
  • Where….?
  • How….?
  • When….?
  • Which….?
  • Why….?
  • Who….?
  • What….?

START APPLYING GRAMMAR IN SKYPE CONVERSATION WITH A NATIVE SPEAKER

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