How to become more than fluent in English ?
January 16, 2010 8:00 PM   Subscribe

how can I improve my english speaking to the next level ?

I'm French, I would say my English is fluent, I can read and understand anything, I think my writing is mostly ok (if not, please say so ), but when it comes to speaking, I often find myself looking for words, confused, mumbling, or unable to finish a sentence. Even if I can talk easily and have a conversation, I don't feel as confident as I wish.
I used to think practice makes perfect, but I'm living in Asia for 2 years now, working in a 100% English speaking environment (mostly ESL people though) and I don't see any noticeable improvement.
Is there a way to improve my speaking skills ? Class, books, tips, or whatever aimed at people with a fluent but not yet bilingual level of English ?
posted by anto1ne to Education (28 answers total)
Your writing is a bit stilted. Obviously ESL speakers won't help you speak idiomatically.

Listening to English radio and watching English TV shows will help.

Reading English novels will help, especially ones with strong writing styles -- and different ones. Hemingway. Raymond Chandler. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jane Austen.

Traditionally the best way to learn a language is to date a native speaker of it.
posted by musofire at 8:10 PM on January 16, 2010

Have you considered listening to English music? If you stick to music without much slang, it could be a good way to pick up common phrases and associate them with french words. Also, you could try getting into an English television show that comes with french subtitles.

Your writing needs better punctuation; more periods.
posted by biochemist at 8:15 PM on January 16, 2010

I would second musofire's idea to watch English TV. Classic novels are awesome, too, but I would worry that you may pick up antiquated idioms. Again, not a bad thing but not what your intention seems to be.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:17 PM on January 16, 2010

English tv shows and movies; english books on tape; see if there are native english speakers who would be willing to do a conversation group or something with you
posted by melissasaurus at 8:22 PM on January 16, 2010

A native English speaker would write "as confident as I want to," not "as I wish."

Well, at least Americans would. The latter sounds stilted; the former fluent.

All of which is to say, the more English-language novels you read, the better. But, keep in mind that language that sounds natural at one point isn't necessarily good in the present. "As I wish" is an example of an archaic turn of phrase that sounds odd to my modern, American ear. It is, however, grammatically correct.
posted by dfriedman at 8:27 PM on January 16, 2010

Are American soap operas available where you live? That might help. Can you do a language exchange with a native English speaker where you meet once a week and spend half the time speaking French (so they can practice) and half the time speaking English (so you can)?
posted by serazin at 8:27 PM on January 16, 2010

dfriedman: A native English speaker would write "as confident as I want to," not "as I wish."

Either you're missing a word or two, or you're using some kind of 'New English' I've not previously encountered.
posted by jjb at 8:44 PM on January 16, 2010

Best answer: Hmm. I think that the above suggestions are well-suited for someone who is looking to improve his/her understanding of the English language, but not necessarily for someone who already "can read and understand anything" and is looking to improve speech production. It doesn't matter how many words of phrases you have in your lexicon, if you can't pull them out real-time in a conversation.

Are there conversation-focussed ESL classes for advanced ESL students in your area? From what I've heard, these are meant to be for people that already have a good grasp of English, but want to improve their speaking skills.

You could also consider watching a French film with English subtitles, or vice versa. I think this will help you see what kind of words/phrases are used by translators to convey certain situations, and should help you build up the French-to-English mental dictionary.

You could also practice writing, possibly with a friend or a co-worker with similar language improvement goals as yours. Borrow an advanced ESL Book from the library, and try a few of their writing exercises. Find a kind soul who is willing to read over your writing and suggest corrections.

Don't stress too much about making any visible progress. My guess is that you most likely have improved, but just very gradually, imperceptibly, over the period of two years. I'm probably butchering the details, but language perception and production are somewhat governed by separate mental faculties -- and language perception is supposed to before (or faster than?) language production. Perhaps you have spent the last two years improving your understanding of everyday English, and will be spending the next two years improving your speaking skills. Besides, two years is not a very long time for learning a new language, especially if you are not, say, spending everyday in some intensive English-learning class.

Hope this helps!
posted by tickingclock at 8:52 PM on January 16, 2010

Have you ever heard of Toastmasters? ( It's a public speaking/verbal communication group that's international. It might be something worth checking into and if you find a group in your area, explain your situation and ask for advice. Good luck!
posted by MrningLight at 9:10 PM on January 16, 2010

When I was learning french, I ended up getting a e-penpal from Quebec for doing a language exchange. It worked well because we were both somewhat grammar/spelling wonks, so during each of our times we corrected each other into native usage patterns. If you ask up front to be corrected, then it can work out really well.

Gratuitous grammar opinion on the "as I wish" issue: when I read that, my mind suggested "as I would like", i.e. "I don't feel as confident as I would like [to be]." The "to be" is optional, as it is usually implied.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:16 PM on January 16, 2010

Either you're missing a word or two, or you're using some kind of 'New English' I've not previously encountered.

In context it's: "I don't feel as confident as I want to" which sounds normal. There are obviously a lot of ways to say it, though "I'm not as confident as I wish" also sounds fine.
posted by delmoi at 10:39 PM on January 16, 2010

Traditionally the best way to learn a language is to date a native speaker of it.

Usually this is dumb advice, unless the learner is at an already-high level of comprehension, but it sounds like that describes you, so it isn't so bad in your case. In any case, you need more practice. There's a lot of research on this, and there are definitely plateau points in language learning, which is what you're most likely experiencing. It'll pass, if you continue to focus on improving. The best way to improve speaking skills is to practice, and there's no great substitute for it. Immersion is best; that's going to be virtually impossible in China, so language partners are a good second-best alternative. Practice.

By the way, I teach ESL in Asia and I'd say, based on what you've written here, that your writing skills are fairly good.
posted by smorange at 11:24 PM on January 16, 2010

I suppose you know (or think you know) most of the teachable stuff, but you should still take lessons with a native who will be critical and corrective.

And you need immersion in the language, but active immersion, constant two-way chatter, not television. You're in Beijing, right? If you can't cohabit with a native speaker of English, you need to arrange social interaction with native speakers. Expat groups usually have certain formal or informal meetings, maybe a weekly or monthly meetup at a certain pub. In a place the size of Beijing, there must be plenty to choose from. If you could arrange to attend these events, at least one or two a week, you'd be able to participate in loads of relaxed native chatter and you might make friends with some native speakers with whom you could spend time elsewhere. For example [googlegooglegoogle], it looks like there's a pub quiz on the 18th (Monday) at the Book Worm (Building 4, Sanlitun Nanjie, Chaoyang District) at 7:30.
posted by pracowity at 11:39 PM on January 16, 2010

seconding pub quizzes. there's a lot of them in beijing, but i was there 3 years ago so my info is not recent. your new teammates will love you for knowing european facts, and almost everyone who attends those things is a native english speaker (american, brit, etc). you can get to the bar a little early to find a team to join.

also, if you spend most of your time with other ESL people, their bad habits are probably rubbing off on you. try to spend time with some native speakers-- they're everywhere!
posted by acidic at 1:19 AM on January 17, 2010

also, you can try watching english tv/movies, then pausing every few sentences and repeating the speaking word-for-word, very loudly. it will improve your accent and your confidence.
posted by acidic at 1:20 AM on January 17, 2010

READ BOOKS written in English.
posted by orthogonality at 1:25 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounding perfectly normal is hard. Talk to a lot of native speakers, perhaps get someone to do a language/conversation exchange with you for French/English (although this may be tricky in Asia, maybe you can find someone via Skype).

The searching for words really is a practice thing. You don't use the words all that often, so it is hard to recall them. I am sure the same thing happens to you with French sometimes, with words you don't use very often (or at least it happens to me, with English).

Also, and this is a big thing--you're probably at the point where you can barely notice the progress you're making. Think about it like being in an airplane--the first few minutes after taking off you can really tell that you're getting further away from the ground, but once you get high enough up, it's a lot harder to see if you're going further up or not. You've gotten so far it's hard to see that you're getting better. I bet if you had someone you talked with in English about once a year, they'd be able to tell how much better you're getting!
posted by that girl at 2:21 AM on January 17, 2010

Er, write books written in English. I'm proofreading my first proofs as we speak. Proofreading your own mess that's being corrected by others and messed up by typewriters and corrected again teaches you all you need for improving your language skills.

Reading always depends on how we read. As a teenager, I used to read crime novels with a dictionary. I looked up every word I didn't know (carrtainly not verra helpful if the writer goes down the dialect lane...). This is pretty tedious but helps a lot.

Seconding the mention of punctuation - this is important both in talking and in writing. I've observed German students in English environments: they typically try to cram too much content into single sentences, linking them together with commas rather than separating them properly. Same with my writing: before my proofreading SO started to hack everything into bits for me, I wrote sentences like the old Romans.

To gain confidence, keep working on improving the things you're good at (if you know what they are); try not to bash up yourself about stuff that didn't go quite as well. Also, learning curves go stepwise. You'll encounter periods where nothing seems to move and you'll feel like you're stuck: consolidation periods. They're the preparation for the next leap, let them be.
posted by Namlit at 2:44 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all for your answers and advices. To reply to some of them :
- I already watch a lot of movies/tv-shows in English, it used to help a lot for listening/understanding, I would recommend it too!
- Dating ? I already got a french girlfriend, so it won't help.
posted by anto1ne at 3:32 AM on January 17, 2010

Bref, you need to force yourself into speaking situations in diverse contexts more often.

I wrote a PhD in French, understand most French input, speak decently, graduated from the Sorbonne, etc., but will sometimes struggle for idiom or vocab. Especially "a child could say it" stuff, because we didn't cover a lot of that at university.

The dictionaries and forums at are great for this, and if you use firefox you can go direct to there from your search bar.
posted by Wolof at 5:30 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't just read--read out loud. Different types of reading material in different registers: The newspaper. Novels. You can dig up a lot of movie scripts online as a good source for very informal/idiomatic dialogue.

By turning reading from a receptive exercise into a production exercise, you'll become more comfortable with the mechanical part of speech, and you'll achieve better retention of new vocabulary, turns of phrase, cadence, and so on.
posted by drlith at 6:19 AM on January 17, 2010

"Improve" doesn't take "to." You can take something to the next level, or you can improve it. You need to regularly converse with English speakers who can tell you things like that.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:21 AM on January 17, 2010

One other reason for reading, even if you feel that you have a good understanding of the material, is that it exposes you regularly to properly formulated English sentences. It's not a primary source for getting your speaking up, but it's something that will reinforce it. I'd also recommend listening to podcasts (though you're likely too advanced for ESL podcasts). Find a topic you like, and listen to it while you can. Not as background noise, but actually listen to it. Again, here you're being presented with English as it is spoken by native speakers. You'll hear phrases you've never heard, and it will help you with the caddence of English as well.

There are tons of English teachers in China as well. While most of them tend to teach to Chinese people, I'm sure you could find someone willing to do either a language exchange, or conversation lessons for a fee. The best way, unfortunately, to become a better speaker is to use the language.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:37 AM on January 17, 2010

ESL teacher living / teaching in Asia here:
Your question is quite a normal one asked by most Koreans that ask (I live in Seoul FWIW). Being fluent, meaning you can understand and have a conversation in the target language, is a WONDERFUL thing to be. Props to you for that. Being 'more than fluent' in English, however, is a bigger battle. Even as a native speaker I often find myself hearing slang or something indistinct that someone has to repeat.

I would suggest conversation-focused classes, but living in Asia means you'll have SLA learners of classmates. My humble suggestion would be one-on-one classes - find a native English speaker in your area, and offer a language exchange. French is an exotic-sounding language for most Americans / Canadians that didn't grow up in Quebec.

You're already bilingual - if anything, now's a great time to start incorporating slang and other non-standard English into your repertoire :) Best of luck - and MeFi mail me if you're in Korea.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:32 AM on January 17, 2010

As someone who's currently learning French I totally get your problem. The best advice I have is to just put yourself into as many conversations with native English speakers as possible. I find that practicing my spoken French with my classmates is fine, but they're no more expert in the language than I am so it's no good for learning anything new. It just reinforces what I already know. I have a few francophone friends with whom I meet for conversation practice and I learn WAY more during those hours than at any other time.

Find some language exchange partners. One can always find Canadians looking to brush up on their French. It's easy to find them online.
posted by fso at 9:20 AM on January 17, 2010

Reading a lot of books written by native speakers is definitely the way to go. If you're well-read, phrases like, "improve... to the next level," and "I'm living in Asia for 2 years now" will sound so unnatural you'll recognize your mistakes immediately. Your second line is a run-on sentence and would be just as wrong if it were written in French.

biochemist, you're using semicolons incorrectly.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 10:13 AM on January 17, 2010

Passively being exposed to English is not the same as actively producing it. Try memorizing English that you know is good. Maybe if you memorize paragraphs from English books or dialogue from English movies you'll have the material at your command more easily.

At least for me, in school I would think I understood the material from reading the book -- but when I attempted the problems at the end of the chapter, I found I had to go back to look things up. It wasn't until I had produced the material myself by doing the problems that I actually got a firm grasp on it.
posted by losvedir at 11:29 AM on January 17, 2010

While the pub quiz nights and informal meetings with natives is a good idea, I would highlight something you have to watch out for: slang. It is something you do need to learn but do know it is slang you are learning. You will probably pick up a lot of colloquial expressions that are used in the middle of a normal conversation. You might not realize that they are slang and not to be used everywhere. If you are a dictionary fanatic though that will not happen to you.

Also, avoid only speaking English with non-natives if you can. You will learn mistakes that you didn't make in the first place without realizing it and your accent will probably downgrade too.

If you really want to get to the next stage, there is no bypassing the fact that you have to produce English. Speaking will of course help a lot but you can reinforce that by tackling writing too. Try writing a diary (or something else) in English or leave a few notes to your girlfriend! And if you are lucky enough to find a native speaker to help you out, show them what you have written and wait for the criticism.
posted by tweemy at 2:04 PM on January 17, 2010

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