How to Speak a Foreign Language More Fluently

How to Speak a Foreign Language More Fluently

Speak with confidence – Dave Gilbert Five ways to build your confidence and improve your spoken fluency in any foreign language. A language teacher of mine used to say, “Don’t use this new expression unless you’re 100% sure you’ve got it right. You don’t want people to laugh at you!”

My teacher was very experienced and usually gave good advice and paper help but, being a language teacher myself, something about this particular exhortation didn’t ring true. How can we improve our spoken fluency in a foreign language if we’re terrified of making mistakes?

Ways to Speak Foreign Language Fluently

Here are five ways to improve your spoken fluency which might even give you the confidence to make a few mistakes along the way!

1. Practice

We can only improve if we practice, right? You need to pounce on every opportunity you find for speaking your target language, either with native speakers or with other students. Many people learn a foreign language because they’re living in the country in which that language is spoken. In this case, jump right in there. Have a go at ordering in restaurants, asking for directions, and interacting with bus drivers and cashiers.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand people’s replies, or if they don’t understand you. Find out how to say, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” or “Could you speak more slowly please?” in your target language and use these phrases as often as you need to. If people don’t understand you, experiment with paraphrasing (see below), and if all else fails play charades! Pointing, miming, and drawing pictures are all fine – the important thing is that you’re communicating.

2. Review New Vocabulary

When you hear a useful new piece of vocabulary, add it to your word list and try to use it in a conversation as soon as possible. Also, testing yourself regularly is an obvious but effective way of getting the words into your brain. For auditory learners, testing is especially effective if you repeat the words and their translations out loud.

Don’t forget that useful vocabulary often comes in “chunks,” referred to as collocations (words that naturally go together). For example, students do homework (they don’t make homework) but criminals don’t do crimes; they commit them. Every language has different collocations and learning and using vocabulary in chunks will help you sound more natural and fluent.

3. Paraphrase

Perhaps you’re in a country where few people speak your native language. If you’re not, imagine you are! How can you get your point across when using your language is not an option? As a language learner, I’m very familiar with the experience of wanting to express ideas that are more complex than my limited vocabulary allows. In situations such as these, I’ve had to improvise.

What does improvising mean in a foreign language context? It means paraphrasing. In other words, when you don’t know the vocabulary you need, you try to express it using different words that you do know. For example, perhaps I want to tell someone about my experiences buying an apartment, but I don’t know the word for “mortgage.”

I can say something like, “the money I get from the bank so I can buy a house.” While “mortgage” may be an intermediate piece of vocabulary, it can be paraphrased using words that most elementary-level students would know. You’ll be surprised at how often it’s possible to paraphrase in exactly this way and it means you’re continuing to communicate in the target language, without falling back on your native tongue.

4. Watch TV

Watching TV dramas in your target foreign language helps you to move in the direction of speaking like a native. It may not seem like it when all you can hear is an incomprehensible babble but, speaking from personal experience, you’re picking up more than you realize.

When watching TV, listen actively for frequently used expressions and slang. Write them down and look them up, or ask a native speaker to explain what they mean. Get someone to help you with pronunciation. Then start trying to use this vocabulary in conversation. You might get it wrong sometimes but often you’ll get it right. As a teacher, I can confirm that the students who sound the most fluent are the ones who have a talent for picking up slang and everyday turns of phrases and aren’t afraid to try them out.

5. Give a Presentation

One of the best ways to get over psychological barriers to speaking a foreign language is to give a presentation in that language. Not only does it give you the valuable confidence-building experience of being able to prepare and practice before speaking, but it also ensures you learn lots of new vocabulary in a context that, having spent hours practicing, you’ll also never forget!

If you are allowed to give a presentation, take it. If possible, choose a topic that you’re passionate about; this will also ensure that you’re more likely to retain any new vocabulary. If you like, write the presentation in your language first or ask someone to “help write my essay”  and then translate it into a foreign language. Practice, practice, practice… and perform!

Don’t Be Afraid of Making Mistakes

Often, the best way of improving our foreign language speaking is by cultivating blind self-confidence, which is why I think my language teacher was wrong to discourage us from making mistakes. There are three reasons for this:

  1. We learn from our mistakes. Clichéd but true.
  2. Worrying about making mistakes can make us afraid to open our mouths until we’re sure we’ve constructed the perfect sentence. This is an unrealistic expectation for a language learner and puts us under a disabling kind of pressure.
  3. The more confident you seem, the more likely it is that people will overlook any mistakes you make.

Take every opportunity to use your target language, have the confidence to improvise, listen carefully to how native speakers speak, practice, but most importantly, just go for it. And if people sometimes laugh, so what? Language learning can be very funny, so go ahead and laugh at yourself – you’ll remember for next time!

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