Michelle's independent resources for ESL Students at Vancouver Community College

This is a Canadian ESL blog for Intermediate and Advanced Students who want to learn and improve their English. Each PAGE above contains thousands of free English lessons, tutorials and practice exercises to help you learn and improve your English grammar, reading, listening, pronunciation, speaking, writing and editing. Some of the resources are Canadian. Others are from around the world.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Improve your English Fluency

A few days ago I posted an article from the Toronto Star about a study indicating that  Chinese speakers continue to struggle with English fluency and pronunciation for many years after they have moved to their new country.

As a long time instructor of both immigrants and international students I believe teachers should be supportive and encouraging towards their students. But, I also believe we have a responsibility to be honest, even when the truth is painful.

During the past 20 years, I have noted that many Asian students do indeed struggle more with fluency than students from other language groups - even after living in Canada for a long time. In fact, a large number are reluctant to speak English at all outside of class.
Note that I'm using the word Asian because I do not want to limit this discussion only to  Chinese speakers. Also note that I use the word many, not all.  

Multicultural members of the a dragon boat team
On a positive note, some Asian students try to do  everything they can to become more fluent and comfortable in English. They make English-speaking friends and join English-speaking organizations like churches and social or athletic groups such as  dragon boat teams. They often become an active part of their English-speaking community.

As a teacher, I am delighted with these  kinds of students. I know that even though they make mistakes, they will be more successful. And I believe their children have fewer problems feeling caught between two cultures as they grow up.
Teachers can't do it all 

There's an old saying, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." In this case, English teachers can provide their students with guidance, strategies and in-class practice to help them improve their speaking and pronunciation, but the rest is up to the student. 
Some students think they'll absorb English through their skin simply by sitting in class and listening to teachers or fellow students talk. Sadly, there is no easy or magic solution. You have to work at it. 

The only way to improve English listening, speaking or pronunciation skills is: practice,  practice, practice. If you live in an English-speaking country, you must actually speak to English-speaking people.

If you live in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam etc., join English conversation clubs, watch/listen to movies, YouTube videos, podcasts, and talk to tourists, Internet speaking partners, etc.

English is NOT just a school subject.   

Anyone who plans to live, study or work in an English-speaking country, must stop thinking of English as a school subject like math, biology or economics.

English is a living language. It is NOT  just a bunch of rules you study for a test.

I frequently tell my students that life is NOT a multiple choice test.When you need to talk to friends, customers, co-workers, bosses, clerks or anyone else, you will never have the opportunity to choose one out of four answers and answer a, b or c. 

When you must listen to and understand an English-speaking friend, customer, boss, etc.  you will never be able to respond a,b, or c . You will have to produce meaningful words and sentences.

This means you'll need to learn how to speak comfortably without struggling. It also means your words and sentences must  be clear enough for someone else to understand what you are saying. Finally, it means that you must prove that you understand what someone has said by responding appropriately.

So......if you really want to increase your English fluency and be understood by others, you have to go out and actually live your life in English. 
This means finding ways to use it as many ways as you can every day, even at home with members of your family.

"But I don't have the chance to practice out of class" 

One of my students' biggest excuses to explain the lack of improvement in their English listening and speaking skills is that they don't have the opportunity to practice outside of class.

"It's not my fault that my English speaking is so weak," they often say. "My family doesn't speak English and I don't have any English-speaking friends."

I realize that in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco, London, Sidney etc.
there are  very large Asian communities. Immigrants or international students can avoid speaking real English to real English speakers for years, even for their entire life.

This is because they can shop for food, clothing, household items, rent or buy apartments or houses, or even cars in their own language. They can go to the doctor, have their car fixed, see an accountant, go to  the bank, get a prescription, take their driver's test, or eat in a restaurant without speaking a word of English.  

If you are one of these people, even after five, ten, 15 years in Canada, your spoken English may still sound as if you just arrived last week. Your  understanding of the culture you live in will be limited and you'll have the same misconceptions about native born Canadians, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and Britons. 

I personally know a number of people, including my next door neighbours, who fall into this category. Although they've lived here for more than 20 years, they only use about 500 English words with great difficulty.                                                                                               
Their children, who were born in Canada, speak perfect English and often have to translate for their parents. I've often heard their18 year old daughter fighting with her mom in English,  shouting that it's frustrating to have a mother who speaks so little English and how she can't bring her English-speaking friends home.

Make the Choice to Practice and Use English  

To improve your English speaking and listening skills you must make an active, conscious choice. This involves stepping outside your own safe community, and participating in the English community. Remember, Canada, USA, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are mainly English-speaking countries.

There are many opportunities to listen to and speak English. I will discuss listening opportunities in another post, but let's talk about speaking opportunities for a minute.

Step Outside your Comfort Zone - you'll be glad you did! 

Speaking English to others involves stepping outside your comfort zone and being willing to take risks, to make mistakes, to be embarrassed.

If you always play it safe in order to avoid feeling foolish, you will be just as terrible a speaker in five years as you are now.  You will also have no one to blame except yourself.

Earlier, I mentioned that not ALL Asians fail to improve their fluency. I've known and  taught many Asians who DO take risks. They volunteer at English-speaking organizations, join parent committees at their children's schools, join English social, sports or youth clubs, or even business associations such as the Rotary Club.

I've even had students who have left good jobs for lower paying ones where they have to speak a lot of English. They did this specifically to improve their English fluency.

These students have no intention of spending their lives in low-paying or boring jobs. They are making a choice to work where they must speak English because although their previous job paid a higher wage, they were only using their own language.

The students who try and make small talk with English speakers or set up English practice time with their children have dramatically increased their English fluency, often faster than  they ever expected.

Yes, they still have an accent, but they can be understood, and that's all that matters. Yes, they still make grammar mistakes, but they're working to improve their oral grammar.

There is no question that sometimes native speakers will be rude to you because you don't speak English well. Learn how to ignore them and focus on those who are not only polite, but willing to engage in real conversation, simply because you started talking to them in English.

Many native English speakers are angry at people who don't even want to try speaking English to them. They feel that those people choose to ignore the language of their new  country. When native speakers find themselves surrounded by people who only speak Chinese, Korean, Japanese etc., they feel very defensive and offended.

Develop a Plan and a Schedule

If you actually want to improve your English fluency, you must develop a real plan and a daily schedule that involves setting specific goals, and building in specific times to practice. It also involves practicing some of the "conversational skills" you learn in class, or online. 
One way to become a little more comfortable with speaking or listening to English is to use some of the information in the SPEAKING  page,  LISTENING, PRONUNCIATION or  MUSIC page.

In the SPEAKING PAGE, watch the videos on the Art of Conversation and Communicating effectively. Also check out common expressions we use for different situations. We call these "conversation management" expressions. 

You may also want to read the following previous posts:

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