learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the internet
Have you done an online course recently? Were you working on endless text and exercises without interacting with real people? Can e-learning be engaging, interactive, multidimensional? Can it include live sessions? Could you really become fluent in a language with a self-access course?
Well, yes, it seems so! As a language coach, this took me a while to get my head around! After all, fluency is something people learn through live interaction, right? Well, I’ve spent the last 6 months or so creating an English Fluency course on the Thinkific platform. My experience was it’s all down to careful course design, best use of available technologie, blended with some live coaching. I thought I’d share some insights.
So, why e-Learning?
I hope I’m not stating the obvious here but learners/clients demand flexibility in pace, style and location of learning as well as cost. We have everyday technologies now that can deliver on versatility and inclusivity at a low cost. Of course e-Learning training is naturally scalable. It can also take the heavy lifting out of training by guiding learners towards content and skill building processes for independent learning. The task is to design the modular elements and instructions that a diverse range of learners can easily follow. Another benefit is that real-world, real-time, person-to-person activities can be included to motivate and keep learners focused and on track. Examples are user and tutor-led forums, apps to self-record and submit spoken pieces, embedded live zoom sessions.
So, I started off with a lot of ideas and material in my head that I regularly use with coaching clients and wondered how they might be recreated for the e-learner. This looks very challenging at first if you’re aiming for quality content focused on outcomes like speaking fluently and confidently.
The quality of the advice and instruction given by Thinkific and the versatile range of ways to present material and exercises were key for me. E-Learning technologies offer huge benefits for dynamic course design with video presentation, audio clips and quizzes, forums for interacting with other learners. For example, I was easily able to create an end of lesson quiz using audio questions to test fluent understanding.
So, does that mean I’ve abandoned my coaching career? Well, no. One of the great things about e-learning is that it’s easily blended with traditional face-to-face training. When I say traditional, I refer to face-to-face whether live online or in person (thank you zoom!). It’s easy to embed a live session using webinar apps and bookable sessions via online calendars. By creating modules that build skills step by step, adding live elements for milestone assessment, the learner is guided and supported on their fluency journey. Of course any online course can be a warm-up for more intensive live coaching too.
The User experience – Lessons in diversity and inclusion
The various presentation methods available on e-learning platforms allow you to design your course to suit a range of learning styles (visual, audio, self-recording). I tend to add the text below video presentations so learners can use each separately if they wish. I don’t want to overload with audio, moving visuals and moving subtext at the same time.
For me it was also important to create a personal connection with learners through welcome videos and introducing some more complex concepts via video instruction. If they run into difficulty during the course they can email me, use forums or book live sessions via the platform itself.
The other key insight that enabled me to create the course was an awareness of how important detailed logical steps are, particularly for some learners. The process of designing each module was a significant piece of work that required thinking differently. I needed to break down my face-to-face intuitive instructions, building the elements into a sequential program. I then created step-by-step instructions and graduated exercises to build fluency. In the process, I came to a better understanding of those processes I use with students every day. Creating e-learning modules has been a great teacher for me in terms of deepening my faith in my methodologies, simplifying them for ease of use for a diverse range of learners.
What kind of coaching experience do our learner/client companies get when they train with English for Professionals? How has it helped their Business Communication and other English speaking skills? Listen to what they say about improving fluency and other top wins in this 2 min video.
12 Best Tips to Improve your English Speaking Fluency!
Before starting you need to be clear about your fluency goal. In other words, what is fluency in English? Or maybe it’s easier to ask , what is lack of fluency in English? If you are like many many learners I have worked with, you may have communication issues like:
I hesitate when I don’t find the word/phrase/expression I need and I get embarrassed
It can take extra time to get to the point and the other person loses attention
Sometimes I get strange responses or a confused look and this effects my confidence in using English around fluent speakers
I often have to repeat certain words or phrases – this makes me unsure if I sound clear in English
So, in summary, you don’t want to hesitate too much, be too slow or long-winded, be unclear about your meaning, be impolite or mispronounce phrases. Well, all of these can be achieved in order to improve your speaking fluency. How? By working on some basic principles of good English communication.
The best way to improve English speaking skills is:
1. Avoid Translating- Learn to Think in English!
Simply put, you will fail to speak English fluently if you don’t start learning how to think in English. The following points cover the basic steps you need to follow in order to improve your fluency in English.
Of course it’s the natural reflex when you can’t find the word or expression you need, to turn to your first language and translate. And it does work a lot of the time! But it also leads to the problem of taking too long to make your point. This is because languages are more than just strings of words and phrases. Each has its own set of structures, everyday phrases, order of elements, verb forms, sound systems, cultural references as well as concepts that don’t translate directly from one to another. No wonder it takes so long to become fluent! So, you see that much meaning can get ‘lost in translation’ as the film title puts it!
2. Improve your English Speaking Skills – know how you sound!
If you don’t ever listen to how you sound, by recording yourself for example, then you won’t discover what difficulties other people may have in getting what you say. Learners often report, when they do this for the first time, that they’re surprised how good they sound. This is surely the key to having confidence using English, especially around fluent speakers. Others report that they feel they hesitate a lot. Sometimes this may be unfair as we all hesitate a little when we are tired, concentrating too hard, unfamiliar with special terms.
But the real key to evaluating how you sound is to compare yourself to, say, a fluent colleague at work or someone being interviewed on radio. The difference you perceive in use of language generally provides the motivation and inspiration to go forward with fluency training work. Read more on fluency training with English for Professionals. It also builds confidence when you can evaluate how you sound and hear your improvement yourself.
3. Know the basic building blocks of English
You won’t be able to start thinking like a fluent English speaker until you know the basic building blocks of the language and how to use them. One important building block is accurate choice of VERB along with the correct elements of the VERB phrase (tense, modal verb, auxiliary, preposition etc.). In English we place great importance on this part of the sentence as it carries a lot of the information. It is most often towards the beginning of the sentence. A good online grammar course is ideal here.
Another important building block is a good stock of everyday phrases and expressions or those related to a professional area. You need to have used them a few times before you’ll be able to produce them spontaneously when needed. Good ways to find and practise this language are discussed below.
A third important building block that people sometimes forget about is the sound patterns of the English language. You could speak with the most perfect language and it could still be misunderstood if you don’t use expected sounds and sound patterns since they carry and support meaning too. Read more on Pronunciation Training here.
4. Don’t learn long lists of vocabulary!
Why not? Personally, I’ve never been able to learn long lists of vocabulary, despite really wanting to speak reasonable Turkish. I’ve met very few adults who find this easy to do. Well, the good news is, now that we have vast internet resources, there’s another way. And it’s a better way to improve your fluency. Words always occur in a meaningful context when speaking and we need to learn this word context as one unit where possible. So, as you listen to audio, note the whole phrase used by the speaker or the structure used, rather than individual words and use these to retell the speaker’s points (read more below).
5. Learn to speak English fluently by listening to someone speaking English fluently!
We spoke above about listening to English speakers you admire and it’s exactly this type of audio material you will need to work on to build your stock of most useful terms, phrases, sentence structures, signal phrases, sound patterns etc.
The idea is to copy, yes copy!
Copy those who do well what you wish to learn to do. It could be a radio interview with someone you admire, a TED presentation by someone in your professional field or a podcast of various kinds of speakers designed for learning purposes.
No need to reinvent the wheel!
However, my top tip for listening is:
6. Listen to radio interviews….
because they are usually topic based and so contain a lot of key language associated with that topic. They also involve a wide range of question and answer forms and conversational style full of the soft language second language users often miss.
7. Be an active listener
You’ve discovered where the gaps in your spoken communication are. You know where to find quality audio to build your stock of real English, but how do you activate this language for fluent use? Most of the time when we listen to anything, we are focussed on understanding what the speaker is saying. However, when we want to improve our fluency through listening exercises, it’s not enough to simply understand the speaker. Why? Because in getting the point we have unconsciously translated the idea back into our first language. We know the ‘what’ but we haven’t noticed the ‘how’ needed to reproduce it well.
There’s an exercise I do with new clients involving listening to a recording of a good story with a strong punch line. They should retell the story. The ones who succeed usually catch the VERBS in particular, as well as the punchline phrase. Audio is a great source of natural expressions which need to be used immediately once understood. The more immediate the retelling, the more language gets activated.
8. Speak more fluently using 3-part sentences
It’s much easier to speak fluently in CHUNKS than in full sentences. Even when you have activated whole phrases, structures, signal expressions, sound patterns, it’s still not easy to put all those together to form full sentences. Hesitation between individual words is likely and it’s not the way natural English is spoken. Listen to a conversation and you’ll hear the pattern of 2/3 parts. So, try constructing your sentence in 2/3 parts and use a pause between the parts to give you time to mentally prepare for the next part. For example: Oh, I’m sorry // I thought you were waiting for // the number 26 bus
9. Make ‘schwa’ your friend for clear pronunciation
This is the ‘smallest’ vowel sound in spoken English and also the most common one! It’s the one that often replaces other vowels when they are not stressed. Stress patterns (both in words and phrases) are an important component of meaning. Many learners find it difficult to contrast stressed and de stressed vowel sounds sufficiently and ‘schwa’ is the key to success. Read more on pronunciation training here.
10. Don’t Use a Bilingual Dictionary
It’s good to start using an English-English dictionary to improve your English speaking skills as it keeps you thinking in English rather than translating and it also gives you an alternative way of expressing the word or phrase. Cambridge Online Learners Dictionary is ideal. It gives you audio of the British and American pronunciation and a list of different uses of the word, especially good for phrasal verbs.
11. Recycle exercises from your course books
As well as vast internet resources, your course books are ideal for recycling exercises. For example, you can practise imitating the speaker in audio pieces, sentence by sentence. You can memorise a whole sentence from a text or grammar exercise and say it aloud to give you confidence with more complex forms when speaking and help you use meaningful rhythm/ stress. Record yourself doing this and repeat until you’re satisfied with the result. You can take any audio and try to retell it by noting key language as you listen. You can do the same for any text.
12. Finally, don’t try to be perfect!
It’s important to be realistic about your goals. As long as you’re clear most of the time and don’t hesitate too much or take too long to get to the point most of the time, nobody will even notice! It’s also important to understand that even native speakers can have fluency problems with unfamiliar language areas or when they’re nervous. Take your time, breathe in the pause and focus on quality of communication rather than every language detail.
Do you need to think in English to speak fluently?
I was asked recently by a teacher in India (through a shared LinkedIn group) if thinking in English is vital for non-English speakers to speak well. She said that where she works teachers often advise their students to do this but don’t explain why. Good question Indira! Of course it’s not obvious, is it? So, because I coach professional English speaking skills and have just designed an eLearning module ‘Build Your Fluency-Start Thinking in English‘, I was primed for a reply:
What does fluency in English mean for the second language user?
First of all, I’ll put the term ‘fluent’ into context. When someone says to me ‘I need to improve my English speaking skills for work’ or asks ‘how can I solve my language barrier at work?’, I always start by asking: How is their communication failing them? What problems are they having with their English speaking that are a barrier to communicating with work colleagues, managers, customers? Sometimes they know the Why themselves, sometimes they are surprised by the Why. Nine times out of ten, it turns out these are the barriers:
My hesitation makes me feel embarrassed, makes the other person uncomfortable, slows down communication
My hesitation creates uncertainty and confusion
When I explain with too many words I lose people’s attention
Others don’t seem to follow my argument easily
People often give me a surprising reply or look puzzled or frustrated
They speak quickly so I try to do the same but this makes it worse
Words seem to bump into each other when I try to make them flow naturally
People just don’t understand the way I say some words
Even though we are both speaking English, we seem to be speaking different versions!
The challenge of speaking natural English
So, in summary, it seems that for the second language user, the thoughts in their head don’t always come out as natural spoken English (the way first language users expect to hear them). Something gets lost in translation! Don’t forget, this can happen to first language users too who may lack fluency in a particular context. I recall a line from a text in my early learning days about the goal of training in spoken English….’to reduce the resistance of the listener’ to what you’re saying. I have found it to be a good guiding principle in my coaching work.
Hesitancy and wordiness often cause the greatest discomfort for both speaker and listener and relate closely to confidence in speaking English. This may happen particularly in the company of fluent speakers. As language trainers will know: They are also often the hallmark of a learner at mid Intermediate level (B1 in CEFR scale descriptions) who has yet to make the step-change from collecting more and more words and phrases and adding them onto each other, to compressing their language into more efficient, richer ‘chunks of meaning’.
Lost in Translation!
This is where the real problem lies – translating! Many English users of various language backgrounds have the mental habit of translating word for word as they speak. This cannot produce fluent speech, no matter how fast you do the mental translating! In fact, trying to speak quickly without good structure and pronunciation usually makes things worse as words and ideas become less recognisable. (I’m sure many trainers have used the term ‘Franglais’ to describe a sentence spoken by a French speaker. The sentence contains only English words but actually sounds French because of a tendency to translate and use French sounds).
Do we think in individual words or in meaningful phrases?
Translating doesn’t work because we don’t normally think in individual words when we speak.We think in meaningful phrases, imagery, idiom, learnt expressions, familiar structures, often using our aural memory. Such phrases and structures don’t always translate directly or may not be as effective in another language.
There must be a more direct and successful route from original thought to understandable speech than translating, but what is it?
So, is ‘thinking in English’ the answer? Or is this a tall order for speakers who are not bi-lingual? I think the answer is yes, it’s a very big ask and close to impossible! Read on to see why.
To think in English or not to think in English…..
I’m certainly no expert in thought processes but let’s look at what happens generally when someone(native speaker) thinks in English to produce fluent speech.
Your thought begins to take form in your mother tongue as you look for the best way to express this thought. The brain scans at high speed through vast stocks of memory associations build over a lifetime, for the best structure template, the best phrases, the most impactful language. (It may also scan for language used by those you respect in the field you are speaking about). Combine all elements creatively, add the appropriate sound track and all is done without too much conscious effort in the case of the mother tongue. One would be forgiven for underestimating the degree of complexity, creativity and cross-skills(Read more on Adult English Learning) required to encapsulate meaning in a way that will be instantly understood!
So we see that Thinking in English means having an almost endless stock of English phrases, sentence combinations, grammatical forms, templates to pour thoughts into, not to mention a network of direct, spontaneous associations through real life experiences.A lifetime’s work surely!
Now, if you don’t think in English let’s see what happens. Your thought begins to form in your mother tongue and then you search in your stock of English for the best way to say it. As soon as you run into a road block and the best expression doesn’t pop up, you do the natural thing and revert to translating! The next problem is that, even when the best expression pops up, you don’t always know where to best place it in the sentence. Even when you know all that, you don’t always know its ‘sound shape’ or how to use sound to highlight the important bits. All of these elements are different in different languages. The resulting speech can be hesitant, badly constructed, long-winded, uncertain, unclear, imprecise and have unintended meanings!
The goal of fluency training to improve English speaking skills
What second language speakers CAN learn to do however is to speak with LESS hesitation, sounding natural and clear MOST OF THE TIME, as well as speaking with impact. This is the goal of fluency skills training. The approach I have developed involves some thinking directly in English, but chunk by chunk* only. I come back to this point in the paragraph below. It also involves a good understanding of the way sounds flow into each other in English speech and the effect sound can have on meaning and impact. Mostly it involves knowing and using words, phrases and constructions commonly used by first language speakers (different to writers).
The old adage ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ comes to mind. If you want to speak good English fluently, you need to model your speech on other good communicators, adopt commonly used expressions, sentence construction, idioms and metaphors in your field of work. If this sounds like copying, that’s because it is.
Let’s return to the idea of thinking directly in English, chunk by chunk.
The idea here is first of all to learn language in larger chunks. Why? Because we seldom use a word in isolation without a language context. For example, we tend to use the verb ‘spend’ with ‘time’ or ‘money’ and often with a second verb in the Gerund, as in ‘spend too much time answering emails’. So, you halve the work and create a better memory association for better fluency by learning the whole phrase.
A lot of the time is often spent learning individual words and then expecting them to come together meaningfully at speed when speaking. This time could be better spent learning whole expressions (aurally as well as visually) and appropriate structures to pour them into.
The idea when speaking is to draw on whole expressions and familiar verb forms to create only chunks of meaningful speech at a time, not full sentences. The first chunk might be a signal phrase like ‘I’m afraid’, the second chunk could be ‘I haven’t finished the report yet’ and the third ‘as I spent too much time answering emails’.
Fluent reading, fluent speaking – a process approach
A personal story…..
During my English coaching work over many years I have been privileged to work with a wide and colourful array of individuals, getting clues to learning process often from people who see things a little differently. I remember clearly an aha moment with one young learner. I was helping an Irish student, who had dyslexia, with reading skills for entry to second level education. He wanted to be able to read more quickly while at the same time getting all the important information. He was reading a text aloud (it was Esiotrot by Roald Dahl, one of my personal favourites) and I noticed he tended to pause after almost each word. Clearly it was taking him time to put the individual words together so they had meaning.
The cause and the solution
Together we figured out that the cause of the hesitation was in fact the same as for my language learners – he wasn’t reading ahead and he was paying attention to unimportant words as much as the important ones. I don’t know for sure if it was due to his learning difficulty that he didn’t naturally read ahead or mentally highlight key information words, but he did find it easy to implement our method and his reading speed improved.
So, what did we do? I got him to break up the sentence into chunks or meaningful segments (a comma often indicates a new chunk) and underline key information words in each chunk. Then he practised reading aloud, pausing between chunks to allow time to read ahead, emphasising the underlined key words. In other words, he practised reading as he would speak….fluently, meaningfully. He quickly got very good at anticipating where in a phrase or sentence he would find key information (e.g. verb near front) without the need for underlining and at paying less attention to unimportant words, speeding up comprehension. There are many parallels here with language learners and fluency, as I later concluded.
My understanding of this process at the time was that the young student had learnt to read more fluently by ‘thinking aloud and ahead’ in natural, spoken chunks so their meaning registered almost immediately. One of the essential things language learners need to be able to do for fluency is to think aloud (aurally) and ahead, chunk by chunk, pausing in between, placing key information in expected positions (imagine google scanning your English text for keywords!). I have since developed the above process along with processes in pronunciation and sentence construction to help those who want to achieve better levels of fluency in their professional life. Find out more about what I do on my website www.english-for-professionals.com
The following tips can help improve English speaking skills:
As a language training professional working with experts who aren’t native speakers, I am aware of the struggles they sometimes experience facing meetings with accents from Cork to Leitrim, interviewing clients on complex requirements, making sense of a funny story while trying to bond with the team over lunch. It can be embarrassing and even distressing, despite having the necessary language credentials for the job.
A typical issue is trying to keep up with the locals when they’re going at full speed! (I moved to Cork 30 years ago and still have to occasionally ask some friends to slow down.)
If you work with multicultural teams, you’ve probably seen the problem where a native speaker’s natural speech is too fast or complex for some team members who are second language speakers. Here I address one of the ways to ‘listen differently’ in order to improve understanding.
Check out this video on one useful strategy to improve your understanding of native speakers.
Going through some research recently on what makes Irish companies attractive to talent from abroad, it was heartening to read that, despite intensifying competition for IT talent across Europe, our local enterprises compete well on pay, career opportunities, education and just downright interesting work in dynamic innovative environments!
According to John Dennehy’s findings, the single most important attractor is OUR PEOPLE.
And people is about Communication (capital C).
So, that’s the initial attraction… but what would encourage professionals to stay, build teams, go for promotions? What is the hidden issue that effects their experience of living and working in Ireland and even perhaps their well being?
As a language and communication coach working with professionals whose first language isn’t English, I am aware of the struggles they can experience facing meetings with accents from Cork to Leitrim, interviewing clients on complex, nuanced requirements, making sense of a funny story while trying to bond with the team in the pub. It can be a cultural-linguistic nightmare! It is often embarrassing and even distressing, despite having the necessary language credentials for the job. (Beware of equating international business English with what is spoken locally or equating language skills with good English communication.)
For many professionals, understanding how language is used, regionally and culturally, with a good degree of skill plays a major role in both career progression and forming those subtle connections with people here that entices them to stay, to put down roots.
It’s about effective communication practice across cultural-linguistic difference.
This applies equally to the second and first language speakers in the team. In our diverse and inclusive workforce it’s a two-way street when it comes to accommodating difference. The user of English as a second language needs to up-skill to acquire ‘natural’ spoken language, understand fast, accented speakers and adopt valued communication strategies for presenting ideas ( ‘signalling intent’, avoiding long-windedness etc). Equally, the native speaker needs to become aware of key areas of difficulty for second language colleagues and to modify their speed, articulation, communication style, use of idiomatic/ nuanced language, etc.
The funny thing is, depending on the industry, it can be more difficult for the first language user to adapt their communications than for the second language user!
For more information check out my Group Workshops page here: