At British English Coach, I receive a lot of questions about how to speak English well. The 3 most common questions are:
- How do I speak English fluently?
- How do I change my accent?
- How do I stop making grammar mistakes?
These 3 questions show the problems most of you have when speaking English so I want to examine the beliefs behind these questions in the hope that discussing them helps you gain a clearer understanding of how to improve your speaking skills.
How do you speak English fluently?
Most people learning a second or foreign language want to become fluent speakers. They want to speak English with the same amount of confidence and comfort as native speakers.
But, have you ever really thought about the meaning of fluency?
What does fluency mean anyway?
Fluency is difficult to define. According to the Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, fluency refers to:
“ the features which give speech the qualities of being natural and normal, including native-like use of pausing, rhythm, intonation, stress, rate of speaking, and use of interjections and interruptions.”
I find this definition problematic for two reasons.
- The phrase ‘native-like use’. English, unlike many languages, is spoken as a first language in many different territories and so this phrase ‘native speaker’ encompasses so many different varieties – each with a range of dialects and accents – that the notion of a ‘native speaker of English’ becomes really difficult to define. It becomes even more confusing when we consider the varieties of English in territories where English is an official language alongside local languages. Are bilingual English uses native speakers?
- Native speakers of English vary considerably in terms of fluency. Some of us hesitate, pause and stumble over words and sounds while other native speakers communicate in a fluid, smooth manner. Rate of speaking differs enormously among native speakers and some non-native speakers have a higher rate of speaking than native speakers.
Reading on, I see there is another definition of fluency in the dictionary:
“In second and foreign language teaching, fluency describes a level of proficiency in communication, which includes:
- The ability to produce spoken language with ease
- The ability to speak with a good, but not necessarily perfect command of intonation, vocabulary and grammar
- The ability to communicate ideas effectively
- The ability to produce continuous speech without causing comprehension difficulties or a breakdown in communication
This definition seems to me to be far more practical and useful for those of you who are learning English than the former. Becoming as proficient as fluent native speakers is not an easy goal to reach. Moreover, the amount of time, effort and dedication needed to attain native-speaker like competence may not produce a good return on investment.
How do you change your accent?
Before discussing your accent when speaking English, I’d like you to assess your accent when you speak your first language?
- Do you like your accent?
- Does your accent ever change depending on who you are speaking with?
- What are the characteristics of your accent?
- Are some accents viewed more positively than others in your first language?
When we talk about accents, we tend to generalise. People talk about an American accent, a British accent, or an Italian accents. Yet, accents are incredibly varied and this variety exists within countries (Does a New Yorker have the same accent as a Texan); within regions (Do all people from the North of England have the same accent?); within cities and towns .
Do people from North London speak English exactly the same as people from South London?); between social classes (Do middle-class Londoners have the same accent as working-class Londoners?); between generations (Do elderly people from Edinburgh speak with the same accent as teenagers from the same city?). Also, what differences are there between members of different ethnic /socio-cultural groups within the same local area?
Accents are more complex than we think
When we start to think deeply about accents, we realise that we have a tendency to generalise. We often have an idea about a specific accent and think that applies to all members of a linguistic group.
By thinking about the variety of accents among people who speak our first language, we should be able to understand that there are differences among speakers of every language. These differences result from a complex set of factors: age, social class, geographical location etc.
Why do we think some accents are better than others?
The other notion we have about accents is that some accents are better than others. How do we assess the ‘quality’ of an accent? In the UK, which is a society in which social class is particularly important, RP (received pronunciation) was seen as a prestigious accent and many people deliberately disguised, reduced or changed their accent if they wanted to find professional success.
Most of us are guilty of accent discrimination; we judge people not by their actions but by their accents. But accents reveal so much about us: where we are from; which social class we grew up in. Why should we decide to disguise who we are?
We change our accents when we speak to different people
And that brings me to the next point about accents. Accents are not fixed. We have the ability to adopt different accents. Some people are far better at identifying and appropriating accents than others but we can all do it to a greater or lesser degree. I’m sure that many comedians and actors in your country are known for their ability to shift between different accents.
Even politicians change their accents to suit their audience. There are often criticised for doing so but some studies suggest that many successful communicators do the same.
Accommodation theory states that we find a middle ground when we communicate. For example, if I have a conversation with an American, I may modify my accent slightly by reducing or dropping some of the features of my accent and adopting some of the features of my conversational partner’s accent; my conversational partner may well do the same. The result may be that we end up speaking with trans-Atlantic accents, a blend of British and American.
What is a standard accent?
Which is possibly why we value accents which we consider ‘neutral’. Neutral accents do not really exist – many people use the term ‘standard accents’ – but most of us have an idea of accents in our first language which seem to be fairly easy to listen to.
In other words, we tend not to discriminate against people when they speak with this accent, which allows us to concentrate of the content rather than the delivery. These accents do not reveal much background information about the speaker; there are few clues about their social origin.
How do you stop making grammar mistakes when you speak?
When we talk about speaking English skills, we often contrast fluency and accuracy. I have had students who speak fluently yet make many mistakes and students who speak with a high degree of grammatical accuracy and yet lack fluency.
Communication breakdown can occur with fluent but inaccurate speakers because the quantity and serious nature of their errors can result in confusion.
A breakdown can occur with accurate but hesitant speakers because listening to slow, deliberate English requires a great deal of patience and concentration which can lead to tiredness or frustration. Fluent speakers have to work hard to resist the temptation to interrupt and/or complete the other speaker’s utterances for them.
Why mistakes are so important
For many reasons, most notably the influence of the grammar-translation method on teaching approaches and curricula, speakers of second or foreign language feel the need to avoid making mistakes when they speak. This means they are often reluctant to speak or feel frustrated when their errors are noticed.
Yet, many second language learners have excessively high standards and think they should be able to use complex grammar structures found in written language in their conversational output. Many grammatical structures found in written English are rarely used in spoken English.
Differences between written and spoken English
Recent studies of corpora (databases of written and spoken English) have confirmed that there is a substantial difference between written and spoken English.
- Simple and present tenses
- Continuous and perfect tenses used in narratives
- Simple conjunctions far more frequent than complex conjunctions
- Direct speech used in favour of reported speech
- Incomplete sentences
- Communication strategies: repetition, reformulation, repairing
In other words, native speakers rarely speak in grammatically perfect utterances either. When I trained to become a teacher, I remember going for a drink with friends and found myself correcting their English. Spoken English is generally spontaneous and interactive, which means that we do not always know what we are going to say before we speak; we use formulaic phrases; we correct, clarify to express ourselves.
You may disagree with some of my opinions and beliefs in this post. That’s great – we understand more about how things work by discussing ideas.
What is important is that you think deeply about these issues and challenge your own beliefs.
If you want to make changes, you may need to change how you think and what you believe.