I think I’ve told you on some occasions that I have students coming to me because they want to improve their English, especially speaking. Sometimes those students have very good English, but the only thing that’s missing is their fluency. This week I had an interesting case.
Daniella (not her real name) is a pretty young woman in her early twenties who works as a programmer. She told me she worked with partners from abroad. She needs to speak to them on the phone, and she also has meetings with them. Daniella avoids those phone calls and meetings like the plague if she can help it, because she is embarrassed about her English. She said her main problem was she “didn’t know how to finish her sentences.”
I asked her some questions and she answered me. Then we did an exercise in which she was asked to finish the beginning of sentences. While I listened to her, I understood pretty quickly that Daniella didn’t have a problem with her English. Her English was fine. She didn’t have the vocabulary of a native speaker but she hardly made any mistakes in her grammar, and I was impressed! I told her she had nothing to be ashamed of when she would need to talk on the phone or ask questions in a meeting.
However, it was true that Daniella got stranded (= stuck) in almost every sentence. She’d start out well. But then she’d wonder: is this sentence going to be in the singular or in the plural? Do I want the sentence to be in the active or in the passive? Do I want to use the past simple or the past perfect, or maybe use the present perfect after all? Which connector do I choose: but or however? And can I use which here, or should it be who?
Because she’d list all her options out loud, I could hear her brain working. Then she’d finally add some words to her sentence, and then she started to vacillate (= doubt) again: maybe I’ll use a passive now, or do I add a new subject? I want to add a connector, but which one? I can use “but,” but also “although.” Of course it was draining (= tiring) for her, and also for the teacher. After we finished half an hour of this, I felt four years older. Maybe five! Just kidding.
In the time that was left I also found out that Daniella has trouble sticking to a task that is given to her. I gave her a sheet with models for sentences that she could use. She would stop looking at the sheet after two examples, preferring her own sentences (which she was unable to finish).
What was the advice I gave Daniella?
First of all, that she needs to practise her English much more. The best way for her to do that would be to practise at work, by participating in meetings and answering the phone when she gets a call from abroad. But if she is too shy, she should take lessons with me or with another English teacher. You can learn a lot by listening to other people speak, but you won’t get fluent only by listening. So in any case Daniella will have to make sure she gets practice speaking herself. If Daniella isn’t sure how to use passives, plurals, past perfect and other technical stuff in English, she will have to do exercises on them. Or read books, which will give her many examples of correct usage.
Second, Daniella must understand that English, like all languages, is rich in possibilities. There are many ways to say the same thing. But you must choose how to say it. There really is no point choosing to say something in one way, and then changing your mind. If you lack the skills to make a long sentence, use a short sentence. Most native speakers don’t use long sentences either. In fact, it’s abnormal to use complex sentences all the time. People will think you have swallowed a book. Daniella will have to force herself to finish her sentences. It’s really exhausting to speak with a person who doesn’t finish her sentence, because you will have to guess what she means.
Third, don’t be ashamed of your English. It’s okay to say “um” in your sentence. It’s not the end of the world if you correct the verb in the plural if you mistakenly used the singular. That can happen to native speakers as well. So, you know, just be aware that you won’t have too many friends at first whilst you are practising your English. Not everybody finds it enjoyable to listen to a speaker who makes mistakes in every sentence, then corrects them, or in general, takes a long time to finish their sentences. But at least you’re trying! Most English speakers don’t speak any other language outside of English, and they will appreciate your efforts to speak their language and even correct your mistakes.
And lastly, I told Daniella that she should do the following exercise to train herself to speak in complete sentences. She should listen to an audio or video of an English speaker. She told me she loved TED.com. Daniella should choose a speaker who speaks in clear, crisp sentences. She should pause the audio/video after one sentence, and repeat the sentence exactly as the speaker has said it. If she isn’t sure what they said exactly, she can go back and listen again, or use the transcript (the text of the talk). What’s the point of this exercise? Daniella will pick up grammar and vocabulary, which is a bonus. But the most important thing she will learn is to speak in complete sentences. Because Daniella won’t be able to use her own creativity to finish the sentence, she is forced to finish the sentence in the way that the speaker did. If she does this exercise a lot, she will soon be using the same kinds of sentences that she has heard from the speaker. This is because our brain is built to pick up language structures. When we hear the same patterns over and over again, we will be able to use those same patterns. By the way, Daniella also told me she had started reading a book (Steve Job’s biography). I complimented her on that and said that undoubtedly, she will learn sentence structure from that book as well.
Conclusion: If You Want Good English, Don’t Rely on Magic
As you can see, I don’t have any magic solutions for students such as Daniella. Improving your English is a matter of using English regularly, by reading, doing exercises, and speaking. If you don’t have a friend to speak English to or you’re too shy to speak in meetings at work or on the phone, I would advise taking English lessons until you’re ready to learn and practise on your own.