Whenever I start with a new group of students, I ask them which area of English they think that they need the most help in. The most common answer is “!”. Yet this often comes after six or twelve years (and sometimes more) of studying the language. And this means having spent many, many hours learning grammar. Why is this?
Almost always, the answer lies in the fact that they have not yet developed … the ability to ask questions or make statements quickly when speaking or writing in English without having to first make them in their own language and then try to translate them into English in their mind. In other words, you become fluent when you are able to “think” in English.
No matter how much you study English, it is almost impossible to produce good grammar unless you can think in English. Think of learning English in the same way as trying to learn how to play music well or be good at a sport.
Let’s look at golf, for example. If you take lessons from a golf professional you will learn that to hit the ball a long way and for it to go where you want it to go you need to stand in a certain way, hold the club in a certain way, and move your body in a certain way as you move the club back and then bring it forward towards the ball. As a beginner wanting to do well, you will try to remember the steps as you walk up to the ball and think very hard about standing the right way, holding the club the right way, and hitting the ball the right way. And what generally happens? Most of the time you will either miss the ball completely or make a bad shot.
However, the more you practice the better you will get until the day comes when you can almost always hit the ball well. Is this because you are better at remembering what to do? The answer here is “no”, because you are not going through the steps in your mind at all… the correct way to hit the ball comes naturally without you having to think about it. It is the same with learning English.
What you can do to become more fluent:
In order to achieve fluency, two things are needed: a large amount of time spent using the language in situations where you can understand meaning, and a big enough (around 2,000 – 3,000 words). Over time you will find an increasing number of tools and Internet links here to help in both of these areas.
The best way to develop fluency is of course to spend a lot of time in an “English only” setting where you must listen to and speak English almost all of the time. Unfortunately, this is not possible for most learners.
Many people will tell you that you can help develop fluency by watching English television, listening to English radio, and reading English newspapers and magazines. While this may be true for learners who are quite good at English, these ideas are of little help for lower level learners because they will come across too much unknown language and vocabulary for them to be able to follow the meaning.
Unfortunately, much of the English learning that takes place in classrooms is also of little benefit in developing fluency. At lower levels, the exercises in most text books involve reading short s or listening to short conversations for certain information. This is called “” reading and listening and, although it is important in developing your ability to read and listen for specific facts, it does little to develop fluency.
If you don’t have the ability to spend a lot of time practicing English with people who are already fluent, the next best way to improve your fluency is to spend as much time as you can reading and listening to LONG conversations and passages in English. This is called “” reading and listening where, much as in real life, being able to understand the overall meaning of what you see or hear is more important than understanding every word. To do this effectively, it is important that (just like when you learned your own language at school) you start off with material suited to your current level of English and then move on to more and more difficult material as you improve.
This is where we come in. One of our plans over time is to put on this site many different kinds of extensive reading activities for Beginner, , and level learners that can be downloaded or read online.
The stages in becoming fluent:
Most people develop their English in stages. Initially, all sentences are first made up in their own language and then changed into English in their mind as they are speaking or writing. When this happens, it takes a long time to ask or answer questions and make sentences. Also, poor grammar is almost always produced no matter how much grammar they have studied.
As learners use English, common sentences begin to be produced without the need to think in their own language. This continues the more they use the language until almost all sentences are formed in English. It is at this point that they become fluent, and it is only at this point that good grammar can be produced.
I may upset a lot of other ESL/EFL teachers here, but I believe that a lot of teaching effort and valuable learning time is wasted by trying to teach grammar rules to learners who are not fluent enough to use them. Yes, grammar is important and should be taught as learners develop. However, in my view, there needs to be a better balance between traditional teaching and extensive reading.
It is also important to understand that fluency in speaking and fluency in writing do not happen at the same time. There are a surprising number of English learners who can produce quite good grammar when speaking, but very poor grammar (and of a type that they would never use when speaking) when they write. This is usually because when they were learning the language they spent a lot more time listening to English than reading it. Extensive listening builds fluency in speaking, while extensive reading is necessary for fluency in writing. This is one of the reasons why I generally suggest that, if they can, learners try to do both of these together.
How you can become fluent faster:
A U.S. company called “The Global Language Monitor”, which studies and documents changes in languages and their use around the world, surprised many people with the claim that in June, 2009 the English language reached one million (1,000,000) words. David Crystal, one of the world’s leading language experts, did not agree – not because the figure was too high, but because he says English reached a million words a long time before that.
Fortunately, many of these words are “old fashioned” and not in common use today. Many more deal with scientific or other special situations. As mentioned above, you only need to know around 2,000-3,000 words (and those that are made from them such as for friend: friendly, unfriendly & friendship and eat: eats, eating, ate, eaten & uneaten) in order to communicate well. For university study in an English speaking country the number of words needed increases to around 4,000 (plus any specialty words to do with your field of study).
One of the good things about extensive reading is that it helps to build up your vocabulary. However, once you reach a certain point (around 2,000 words), building vocabulary through reading alone can be quite slow. This is because you do not meet the unknown words that you need to add to your vocabulary often enough to be able to learn them quickly.
In order to become fluent faster, it is therefore necessary to look at other ways to learn any missing words in your vocabulary. There are many excellent vocabulary learning websites and tools on the Internet. We will provide links to some of these, as well as some tools of our own, under the “Learning Words” tab to the right.
(n: grammar pl grammars) The set of rules that explain how words are used in a language. 3000
(n: fluency, noncount) The ability to communicate easily and smoothly in a language. In order to understand easily and speak and write fluently, you need to be able to “think” in the language. 10000
(n: vocabulary pl vocabularies) 1. Words in general. (ประมวลศัพท์) 2. The words known and used in something [such as a language, by one person, within a particular group or profession, in a story or article, etc.]. (กลุ่มคำศัพท์) 4000
(n: passage pl passages) 1. A short section of a book, poem, speech, piece of music, etc. 2. A narrow space that people or things can move through. 3000
(adj: intensive) Detailed; thorough; showing or having great care. 3000
(adj: extensive) Large in size or amount; very full or complete. 2000
(adj: elementary) Basic and simple; easy and not difficult". 6000
(n: elementary school) 1. A school for the first four to eight years of a child's formal education, often including kindergarten. 2. The first four to eight years of a child's formal education. Also called grade school, grammar school, primary school.
(adj: pre-intermediate) The prefix 'Pre' means before (ก่อน). This is the stage of learning English between Elementary level and Intermediate level where users are able to communicate independently about most known situations but still have not developed full fluency.
(adj: intermediate) In the middle of or between two things, stages etc. 5000
In learning English, an Intermediate learner will be able to communicate fluently in most situations, and around half-way to becoming an expert user of the language.
(n: professor pl professors) 1. [the U.S.A.] Any teacher at a college or university. 2. [the U.K. and most other English speaking countries] A university teacher who is head of a department. 3. [some Asian countries] A university teacher of the highest rank. 4000