If you want to become fluent in English, a fluent English speaker, if you want to understand and speak English in a way that’s natural and flows, then you need to prioritise listening to and understanding everyday people speaking English. Today I’m going to talk about how we learn to speak a language and what’s happening with your brain when speak English.
I can’t count the number of times I have spoken to an English language student and hear "I can understand, write and read English pretty well. However, when it comes to speaking the language I get stuck." If you want to learn to speak a language well, it is much more important to listen to, and quickly understand what you hear, than to read and write. If you want to speak English well, you need to listen to a lot of spoken English, until your language comprehension is great, and really fast.
Traditional approaches to teaching new languages, especially classroom based learning, spend a lot of time on reading and writing and a lot less time on listening and speaking. The language used is often fake, made up, and pretty useless in the real world.
Poor language comprehension, and being slow to comprehend what you are listening to is the No. 1 reason people struggle to speak a new language. You get so focused on working out what’s being said to you. You have little or no time to work on what you need to say back (your ideas as words and phrases) and how you need to say it (grammar and pronunciation).
Listening to lots and lots of English being spoken naturally is the No. 1 way to improve your English language comprehension skills and comprehension speed.
You're lucky. This way of learning to speak a language is a built in part of being human. Every single one of us is born with the ability to learn a language. We all have a language learning toolkit we know works, and we know we can listen and speak a language before we can read or write a single word in that language.
Everyone can learn to speak a new language. We all have the tools we used to learn to speak our first language. If you want to speak a language, being able to listen and understand what you hear automatically is what enables speaking.
Traditional Nauseous Flows Acquire Observations Type Embarrassment Predict
Hi there and welcome to this podcast from Adept English. People say to us all the time ‘I can understand English fairly well, but I am unable to speak English. How do I change this?’. Or ‘My understanding of English is good, but I can’t speak English. Can you help me?’.
This is a question we get all the time. So today I thought I would give some help and advice with this - and relate it to our particular Adept English Listen & Learn method.
So here goes. If you look at traditional language learning, what happens - and this is necessary when you first learn a language - you move between hearing the language, seeing the language written down, to writing the language yourself and perhaps then to speaking the language.
All four of these activities are practised in the classroom, possibly in equal part. Or possibly with less speaking and listening and more emphasis on the reading and writing - and spelling and grammar. That’s traditional classroom language learning. But Adept English works in a different way. You already know some English - and we help you move towards becoming fluent in speaking.
So how do we do this? How is this intended to work? Well, if you look at the way we learn language naturally as children - as babies, in fact - we hear a lot of spoken language. And as we grow, and our brains develop, we understand more and more of what is said to us and around us. And a lot of this happens before we start to speak, before we’re ready to say words.
Then as we get a bit older - perhaps 18 months, 2 years old, we start to speak. Slowly at first - with unclear words. Then as little children get older, they acquire language much more quickly. And finally, in the UK at least, when children are 4 or 5 years old, they go to school and they’re formally taught to read and to write. So there is a very definite order of language learning, that traditional language teaching in a classroom doesn’t honour. And of course, to some extent, this is OK. If you have a group of adults or older children, learning a new language, then it makes sense to teach them first of all, by showing them how that language is written, what it looks like on paper.
A photograph of a young child listening to language with headphones on. Learning a language is more effective when you listen and learn from native speakers, not by reading or writing.
But, if you want to become fluent, a fluent speaker, if you want to understand and speak that language in a way that’s natural and flows, then you need to prioritise listening to and understanding the language first of all. Languages are complex. There’s quite a lot to learn. And there’s a lot of ‘input’ needed. So for your brain, the most natural way of learning is to do a lot of listening.
If you do it this way, we say that you are ‘acquiring’ the language, that’s the verb ‘to acquire’, ACQUIRE. And ‘acquiring a language’ means that you’re ‘making it your own’. You don’t translate. You can think in that language. This is necessary for fluency.
So this listening is what Adept English provides you with. It doesn’t matter whether you’re already living in an English speaking country or not - you still have the opportunity to listen to lots of spoken English. It helps to have a familiar voice - you know me, you’ve heard me speak before. And every week, I give you new input.
You can also buy our courses or our podcasts in bundles - so you’ve got lots and lots of material to go at. So you have the opportunity, through Adept English - or through watching series and films online - to really work on your understanding of English and bring it up to a high level. Don’t forget our bundles of 50 podcasts at a time! Very good value for money - on our website at adeptenglish.com.
Anyway, how do you convert this skill of understanding to speaking? Well, you’re right in your observations. It doesn’t automatically follow that you can speak a language, just because you can understand it. Let me tell you an interesting thing I’ve noticed to help illustrate.
I have ‘motion sickness’ - this means that when I travel in a car, I can feel sick, nauseous. If I’m driving or looking at the road, I’m fine. Usually if I’m travelling in the front of the car, I’m fine also. But if I sit in the back of the car, or I attempt to read a book, or even look at a map, just for a minute or two, immediately I feel nauseous, I feel sick. It’s horrible - it’s as though I’m going to vomit.
However, what’s really bizarre and I have tested this more than once - if I write, if I hand write while travelling in a car - it’s fine. I don’t feel sick at all! No nausea. Why is this? Well, put simply, if I’m writing, I’m using a completely different part of my brain than if I’m reading or looking at a map.
If you are travel sick in a car, try this out for yourself. Obviously, while you’re a passenger, not driving! Try handwriting - and see if you’re like me and you can do it without feeling sick. It’s very strange - but it is explained by the fact that you’re using a different part of your brain for writing than the part you use for reading.
And the point of telling you this? Well, if you are understanding a language, you’re using a different part of your brain than if you’re speaking a language. So as you listen to Adept English or other English language material, the part of your brain which is working hard is called ‘Wernicke’s Area’.
This is the part of your brain which is growing, each time you listen to a podcast. ‘Wernicke’s Area’ is what you use for understanding language. So more and more connections are forming in Wernicke’s Area as you learn more English. But if you want to speak a language, the area of your brain which you use for that is called ‘Broca’s Area’ - and it’s a completely different part of your brain!
So it follows that filling your ‘Wernicke’s Area’ with lots of knowledge of English is a good thing to do. After all, you can’t hope to have a conversation in English or any other language, without understanding, without recognising the words. You have to have this ‘in your brain’ knowledge of the language before you can speak. But having the understanding in ‘Wernicke’s Area’ doesn’t automatically mean that ‘Broca’s Area’ is going to enable you to speak.
Like many activities, your brain is only able to do something once you’ve practiced it lots of times. When I write the transcript for the podcast, I type, TYPE. I’m quick at typing. I wasn’t born able to type, of course! I’m only able to type because many years ago, when I couldn’t type, I put time in on this, I learnt to type and I practised typing. I put hours into it and this created certain brain networks, certainly ‘wiring’ in my brain - which of course, I’m still using today when I type. I type pretty much every day - so those brain networks are frequently used.
And so it is if your Wernicke’s Area is full of English language understanding, but your Broca’s Area for speech isn’t yet practised. This situation means that you are ‘all set’. You’re ready to go. You’re ready to learn to speak. And it’s a much shorter step to speaking, so don’t be despondent, but it is a separate process.
You have to practise speaking in order join up these two areas, in order to create the links, the joins, the neural pathways between Wernicke’s Area and the English in there and Broca’s Area. Obviously, there are already some links, some joins, some neural networking there for your own language.
You just have to add the links for the English language! So this step is probably shorter than the time it took you to learn all that vocabulary and grammar in Wernicke’s Area. But you do have to give it special practice. And remember - Broca’s Area will be behind Wernicke’s Area in its ability to use English. When you first start to speak, you may only be able to say 10% of what you can understand. But that’s normal - be patient with yourself. Just give yourself opportunity to practise speaking and it will come.
To many people, the idea of speaking is daunting, frightening. It worries them. So my advice is ‘break it down’ - make learning to speak English a series of steps. Some suggestions:-
- Make sure that when you’re listening to spoken English, you repeat some of the words. Your mouth may need to practise making the right sounds. On our courses, I positively encourage you to copy my speaking.
- Practise thinking in English. When you’re in the shower, or travelling somewhere, have a go at saying to yourself in English what you did yesterday - or what you’re going to eat for your dinner. Practise talking to yourself. Or think ‘Now how would I tell that story in English?’ This prepares the ground for speaking. Your brain needs practice searching for the right words.
- Now we all know that embarrassment, or at least the fear of it, when you try to speak the language with a native speaker and you’re not ready. So find a place to practise your English with people who know you are learning! Find a friendly English conversation group, or an online language partner - or a friend or a family member who already speaks English. Find yourself someone ‘safe’ to practise with - so that you can get used to hearing yourself speak English without feeling embarrassed. So that it’s more normal. You’ll find that if you do this frequently, your spoken English will come on quite quickly, if you’ve already got good understanding. If you’re one-to-one in conversation with someone, half an hour is quite a long time to be doing this. Your brain will be working really hard, making those connections.
- Put yourself then into situations, using English with strangers, with people you don’t know - but where it’s a limited conversation. If you go to the bakery and you ask for a loaf of bread, there is a limited range in that conversation. You can almost predict what the other person is going to say. So learning to feel comfortable in this ‘live’ situation is something we all have to grow into as well.
Those are my tips for now.
Finally, be honest with yourself. If you find that you do all of the above, but you’re still not making progress, I would say to you that you’re perhaps over-estimating your level of understanding. So go back to the Listen & Learn stage for a bit longer. And throughout the process of learning to use spoken English, you will still need to keep working on your understanding.
You still need to practise listening to English, while you’re learning to speak. And even when you arrive at a good level of speaking, continuing to listen means your English is still growing, your English understanding is still growing and it keeps your language polished. There are many levels of understanding to work through - and if you find my advice about speaking doesn’t work immediately, you may need to go back to just listening for a little longer, until you are nearer to being ready to speak.
I hope that helps answer your question!
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.