Few people study a language just because it’s fun and exciting, even though it is.
Generally, language students undertake these studies to use those language skills – whether for business, travel or just to learn more about the world and make new friends along the way.
For all of these aims, the key is to speak English fluently.
Speaking is our go-to method of communicating and, the better we can speak, the more easily we are understood but clearly conveying ideas is not such an easy task in a foreign language.
Speakers of other languages have to master all of the aspects of spoken English, not just grow a substantial vocabulary and memorise English grammar rules.
The usual advice to improve fluency applies: attend English courses faithfully, speak English as often as possible, practise-practise-practise…
But, to get better at speaking – without all of the stops and starts, you have a bit more work to do.
Come with your Superprof now, as we lay out the path to speaking English in the flowing manner that native speakers effortlessly express themselves in.
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Learn Syllable Stress
As beginners, ESL students do their best to imitate the speech patterns of their teachers. Unfortunately, by the time they reach the intermediate level, most have not yet learned the rules for syllable stress.
It’s not their fault, these rules are seldom taught, if ever.
Let’s take ‘geography’ as an example. This is a four-syllable word and the stress is on the second syllable – the ‘o’. So far, things are pretty simple; that quickly changes with ‘geographical’.
For this word, the stress moves to the third syllable; ‘gra’. Should any other syllable be stressed, say ‘ge-o-gra-PHI-cal’, nobody would understand what you're trying to say.
Granted, most people who learn English don’t usually pick up on three- and four-syllable words until they get to a more advanced level but even two-syllable words have syllable stress rules.
Learning how to stress words properly is one of the most important aspects of learning how to speak English more fluently.
Other rules for proper syllable stress include:
- Only vowels get stressed, not consonants
- Each word can have only one stressed syllable, no matter how long the word
- Verbs and nouns are stressed differently
- How a word is stressed depends on how long it is and how it ends
- Compound words are stressed according to their type: verb, noun or adjective
Most dictionaries provide the IPA spelling of words that shows where the syllable stress should be but every dictionary does it differently.
For instance, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary uses an apostrophe to ahead of the stressed syllable /dʒiˈɒɡrəfi/ while Collins Dictionary underlines: dʒiɒgrəfi.
If you rely on the International Phonetic Alphabet to guide your pronunciation, you should make note of the way your favourite dictionary marks syllable stress.
Helpful tip: you can practise your writing skills by breaking new words down into syllables and marking where they’re stressed.
What About Word Order?
In just about every language spoken today, how you organise words into sentences matters. In German, for instance, the adjective always goes before the noun while in Polish, you may place it either before or after the noun.
If you said ‘That is really a car fast’, you would get a lot of strange looks. On the other hand, you can say either ‘I quickly ran to the store’ or ‘I ran to the store quickly’. Both would have the same meaning and both would be correct.
The typical order for words in English is subject-verb-object; the placement of adjectives and adverbs is arbitrary.
You might say ‘the house is blue and white’ or ‘the white and blue house’, depending on how the sentence is built.
‘The house is blue and white and stands on the corner’ is correct; so is ‘the blue and white house stands on the corner.’
It is possible (but not recommended) to use more than one adjective to describe a noun so adjectives themselves have rules for how they’re ordered: number, quality, size, age, shape, colour, proper adjective, qualifier… and then the noun.
Such a sentence might look like this: three happy, little, old, round, brown, Spanish, carnivorous hedgehogs crossed the road.
Again, it is not recommended to use every single type of adjective possible to describe a noun but, if you do use more than one, be sure to use a comma to separate them, as in the example above. Note also that there is no comma between the last adjective and the noun.
A final word on word order: how to frame a question.
If your native language does not change sentence structure to form a question, you might find it hard to get used to reversing subject and verb to properly ask a question in English.
As an English learner, you likely started with simple sentences of the I am / I have variety. Didn’t your first lessons also include questions like ‘how are you?’ and ‘where are you from?’
Simple questions like those are English learners’ first introduction to word order in English. Hopefully, your teacher pointed out that you must reverse the subject and verb to ask a question.
Did s/he also give you tips on how you can maximise your vocabulary and remember new words?
The Rhythm and Flow of English
As you learn to speak English, you should spend more time listening to English speakers and how they talk, focusing on the rising and falling tones they use in every sentence.
English is not considered a tonal language like Mandarin or Vietnamese. Still, intonation is important in English speaking; where and how you stress words gives your sentences meaning.
A simple sentence, such as ‘I want to go to the store’ needs tone to make clear what you want to say.
Stressing the ‘I’ means that you want to go and you don’t want your brother or sister to be sent. Stressing ‘store’ means you want to go there but not anywhere else.
A good way to practise proper inflexion is to choose a sentence, work your speaking skills by shifting the tone from one word to the next, teasing out the different meanings you get from the different stresses.
Another important use of tone in the English language is to show what type of sentence you’re making.
In your English lessons, you might have already learned that a rising tone at the end of a sentence indicates a question and a falling tone reflects a statement. If you are a visual learner, you might picture a question mark or a full-stop (a period) at the end of such sentences.
What is less clear is a tone that neither rises nor falls.
Traditionally, such intonation showed a run-on sentence or an idea that continues beyond where you think it should have stopped. Examples of such litter the web and social media; in videos, you might hear somebody speak with neither a rising nor a falling end-tone.
In written form, such a sentence might look like this: “I was going to the store and I ran into Sarah, she had on this really nice dress, so I asked her where she bought it, and she said she got it at…”
Although this is a popular way of speaking just now, it’s not exactly correct. If you’re looking for materials to get more listening practice, stick with more formal materials, such as podcasts from The British Council.
When you finish this article, would you take a moment to help other English language learners by telling them the best ways to go from beginner to intermediate English?
Practical Ways to Improve Your Fluency in English
Learning English is a labour of love but, with all of the rules for tone, stress and word placement, it is no easy task. Still, there are ways that you can hone your language skills outside of your ESL classes.
The first rule to becoming fluent in English is to speak in English every day.
It does not matter if you speak advanced English or if you’ve only just started learning your second language. It doesn’t matter if you have an audience or talk to a tree, as some of my English teacher’s students do.
If there’s no one else around to practise with, you may download a talk-to-text app that provides you with sentences to speak and then rates you on how well you have pronounced each word.
Singing along with your favourite songs in English is another clever way to develop your English skills.
Singing in English has an added benefit: as you copy the singers’ tones, you will soon master word stress and intonation and, through repetition, those aspects of spoken language will soon come naturally.
Singing makes language learning fun but nowhere near as fun as finding new friends to practise conversational English with.
Technology today makes it possible to reach across the world, to the English-speaking country you would most like to visit so you can have a chat with a native English speaker.
You may already know of a few apps that connect language learners across the world; most of them are free while some charge a bit of money to access the best parts of their platform. Isn't it time to use them?
Final tip: you can boost your reading comprehension while you practise speaking by reading English texts out loud. Doing so has the doubly beneficial effect helping you get good at reading as well as speaking!