fluency confidence intonation range of vocabulary grammar pronunciation listening skills
How do people learn to speak English fluently and with confidence?
Continuum or triangle?
Each learner is unique. Some see the list above as a continuum. Fluency is unachievable without confidence, but truly fluent speakers have good intonation, a range of vocabulary suited to their life needs (profession, interests, current affairs), a practical understanding of grammar (and the ability to apply it when writing and speaking), and accurate pronunciation. Those four elements are developed by effective listening.
What do I mean by listening skills? The ability to concentrate on what you are hearing, focusing on both general meaning and essential details, and to make sense of it rapidly. At a certain stage of fluency, you will stop translating in your head. You will then make much faster progress, understanding more and more of what you hear. Aural expertise is the foundation of all language learning.
“But I’m not an expert!” I hear you say. Don’t worry. Babies arrive in the world with a built-in aptitude for listening. That’s how you mastered your first language, your mother tongue. The sounds did not come naturally to you. You had to work out how to create each consonant and vowel, repeating them until they became easy, a part of your repertoire that required no thought.
Others see the words in my heading as a triangle, where confidence and fluency merge at the peak, supported by a strong base of five key factors: competence in listening and understanding, pronouncing English words correctly, mimicking native intonation, manipulating the structures of the language, and using its vocabulary appropriately.
Some students draw a triangle enclosing a vertical list of all seven characteristics, from listening skills up to fluency. First listen, then learn how to produce the sounds of English. Practise utilising the rules you meet. Exploit new syntax, together with your ever-growing supply of words, to create your own sentences and express yourself precisely, or with emotion. Copy the intonation of native speakers when you use your personalised language in real life. This genuine communication will boost your confidence, setting you up for natural fluency.
A few make their triangle so tall that a large gap is left at the top. They visualise that empty space being filled with the knowledge and experience they will acquire in the future. It reflects their potential for improvement, so it needs to be big. Learning to use a language is a lifelong process. Don’t let that dishearten you. The stronger your base, the higher you can climb.
Combine those five factors, add confidence and the result will be fluency. Getting there requires external input – correction of your pronunciation and intonation, for example – but the rate of progress is chiefly affected by your own efforts. The more widely and frequently you read and listen, the sooner you will be able to put your grammar and vocabulary studies into practice in your writing and speaking. Feed your English. Exercise it like a muscle. The only way to become a fluent speaker of English is to speak. As often as possible and in as many different situations as possible.
If you are a research chemist, you need to be able to give presentations and discuss your work at a high level, both in public and one-to-one. You will have to write in formal technical language. But there will also be informal emails or Whatsapps to be sent. Not to mention conversations over coffee, dinner table chats, small talk in the queue at the airport, paying for goods at the supermarket check-out, negotiating with phone companies and banks if you spend time in the UK or another English-speaking country.
Those are the essentials. You’ll want to talk about far more – about your emotional responses to situations, about your hobbies and your family. You don’t want to feel frustrated every time the chance of an interesting conversation arises. The easiest way to get exposure to this range of speaking opportunities is to attend an individual immersion course where you live your life through the medium of English, focusing on specialised areas of importance to you but including a wide mix of everyday activities.
As for confidence, you either have it or you don’t. I’ve met people who were confident enough to discuss everything from the US elections to the difference in tidal range between Newfoundland and South Wales. But they lacked the five factors required for fluency. So I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying.
If you have natural confidence, or sufficient motivation, and you’re prepared to put the work in to reach fluency, you’re going to hit the top of that magic triangle.
Even if you have no confidence, you can learn how to fake it and eventually make it. The good news is that the exposure that leads to fluency will also create confidence. So using your English, speaking, is a win-win technique.