If you’re struggling to master a second language, you know the terror that comes from chatting with a stranger and suddenly realizing you don’t know a key word or sentence structure. You likely pause and perhaps utter a few filler words like “uh” or “er”, maybe even lose track of what you were saying completely. It’s embarrassing. You might try to describe the word you’re looking for if you manage to keep your head, and if you’re good at this the other person understands and helps you out. And as a note, most people are happy to help and since everyone forgets a word now and then (it’s on the tip of my tongue, we say), no one will even blink an eye if you can’t find your word. Still, most of us hate/dread these situations and go out our way to avoid them (or, like me, you learn key excuses: Je n’ai pas compris, je suis trés fatiguée, désolée! Sorry, Montreal, I’m trying! 🙁 )
There’s a secret to these situations, and speaking with fluency in general. And it’s not always about taking more classes or even “immersion” – don’t get me wrong, they help, but they help in part because they add to this. They make you feel more confident and relaxed. And when you’re confident in your language skills, you stop trying to think SO. COMPLETELY. ABOUT. EACH. AND. EVERY. WORD. as you speak. This is hard to do and slows down your cadence, as well as shifting pronunciation. Even if your grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are pretty good, a lack of confidence will show when you speak and mark you as a non-fluent speaker. And conversely, confidence will make you sound much more fluent instantly.
This is something I notice with a few students every batch of contracts. I’ll have a low-level speaker who gives the impression of being intermediate or sometimes higher. They make plenty of mistakes, mix up our super-fun make/take/give/do verbs and drop that third-person-singular s like it’s a hot potato. But you have to pay attention to notice, because they simply speak with enough confidence that they aren’t slowing down the conversation as they agonize over whether or not the next sentence should be in the present perfect or not. If they make a mistake or mispronounce a word, they repeat the corrected version two or three times (rather than once, or not at all) and move on. They’re also usually not afraid to add details and push themselves to express the same thoughts they would in their own native language – I hear a lot less, “I’m good, you?” responses when I ask about their day and this is more enjoyable for us both!
If you engage your listener by focusing on really communicating rather than speaking “perfect” English, that person will do the same for you that they do for other “native” speakers. They will pay attention more to meaning than sentence structure. Brains are big pattern-seek-and-respond machines. And language often has many layers of possible meaning, which is why we can write songs and poems and then argue endlessly about their meaning. So uncertainty is inherent in ALL conversations because none but the simplest have only one possible meaning. But most of us, in day-to-day conversation, only pay attention to the “big” messages conveyed by words and tone of voice. Tone is key! Unless you are imitating a robot, try listening to how native speakers speak and imitate the rise/fall patterns you hear. Like how real questions usually rise at the end, and sarcastic ones… don’t.
Even better, if you really look at how most people’s attention works, we aren’t paying 100% attention to what is said; as long as it is mostly correct, the listener’s brain will do a sort of “auto-correct” and only send up a red flag is the sentence doesn’t actually make sense. So unless you’re having an extremely deep or complicated conversation, don’t worry so much about getting it right. Plenty of native English speakers make a lot of mistakes (and only those who study/teach language see how many!), which they may not even be aware of. The difference between them and ESL learners is simply that they have confidence in their ability to describe or talk around specific subjects when they are missing a word or complex sentence. They use what they do have to describe what they don’t.
You can do that too. Want a fun way to do this (with other people)? Try playing Taboo. It’s a hilarious game where you get a card with a simple word on the top, and a list of several other words below. You want your teammates (or partner) to guess the top word BEFORE the timer runs out, but you can’t say ANY of the words on the card! You might get something like, “Coat: jacket, cold, winter, rain, clothes”. Can you describe a coat without using any of those words? A little creativity is an asset, but it teaches you how to work around gaps in your vocabulary and grammar (and gives you common synonyms and related terms to boot, double-win). This is THE thing to give you confidence when you speak as you’ll be a lot less afraid of not knowing a word when you can describe around it. (You can get Taboo at Amazon.ca using my link, I will earn a small amount if your purchase the game.) There are also several places online to get Taboo cards made by ESL teachers and the like, so try searching if you don’t want/need the full game. It IS great for parties though.
I also recommend reading out loud a few minutes a day as you’ll really pay attention to words (pronunciation ftw) and get to actually speak. When a sentence sounds odd, try repeating a few times and of course, keep a dictionary close. Several online dictionaries, like Cambridge’s here, also have audio clips of words from several English speaking countries so you can hear if you’re close. If you do this with a book, see if you can find an audio version and listen to the same passage read by a native speaker. Lastly, if you want to really up your game, record yourself and listen to your own pronunciation. Can you reread it a second time more fluidly? This one can make you sad (DON’T BE, YOUR VOICE IS LOVELY EVEN IF YOU SOUND “DIFFERENT” THAN YOU THOUGHT) but if you do it consistently, you’ll improve!
Be confident. Anyone learning another language is worth listening to, in my little opinion. How do you keep yourself confident in a second language? I personally find telling a bad pun in French to be a great ice-breaker!