I favour a long, slow game in language learning, but I’m still up for a good short cut. If, that is, it’s actually effective. Here are nine quick fixes to help you sound more fluent in any foreign language, however you feel inside. Let’s put a spring in your step when you’re speaking!
Keep your toolkit to hand
Learn what I call your toolkit phrases from the very beginning. That’s to say, learn those questions and requests you can use to aid your understanding through the medium of your target language. Things like “Could you repeat that please”? “Could you speak more slowly?”. “How do you say x”?
Toolkit phrases can help you sound more fluent because they mean that you can discover more about your target language through the medium of the language itself. That feels like progress and helps keep the most basic of conversations going.
Learn collocations and chunks of language
Yes, you probably always need more vocabulary than you have at the moment, but don’t just learn individual words.
A great way to sound more fluent is to try to learn a lot of ready-made word combos too. The context helps vocab to stick in the memory.
Remember, it’s often “chunks” of language that native speakers are retrieving from memory as they speak. It’s one reason we can speak so fast in our native tongue and don’t have to think about the rules.
These combos could be “collocations”: two or three words that go together as a matter of style more than logic. For example “sit an exam” in English, “to stand an exam” in Welsh, “to put down an exam in” German). “Merry Christmas” but not “Merry Birthday”. They could also be longer set phrases: “How’s it going?”, “Do you take milk and sugar?”.
Remember, as a language learner, your goal is not to build sentences from the ground up. You’ll likely as not get that wrong. Even if what you say is grammatically correct, it may just not sound natural.
For fluency, steer clear of bespoke whenever you can, go for off-the-peg language!
Build out your fluency topics
It may be quite a while before you’re fluent in the sense of freely conversing in the full range of situations, able to discuss in depth topics that matter to you and – when required – those that don’t.
That doesn’t mean you can’t sound more fluent fast on a limited range topics. Make a list of themes and situations that are particularly relevant to you. These will include responses to pretty typical early questions: “Why are you learning the language?”, “Why are you visiting the country?”, “Do you have children?”, “What’s your job?”.
They will then include words and phrases around more bespoke topics you’d like to discuss in your target language. Maybe what you need relates to situations you’d like to be able to navigate: specialist terms relating to your work or hobby, how to hire a bicycle or chatting about Formula One.
We’re talking here developing “islands of fluency” that will eventually join up till you have a whole continent!
Make the most of what you’ve got
Ok, so more vocab is always useful but be ready to make the most of what you’ve got.
You may have forgotten the word for “dog” but can you say something like “house animal” or “friend animal”, maybe combined with a barking sound or waving your arm like a tail. It’s not ideal, I know, but you’ll probably be understood.
This sot of strategy can work at all levels of language learning and, as your conversation partner twigs what you mean, they’ll probably say the missing word: you’ll get it on a plate for future use, without having to turn to the dictionary or stop the fluent flow.
Keep it simple
Don’t run before you can walk! As a beginner in a new language, you won’t need telling this. Be careful not forget it, though, as you move into intermediate.
Thing is, at that stage, your course book or teacher will be saying “psssst” from the sidelines and pushing you all sorts of intoxicating substances: think relative pronouns, conjunctions and conditionals.
Yes, as an intermediate learner you’ll feel the pressure on to understand more complex language, including longer sentences, with sub-clauses qualifying or amplifying information. You’ll need to start using these in your writing as well.
But don’t get carried away.
Don’t let what you can understand when you hear it – or what you can do when you’re writing – get in the way of straight talking.
Real native speech is often more broken up than the smooth prose of a well-written text. It’s full of false starts and recaps.
Accept this and try to chop what you’re trying to say up into short and simple phrases. That way, you’re less likely to end up tied up in knots of your own making.
Yes, this may mean you don’t feel as sophisticated as you do in your mother tongue. Accept that it’s a necessary stage.
On the topic of sophistication: avoid trying to crack too many jokes and puns in your target language. The natives will assume you’ve made a mistake, not that you’re trying to be funny.
Fillers are the little words or even otherwise meaningless umm-ing and ah-ing that native speakers use to faciliate interaction: “….you know,…” “Erm, well…”.
When you seen them written down, they may look like they’re breaking up the flow.
They often oil the wheels of a spoken exchange, though,
Yes, fillers can be a polite way of softening unwelcome or awkward news.
They can also win you time and signal that you’re engaged with your conversation partner when we’re unsure how to respond or trying to process what it is that we want to say.
Since native speakers use fillers so much, as a learner who wants to sound more fluent, you should too.
Plus: when you’re a learner, you need, urm, like, ah, as much “processing time” as you can get.
Here’s an idea: sound more fluent by not speaking at all….
In our conversations many of us would probably learn a bit more if we spent more time actually listening to what the other person is saying, rather than rehearsing in our heads how we’re going to respond or even interrupting before they’ve finished.
As a language learner, it’s all the more important for you to “put a sock in it” for a few seconds and really pay attention.
If you wait, a little more context may help you to catch the gist of what’s being said, even if you can’t understand every word.
You may not just notice more of the language but also get more of the message. If you become known as somebody who’s as a good listener, it’ll only deepen the real relationship that can so enrich your language learning journey.
Use the power of questions.
Of course, there will be times keeping quiet means that you just get left behind.
Rather than bringing the conversation to a halt by admitting that you haven’t understood everything, you can sometimes use a leading question or two to make sure you’re on the right track.
The question could simply echo what’s been said as a light-touch comprehension check:
“So, you’re saying x?”
“So, we’re meeting at 6pm in front of the cinema?”.
In this second example, intonation alone in English serves to form a question.
Also, be sure to pay attention to whether and how the natives use intonation to check what’s just been said.
In English we also often add a “question tag”. This typically follows a statement as a way of checking whether it’s true or not.
“So, we’re meeting at 6pm in front of the cinema, are we?”
Our English tag questions are rather complex because they echo the tense of the verb: “are we?”, “…couldn’t you?”, “….didn’t they”? Welsh does the same.
English has simpler tags like “right?”, “ok?” as does Welsh. In French you have the fixed tag “n’est-ce pas?”. Spanish has ¿verdad? In German there’s “oder”. These all mean “right?” or, as the yoof says on the street of London, “innit?” ;).
If you’re a little less sure about key aspects of what’s been said, you can still at least signal that you’ve understood a lot:
“So, we’re meeting tonight but when and where did you say?”
That keeps things moving and feels a whole lot better than surrendering the field.
Don’t provide a running commentary on your mistakes
Are you the sort of cook who starts apologising for what you’ve prepared even when you’re bringing it to the table?
Why do some of us deliberately frame how our efforts are received in a negative way?
Maybe the cause is too much introspection or too much comparison with others. Are we trying to provide some “cover” for our lack of confidence?Are we just fishing for compliments?
You may be struggling to use the language or topics of conversation may running dry, but no! Don’t respond by running down your attempts to speak the language.
Ok, your host culture may expect the use of humbling or self-deprecating speech in some contexts (as I’m discovering as I learn Japanese). Such exceptions aside, though, running yourself down will only make you feel even less confident. It may and even prompt your conversation partner to start speaking to you in a less natural way or even to switch to English.
Remember, most people you’ll be talking to aren’t actually that interested in your efforts to learn their language or how well you can speak it.
They’re interested in your message. That’s true in a brief transaction during which they may be under pressure to perform quickly (the counter staff at the supermarket or railway station). It’s just as much the case at a party after a few drinks, an in-depth discussion on the meaning of life.
Yes, stumbling, um-ing and ah-ing through awkward pauses and dead ends is an inevitable stage of learning to speak a foreign language.
Often, you’ll feel anything but fluent.
Let’s accept this.
But let’s use these tips to do all we can to help keep things moving, as well.
If you do this, you will sound more fluent and will win the confidence of your conversation partners. That means you’ll be well placed to get more and more practice. Sooner rather than later, you really will be fluent!
Very useful post, Gareth, especially the point about self-deprecation and focusing on mistakes. I suspect this may be an English thing. My American husband acquired Italian using the Unapologetic Give It a Go Method, bulldozing his way through his mistakes. He gained a functional level of the language pretty fast.
Glad you liked the post, Laurie! Yes, I guess Americans often have more of a “can do” attitude… 🙂