Improving English for non-native speakers

Practical tips to improve your English speaking skills (with examples)

I grew up in Malaysia speaking the Malaysian version of English at home. I prided myself on my English skills but when I first moved to Australia, I had no idea what anyone was saying!

I could communicate just fine with people from other countries but for a good 6 months I worried every time I had to have a conversation with an ‘Aussie’. They in turn couldn’t understand me because I was so self-conscious about my accent that I mumbled and swallowed my words.

I’ve improved in leaps and bounds since then but 10 years in and I’m still working on my Aussie slang!

Here are some practical tips on how you can improve your English speaking skills too.

Improving your English speaking skills

1. Take English lessons

One way is to learn English via online websites like British Council Learn English where you can take free online English lessons. If you want to learn American English, try Fun Easy Learn. If you want to learn Australian English, ABC Education is ‘beaut’!

2. Listen to and mirror (copy) how native English speakers speak

English is wide-spoken around the world but it’s spoken differently everywhere you go. The best way to integrate into your surroundings is to listen to and copy the way local people speak.

Examples of how you can mirror native English speakers:

  • Hang out with local English friends and pay attention to the local slang and pronunciation. You can consciously use the same phrases and pronunciations in your speech. But over time the way you speak will automatically become more local anyway.
  • Watch local TV shows like the news or local talk shows.
  • Listen to local radio.

3. Practice, practice, practice

Consistently and persistently speaking in English is the cornerstone to mastering the language. You can’t just read books or learn the theory behind the language. The only way is to practice speaking.

Yes, you will make mistakes but it’s how you learn.

Examples of how you can practice speaking in English:

  • Force yourself to be in an English-speaking environment. If you are in an English-speaking country, this is easy. If you are in a non-English speaking country, join an English club or hang out with expats.
  • Kill 2 birds with one stone – merge a holiday and English-speaking expedition by exploring an English-speaking country.
  • Practice English by joining online forums on topics you are interested in.
  •  Use apps like Tandem or HelloTalk which are available on both Android and iPhones to chat with other people who want to practice their English as well.
  • Use Learning English apps like Duolingo to listen to and mirror (copy) conversations.
  • Learn English by watching online videos. The English Central website has videos specifically to teach you how to speak in English.
  • Take online English lessons via websites like British Council Learn English.

There are 5 components of speaking in English; pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.  Here are some specific tips on how you can improve on the separate components.

Improving your English vocabulary

What does English vocabulary mean?

Vocabulary refers to the range of words in a language.  There are 171, 476 words currently in the English language.  No one knows all the words in the English language but you definitely need to know a fair few to converse effectively. Here are some tips on how to improve your English vocabulary:

1. Focus on the right type of English to learn

There is no way you can learn all the words in the dictionary. However, there are some words which you will use very often, for example words for daily activities and common words used in your work place. Focus your efforts on learning these words and phrases first before branching out to other ‘less important’ words.

Here are some examples of how you can learn the right type of English:

  • Read magazines or websites that cater to people in your field to learn industry-specific words.
  • Spend time with others in your field, either in person or on online forums.

2. Keep a notebook or carry cue cards

Write down new words or phrases that you hear and want to know the meaning of. At the end of the day, you can look through these words and find out what they mean.

3. Make Google Translate (or any online dictionary) your friend

It’s not enough to write down new words, you need to find out what they mean to continually improve your English vocabulary. I used to ‘google’ the meaning of words as I went about my day because I found I always had an excuse not to at the end of the day.

4. Gamify the process

Make learning a game by guessing the meaning of new words. The best way to remember new words is by trying to figure out what they mean first before you look up their meanings. This way the word is more likely to stick in your mind.

5. Play word games

If you like games, you’ll learn lots of new words in fun ways by playing word games like scrabble and and doing crossword puzzles.

There are also many online word games that you can play, even while you are on the loo. Examples of some online word games:

6. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Once you have learnt a new word, the only way to remember it is to keep on using it. Over and over again.

Improving your English speaking fluency

What is English speaking fluency?

English speaking fluency refers to the flow of your speech when you speak in English. Fluent speech is smooth, graceful and effortless, a bit like a professional ballet dancer.

Not many people (even news readers) are able to speak fluently all the time. Fluency can be affected by many factors including stress, fatigue and lack of skill. This is good news because these factors are easily sorted. Here are some tips to improve your English speaking fluency:

1. Think in English

It takes your brain a much longer time to translate your thoughts from your native language to English followed by forwarding these thoughts to your mouth compared to just thinking in English to begin with. At the beginning, this is hard to do but the more you practice the more it becomes second nature.

2. Speak slowly

When we are anxious, we tend to rush. But when we do, our words spill out of our mouths faster than our brain can process them. As a result, we say things we shouldn’t, stutter, hesitate or back pedal; affecting our fluency of speech.

3. Practice abdominal breathing (yogic breathing)

When we breathe deeply and naturally, we sound better and don’t run out of air mid-sentence.

4. Practice talking out loud

As always, lots of practice is the key to speaking fluently. Talk out loud as much as you can, even when you are alone. Just the act of consistently speaking in English will improve your fluency.

5. Record yourself

I admit, listening to the sound of your own voice takes some getting used to. However, you will be amazed at how many mistakes you catch yourself making when you listen to your own recording. This was one of the ways I practiced for my oral exam and it worked a treat.

6. Plan beforehand

Pre-plan what you want to say. Granted, this is not always possible. However, if you are giving a speech or going for an interview, it’s possible to at least prepare the gist of your speech and practice like crazy until you can speak smoothly and confidently.

Recommended reading: Top 10 interview tips for non-native English speakers

7. Learn new phrases instead of words

If you are at the beginning stages of your English learning journey and still learning new words, you might find it hard to string the words together smoothly. One trick is to learn phrases instead of words.

This video by Oxford Online gives you more tips on improving your English speaking fluency:

Improving your English pronunciation

What is English pronunciation?

In essence, pronunciation refers to the way in which a word is said. Learning how to pronounce English words correctly is the hardest part of learning English. It  is also the most important component of being understood when you speak in English so let’s crack on.

Here are some tips on how you can improve your English pronunciation:

1. Listening

There are many nuances to English pronunciation and the best way is to listen to native people around you speaking. Detect the small differences in how similar sounding words are pronounced. For example; sleep and slip, thin and tin, rice and lice.

2. Loosen your tongue

One fun way to loosen your tongue is by saying English tongue twisters. Here is a list of 50 tongue twisters by EngVid.

3. Learn online

Tim’s Pronunciation Workshop is a great way to learn English pronunciation online.

4. Sing English songs

If you are musically inclined, it’s an awesome way to work on your English pronunciation as you don’t have to worry about forming sentences. Instead you can focus on pronouncing the words right and enjoying yourself.

5. Practice over and over again

I feel like a broken record here but there is no way around it. Unfortunately, the only way to good pronunciation is repeated practice.

Improving your English grammar

What is English grammar?

Grammar is the structure of a language. It is the rules of how to construct a sentence correctly.

While most native English speakers are quite tolerant of imperfect grammar (because many native speakers don’t have great grammar too), you still need to know basic grammar rules to be understood.

Here are some tips on how to improve your grammar:

1. Reading

My number one favorite way of improving my English grammar is through reading. Read everything you can get your hands on. When you read, you reinforce correct grammar in your mind automatically.

2. Writing

Writing is another great way to improve your English grammar. Writing gives you the chance to reflect on your sentence structure and improve on it. Over time, by virtue of practice, you will write better and automatically speak better too.

Recommended reading: A step-by-step guide to professional writing 

3. Listen

Listen carefully to how your role models speak. Pay attention to how people like news readers and English teachers construct their sentences when they speak. They are the ones who tend to be most knowledgeable about grammar rules.

Improving your English speaking comprehension

What is English speaking comprehension?

Comprehension is the ability to understand and extract meaning from what someone is saying. There are two main aspects to understanding a language; knowledge of vocabulary and understanding the meaning behind the words used.

Here are some tips on how you can improve your understanding (comprehension):

1. Improve your English vocabulary

The more English words you know, the easier it will be for you to understand what is being said.

2. Converse more

Have lots of conversations with native speakers. This way, you not only learn more common ‘local words’, you also learn the different ways native speakers use these words and the meanings behind them.

3. Read

You can start with simpler books or even children’s books if you are just a beginner. As you understand more, upgrade to more complicated books with bigger words.

4. Watch English TV

Watch any English movie or TV drama you want, as long as you pay attention to the flow of the conversation and how the story is unfolding. It’s a fun way of understanding English.

Over to you

I hope these practical tips help you to sharpen your English speaking skills. It can be difficult when communicating in a different language but the most important thing is to continue practicing and don’t give up.

Before you know it, you will be dreaming in English. That’s when you know you’ve made it 🙂

P/S: Business English for Non-native Speakers is another great article to help you on your way to mastering English at work.

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