Many learners of English tell me “I can understand a lot – but I can’t speak!” For example, maybe your teacher asks a question and you know the answer… but you can’t say it because your spoken English skills are not good enough.
Understanding more than you can say is a common phenomenon when we learn a new language. Fluent English speakers will tell you it’s often a question of confidence. They say things like “Just dive in and practice speaking English, and you will soon become fluent.”
But what if you don’t feel confident enough to even start speaking English? Does this problem sound familiar? I won’t lie - making the transition from knowing English to being able to speak English confidently is a process. But these 5 practical tips can help you become more confident in spoken English.
Listen actively when people speak English
Listen actively to what people are saying, not just the meaning, but the words and sounds. Listen and notice the rhythm of spoken English, how words link together, and which letters are dropped. Is there anything that surprises you? If you are watching a video, you can replay a section of speech until it sounds natural to you. If you are face to face (and feeling brave), you can even ask the speaker to repeat what they just said, so you can listen to how to say it.
Keep a mental note of new English phrases you learn. Play them back in your head afterwards. Maybe practice them out loud when you’re alone. If you want controlled practice, you can watch and listen to English conversations at different levels on our British Council website. Some of these free videos also let you participate, so you get a great chance to practice your English speaking skills.
You can also get free English speaking practice with these videos from our LearnEnglish site.
Reflect questions back in your answers
Maybe a British colleague asks you, “Did you have a good weekend?” Panic! Suddenly you can’t remember how to speak English confidently. Should you use the past simple or present perfect to talk about your weekend? You know this - why have you forgotten?
Stop. Go back to the question you were asked - it’s past simple, so your answer is also past simple. “It was good, thanks. We went to my parents’ home. Did you do anything nice?”
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Don’t be afraid of making mistakes when you speak English
Mistakes are an essential part of learning. But if you fear “messing up” in social situations, start with a compromise where you feel more comfortable. Coffee and English-speaking conversation with your classmates is a good “halfway house” between the classroom and a social situation. You can also try 1-to-1 or small group classes where you get the chance to speak English face-to-face or online with your teacher. It’s just the two of you, so it can be less stressful.
Or search for an English-speaking or language exchange group in your area so you can practice your English speaking skills. Tip: English classes for Adults at the British Council often include casual get-togethers at coffee shops. It’s a good way to practice speaking English in a low-stress and fun way.
If you don’t go to English class, or there are no English-speaking groups near you, try to find a person to practice with. They do not have to be an expert in speaking English - you can meet with another English language learner. They don’t need to be fluent. They just need to be able to speak enough English so you can practice speaking English together. (It might be better for your confidence if your partner makes mistakes too.)
When you find yourself in a social situation where everyone speaks English confidently, it can help to acknowledge to yourself (or others) that you are a learner in speaking English. Take your time thinking about what you want to say. No one has the right to rush you, interrupt you, or correct you. Your English-speaking skills are in transition now. The mistakes you are making today will be gone next year.
Make a note, mental or written, of your mistakes - they are your learning tools, unique to you. They can help you understand how you think in English.
Accept the mess of English spelling
Some languages have words with a perfect spelling-speaking relationship. You speak the word how it is spelled. But English spelling is not like this. If your fears about pronunciation are holding you back from speaking English, your brain may be too stubborn about looking for the perfect spelling-speaking relationships you find in other languages.
If this sounds like you, expose yourself to the spoken form of English first. If movies are a big source of English language input for you, turn the subtitles off. Just listen to the words.
Learning the phonemic alphabet might help too - it sounds like a big task, but most students get there in a few hours. Seeing, written down, that the English word “mountain”, is pronounced as /ˈmaʊntɪn/, may be the clarification your brain needs to speak English confidently.
Understand that spoken English is yours as much as it is anyone’s
English is no longer the “property” of its native speakers. Of all the English language conversations in the world right now, which do you think there are most of: native to native speakers of English, native to non-native speakers, or non-native to non-native? Answer? It’s by far the last one.
Most people speaking English together now are, for example, Japanese and Argentinian, or Russian and Greek, or Moroccan and Hungarian. Non-native speakers of English are also contributing to the evolution of English (for example, by eroding our complicated question tag system). So thanks for streamlining English and making it more efficient. The English language owes you!
A last piece of advice: think about what is behind your anxiety about speaking English confidently. Do you worry about being laughed at? Taking too long and losing your audience? Losing the essence of what you want to say?
Being conscious of why you struggle to speak English fluently can help you identify situations where you are likely to have more difficulty. Then you can take a deep breath and find a way around. For example, if you worry you will be laughed at for silly mistakes, you can openly say, “Help me out, how do I say…?” And it’s okay to say, “Hang on, let me finish…” if someone is interrupting you with incorrect guesses about what you mean.
For more ideas about improving your confidence in speaking English, check out this LearnEnglish video about how to practice speaking outside the classroom.