I know, I know. I used the F word. Well, for the remainder of this post, I’m defining fluency as fluidity of verbal speech. I am not defining any level of competency or functionality, just the ability to speak at a fluid, even, and unbroken pace. Therefore, the purpose of this post will be to help you develop a natural, easy, and fluent-sounding speech pattern in your target language early in the learning process.
Before I jump into the post, I’d like to share the reason that I feel like this is an important piece of the language learning puzzle. Two and a half years ago, when I started learning German, I hit the books and flashcards hard. Within three months I had memorized over 1000 words and could recite lots of obscure German grammar points. By six months, I was over 2000 words and could write large paragraphs with good speed and accuracy. I could also “kind of” hold a conversation… My speaking was ok. I could say anything I wanted to and get my point across with no problems. I wasn’t lacking vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation. My problem was my “fluency”. I stopped and started and “ummm”ed and stuttered and stammered and basically sounded uncomfortable speaking the language. Fortunately, I was able to overcome these issues in the following months and would say I’m pretty comfortable with my oral abilities these days.
What follows are some tips I’ve picked up that really work for me. Hopefully you find some gems among them:
1. Study sentences rather than words in isolation. Sentences are more interesting to me AND every sentence will give you not only vocabulary, but at least some bit of grammar as well. I find that the more I study sentences, the more quickly I am able to pull out just the right phrase at just the right time.
2. Read out loud in your target language from the beginning. As much as possible. Are you studying words? Read them out loud. Are you drilling sentences? Read them out loud. Are you reading from a grammar textbook? Read all of the target language material out loud. Listening to music? Sing out loud. Listening to Pimsleur or Learn in your Car? Repeat out loud. This helps build muscle memory in your mouth and vocal chords as well as building connections with your brain from repetition. The more used to speaking in a language you are, the easier it is to speak when the time comes.
3. Memorize frequently used “chunks” of language. These chunks are also commonly referred to as “islands”, “canned conversation” or “scripting”. This tip itself could take its own entire blog post (and may in the future) but I will try to give the reader’s digest version. Basically, this technique involves learning a selection of pre-scripted conversations that you can pull out when you need to in order to give yourself time to think or if you need a confidence booster. For example: One of the most common chunks most people should learn right away is the “self-introduction” chunk. This could be something like:
“My name is Bill and I’m from Colorado in the United States. I’m 38 years old, married, and I have 3 children. I work as a Project Manager for a large lighting manufacturer. My hobbies include: Learning languages, playing golf, and camping.”
The idea is that I would drill this paragraph over and over out loud until I could say it without stumbling, hesitating or pausing. Then, when I was out meeting with other speakers, I would have a nice, fluid, accurate, and relaxing self-introduction to fall back on. Picture the confidence boost you’ll get as you notice how impressed everyone is by your casual display of fluent speaking. Now, THAT is the way to start a conversation, right? Now, just imagine if you has 20 or 30 of those chunks available to you for most of your favorite conversation topics. Now you see where I’m going with this, right? And no, this isn’t “cheating”. This is setting the stage for you to showcase your language skills confidently in a comfortable environment that you have helped set up for yourself.
4. The “Minute Self-Talk Exercise”. Stand in front of a mirror or record yourself. Pick a topic. Take a few minutes (15-20) and gather any vocabulary you may be missing. Now, set a timer and start talking. Don’t stop talking. If you hesitate for more than a second or two, stop the timer and start over. The goal is a full minute. Once you get comfortable with that, try two or three minutes. Move to five minutes. Switch topics midway for an extra challenge. The object is more about maintaining a steady flow rather than using big words or odd grammar. In this exercise it’s more important to keep talking than to make sense. With practice, this will get easier.
5. Learn some conversational connectors. Benny Lewis has an excellent blog post here on the value of conversational connectors. I’m going to touch on them here as well. Basically, conversational connectors are the words and mini-phrases that natives so often use to spice up their conversations. They are things like: “That’s an excellent point.”, “on one hand,”, “as far as I’m concerned”, “all joking aside”, “the way I see it”, etc… I think you get the idea. These are very nice to not only spice up a conversation, but also to give you a second extra to think of the next word or phrase you want to say. Kind of a verbal stall tactic. Very handy.
6. Shadowing- A technique coined by Professor Alexander Arguelles. A step-by-step guide can be found here . Basically, you listen to target language audio and talk aloud to it as closely as you can, trying to speak as soon as you register the sound from the audio. This can be done either by reading along, or by “blind shadowing” without any text. This type of exercise gets you used to speaking at native speeds and prosody as well as developing muscle memory.
7. Talk more. This is the obvious one. Get out and speak with natives or at least other intermediate/advanced speakers. The more you do it the more comfortable you will become.
Well, that about does it for this one. Hopefully you found something useful to take from this. Do you have any more tips for fluent speech? Let me know in the comments. Until next time, thanks for reading.