There are a lot of ways to improve your speaking skills and become more fluent in a language, and I’ve already mentioned a few good strategies in other posts (study a speaking book and join a language exchange).
In this post, let’s look at some interesting techniques that polyglotspolyglot: someone who speaks or uses many different languages use to quickly improve their fluency in a foreign language.
1. Practice speaking fluently on specific topics.
To become a musician, a good strategy is to start by learning one song really well. Conversely, a bad strategy is to say, ‘I must learn how to play every song, on every instrument. If I can’t do that, I’m not a Real Musician.’
The first strategy is flexible and helps you to stay motivated and see yourself make progress, week by week, month by month. The second strategy is impossible, and will quickly kill your motivation. You won’t see much progress, even after months or years of practice.
With the first strategy, you might learn to play ‘Happy Birthday to You’, and any time you are at a birthday party, you’ll be ready to perform beautifully. With the second strategy, you’ll never be fully prepared for any situation.
To become a musician, try mastering one song at a time. To become a Fluent English Speaker, try mastering on one topic at a time.
As an example, consider Tim, a 16-year-old polyglot from the United States. In the video below Tim appears to speak many languages ‘fluently’, but he’s only speaking about one topic. He’s playing one ‘song’ on many instruments:
As Tim explains in a different video, his love of languages came from his love of acting. He enjoys playing a character, and he’s good at taking words from a written script and practicing them until they look and sound natural, with hand movements and facial expressions.
You may wonder: is he really fluent, or just an actor pretending to be fluent?
I don’t know, but I think this question is unimportant. The important thing is to learn ‘songs’ that you enjoy, and practice speaking about topics that interest you. When will you become a ‘real’ musician, and when will you be perfectly ‘fluent’? It doesn’t really matter.
In any case, notice that he answers the same few questions for each language:
- Why do you want to learn (French, Arabic, etc.)?
- When did you begin learning (French, Arabic, etc.)?
- How do you typically practice (French, Arabic, etc.)?
These are typical small-talk questions—probably questions that people ask him every day. They are good questions to use to write your own script. You can get your script corrected in online writing groups and then practice it, like an actor, until you can speak it fluently. As a final step, record a short video.
It’s not necessary to record a video of yourself, of course. And it’s not necessary to share the video online, either. But these extra steps can further boost your motivation and track your progress. Native speakers may see your video and offer helpful corrections, or you may meet new people to practice speaking with. (This is what happened to Tim, when he shared his first video online.)
Now compare Tim with Hyunwoo Sun. In the video below, Hyunwoo tells a longer story, about how he learned English and became an entrepreneur:
Like Tim, Hyunwoo probably wrote a script for this video; but unlike Tim, he includes information about several other (specific) small-talk topics:
- The Place Where I Was Born
- My Experiences in School
- How I Learned English
- How I Became a YouTuber
- How I Became an Entrepreneur
Notice that these are very typical topics—topics which people probably ask Hyunwoo every day or every week, so he has had a lot of practice speaking about these topics. Topics like these are usually the best ‘songs’ to learn first.
Other Good Topics for Speaking Practice
For more ideas about topics to practice speaking about, I recommend looking at the IELTS Speaking Test. The IELTS is designed to test your conversation fluency, so the questions they ask you tend to be very similar to everyday small talk:
- Describe a person who has been an important influence in your life.
- Describe a famous tourist destination in your country.
- Describe an important choice you had to make in your life.
Choose a topic that interests you, then try to find the English words and phrases you would need to talk about it, and get feedback from an online writing group. Or (as we will see in the next section) skip the writing phase and just start speaking!
2. Set yourself specific goals with specific tasks.
Of course, you don’t need to write a script or share personal information about your life in order to practice your speaking skills. The more important thing is to give yourself a clear and specific goal for the near future.
Many English learners set themselves very vague goals, set far in the future: ‘I want to become fluent in English in two years.’ The problem with this type of goal is that it’s not clear what you should do right now, today. What do you need to learn to say in English one week from now? You task list is unclear.
In the video below, two Canadians (Scott and Vat) have recorded themselves practicing Mandarin. Compare their strategy with Tim’s. Instead of acting out a small-talk conversation, they are reporting their situation to the camera:
Like Tim and Hyunwoo, Scott and Vat focus on some very simple questions:
- What are you doing? (Where are you? What do you see?)
- What did you do earlier today?
- What are you planning to do next?
Every day, at every place they visit, they record a new video answering these simple questions. Each time, they improve their ability to answer these questions, and they gradually start to speak faster and build longer sentences. Sometimes they invite other Mandarin speakers (such as Olle from Sweden, who appears at 11:00 in the video) to interview them and ‘test’ their speaking skills. Finally, at the end of their 3-month trip, they combined their video recordings into this 12-minute ‘documentary’ of their progress.
In other words, their specific, short-term goal (to create a short movie in 3 months) gave them a clear task each time they sat down to study Mandarin. (If they found it difficult to talk about food one day, they knew they should study vocabulary about Food so that they could talk about it in their next video.)
To be clear, you needn’t travel to an English-speaking country in order to make a video like this.
In contrast to Scott and Vat, consider Benny, a polyglot from Ireland. Instead of traveling to find language partners, he invites travelers to visit him. This also gives him a specific task for each language he learns. He needs to learn vocabulary about Homes, so that he can show his guests around his apartment:
Like Tim, Benny writes a script and commits it to memory before making a video; and like Scott and Vat, he focuses on answering some very simple questions (Where are you? What do you see?).
You don’t need to host travelers in your home, of course. But it helps to imagine yourself as a reporter or tour guide. Determine what sort of vocabulary you would need for those situations, and then make it your goal to learn that vocabulary within the next week.
For a more ambitious goal, make a video and share it on YouTube: Hello World! I’m here at the best coffee shop in Mumbai. If you visit Mumbai, send me a WhatsApp message and we can arrange to meet for coffee here. In this video, I’ll show you how to get to the coffee shop from the train station…
3. Memorize vocabulary with a ‘memory palace’.
Polyglots like Tim and Benny use special techniques to remember all of the vocabulary they learn. One of the most popular techniques is known as the ‘Loci’ or ‘Memory Palace’ Method.
This method takes advantage of the fact that human memory is highly visual and spatial. We are very good at remembering pictures and places, and rather bad at remember words and sounds. Therefore, in order to remember a word or sound, the best strategy is to connect that word to a picture in your head, and put that picture in a place, a palace, that you know extremely well.
For an example of Memory Palace Method, watch the video below. In it an American videographer named Dean explains how he quickly memorized a 500-word chapter from the novel Moby Dick:
You can read a step-by-step explanation of the method on WikiHow. For now, let’s just consider which things you could put in your memory palace:
- A 2-minute guided tour of your apartment, house, or neighborhood
- A 100-word self-introduction about your life, education, or career
- An 18-minute TED-style presentation that demonstrates your professional knowledge and English skills to employers or investors
Combine this technique with the specific topics or goals from points 1 and 2 above, and you’ll quickly find yourself speaking English (more) fluently.
4. Learn to relax and accept your mistakes.
To speak more fluently, you need to become comfortable with your mistakes.
Like Tim and Benny, you need to feel OK with your bad pronunciation. Like Scott and Vat, you need to accept that you will sound a little foolish in your first few videos. But after a few months you will start to sound amazing.
This is difficult for certain people, and for certain cultures. In many countries, there is pressure to speak English perfectly. If you make a mistake, your fellow classmates or colleagues will laugh at you—or, if your English is really good, they will hate you. It’s a ‘no-win’ situation, as we say in English.
If you find yourself in a situation like that, it may be a good idea to leave the class or quit that job. If you can’t do that, the second-best option is to create a situation or find a community (in your town or online) where your mistakes are accepted. Only then will you start to speak more fluently.
As educator Chris Lonsdale explains:
If you’re sad, angry, worried, upset, you’re not going to learn. Period. If you’re happy, relaxed, in an Alpha Brain State, curious, you’re going to learn really quickly. And very specifically, you need to be tolerant of ambiguity. If you’re one of those people who needs to understand 100% of every word you’re hearing, you will go nuts because you’ll be upset all the time that you’re not perfect.
In the video below, Lonsdale explains how he learned to speak Mandarin comfortably within 6 months. He mentions a lot of useful learning strategies, so it’s worth watching his presentation in full (with or without subtitles):
Finally, remember that even native speakers aren’t completely fluent speakers all the time. It’s common to make mistakes in grammar and vocabulary, especially when you are speaking publicly or about complex topics. The most important thing to do in these situations is to relax.
Photo by Fabrizio Frigeni