My third rule for learning to speak English is simple, yet powerful. In fact, I usually say this is the most important rule because this is how we all learn the language as children. It's such an easy thing to do that you have to wonder why most English classes don't emphasize it more.
Here it is: Learn with your ears, not with your eyes. That's right. If you want to speak excellent English, you have to listen. Listening, listening and more listening is the key to speaking excellent English. If you listen a lot, you are going to learn vocabulary. You will learn grammar. You will get faster at speaking and you will understand what people are saying to you. You will do all of this in a more natural and enjoyable manner. You will imitate the process that babies and small children use to learn a language.
Academic research on language learning has consistently found listening to be the biggest factor in overall language ability – particularly in the early stages. In fact, this is true even if you don't understand most of what you're hearing. That's because our ability to learn new words is directly related to how often we have heard combinations of the sounds that make up those words, says Dr. Paul Sulzberger, a researcher at Victoria University in New Zealand who conducted a 2009 study on the subject. "‘Neural tissue required to learn and understand a new language will develop automatically from simple exposure to the language," Dr. Sulzberger said. "This is how babies learn their first language."
Remember the process used by babies and children? Babies learn through listening. They don't study grammar rules. They don't use textbooks. They don't take tests. Yet small children master spoken English, including grammar. In fact, experts say, 80 percent of your time studying English should be spent listening, even after you're no longer a beginner. Unfortunately, most traditional language classes don't emphasize listening. So if you studied English in school, you probably learned mostly with your eyes. I have observed many English classes in many different countries, and they're all the same. Most English teachers – whether in middle school, high school, university or private school – focus on textbooks in the classroom. There may be short "communication exercises," but the entire class is defined and driven by a textbook.
Now, if your goal is to get a degree in English from a university, this is a great way to study. But if you want to speak real English, these kinds of traditional methods won't get you there. Why? Because even if you study for many years, you've basically learned English analytically. You learned to think about English, talk about English, and translate English. You also may know a lot about grammar rules. In fact, you know more about grammar rules than most Americans, most Canadians, most British people because native speakers don't study that stuff very much.
Native speakers learned to speak English with their ears by listening, listening, listening, and that's what you must-do if you want to speak English quickly, automatically, and naturally just like a native speaker.
The most important factor for learning English is what Dr. Stephen Krashen calls "comprehensible input." In other words, understandable input. Input refers to what is coming into your brain. You get English input in two ways: through listening and through reading. Certain kinds of reading are very useful and beneficial. However, the most powerful kind of input for learning to speak is listening.
Comprehensible (understandable) input methods have been shown to be more effective than traditional methods (grammar study, drills, exercises, speaking practice). The research shows that speech happens as a result of listening.
Think of babies and children again. Listening is always the first step. No child starts talking before they understand through listening. They always listen for a long time, until they understand a lot of the language. Then, and only then, do they begin to speak? This listening "silent period" is vitally important to the process of natural language learning.
Another property of natural language learning is that speech emerges naturally from listening. Speech is not a skill that is consciously practiced or taught. Rather, after enough understandable listening, a child will just suddenly begin to speak. It seems to happen by magic. The speaking ability grows out of listening ability.
Researcher James Crawford has found that speaking English is the result of listening and that English fluency frequently occurs from listening alone. He states that English learning is an unconscious process, and while it's happening we are often not aware that it is happening.
You can think of this as a seed in the ground. The seed, the potential for speaking, is always there. However, the seed needs water in order to grow and emerge from the ground. Likewise, our brains need a lot of understandable listening for effortless speech to emerge.
As you might imagine, because children spend so much time listening before they speak, their listening ability is always higher than their speaking ability. In other words, children always understand more English than they can actually use in speech. As you use the Effortless English system you will experience the same thing. Your listening ability will naturally grow faster than your speaking ability. Some learners worry about this but it is the natural and correct process.
Another way to think of this is that listening leads speaking and pulls it along. Listening is like a balloon with a string tied to speaking. As the listening level rises, it pulls the speaking ability up with it. They go up together, but the listening ability will always be higher.
“BUT I CAN UNDERSTAND WRITTEN ENGLISH PERFECTLY.”
I hear this a lot from students who don't understand why they have a great comprehension of written English but can't speak it well. One reason is that English conversation is quite different from English reading. Conversation uses a different type of English, including different vocabulary.
English conversational vocabulary is much more casual. In English, this means we use more words of Saxon or Old English origin during the conversation. We also use more phrasal verbs (two- or three-word phrases with either a verb and an adverb or a verb and a proposition, such as getaway, calm down or cheer someone up).
The difference between conversation and more formal English is one reason that even "advanced" students have difficulty with everyday conversations. The problem is that students learn more formal English in school. Formal English tends to use more words of French and Latin origin. This kind of English is, in fact, much easier for students who speak Romance languages such as Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, or French. These students often do quite well when reading English, but have a lot of trouble understanding normal speech.
So, if you want to communicate with native speakers, it's very important to learn from English conversation and audios – not just textbooks and reading.
This is why listening is so important. Listening provides the foundation for speaking. As your listening ability improves, it will pull your speaking ability up, too. Too many learners are focused solely on speaking and they neglect listening. However, what use is speaking if you can't understand the other person?
Another reason listening is important is because the dynamics of spoken English are completely different from those of the written language. For starters, the grammar is different since we rarely speak in complete sentences. The vocabulary is also different with a lot more idioms and slang being used in speech. (See box.)
And most importantly, the speed is different. Speech is fast. Super fast. So fast that you have no time to think about translations, or grammar rules, or textbook lessons, or pronunciation. There is no time. Your conscious brain simply cannot analyze, translate, and organize real speech. This is the reason your speech is so slow. This is the reason you can't understand two native speakers talking to each other.
In fact, in order to perform at real speaking speeds, you must turn off your conscious brain and let your subconscious do its job. To do that, you must use methods which awaken your subconscious. You must learn holistically, intuitively, and naturally.
Primarily, this means listening to lots of understandable English speech... and doing it repeatedly. As you listen, you quiet your conscious mind and just allow your brain to understand the whole meaning of the words. You don't try to pick out individual words. You don't worry about the few words you don't understand. You relax and you let the meaning wash over you. Your mind is open and quiet. And then, when you speak, you just let the words come out. You don't struggle. You don't analyze. You don't think about rules. You don't worry about mistakes. You don't think about translations. You just let the words pour out of your mouth effortlessly. This is what my students have learned to do. It takes time, but as you focus on listening and learning English effortlessly, your fluency, confidence, and correctness will grow.
There's another benefit to spending a lot of time listening to English – it reduces the anxiety people often feel when speaking a new language. Many English classes push new students to speak right away, but this is an unnatural approach.
In fact, being required to speak too soon can slow down language learning. Your brain hasn't had enough time to process the new words and store them in your memory. So while you may be able to repeat familiar phrases in English, you still won't understand what people are saying to you. This is an unnatural and stressful situation.
In one study of beginning-level English students, researchers found that those who weren't forced to speak but were trained in listening comprehension did better than students taught using conventional methods. In addition, delaying speech also had a positive effect on students' overall attitudes about English and kept the classroom free of anxiety.
Dr. J. Marvin Brown took this idea even further. The director of a Thai language program for foreigners, Dr. Brown created a program that mimics the silent period of babies and small children. In his AUA Thai program, students listen to understandable Thai every day but they do not speak for six months or more. The students focus completely on learning with their ears.
For many foreigners, Thai is a difficult language to pronounce. Dr. Brown found that the silent period had a strong positive affect on learners' pronunciation, eventually producing superior pronunciation much closer to that of a Thai native speaker.
The same principle works with English. Though a silent period is not necessary for most intermediate learners, you still might try it. Why not focus completely on English listening for a few months, and then return to English speaking? You'll likely find that your speaking has improved even though you never practiced it.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you must listen to easy English. It has to be easy for you. That means you should understand 95% or more of what is being said. That's without stopping the audio and without a dictionary. So it should be quite easy. I say this because the natural desire of most students is to pick something harder, thinking it will help them. It sounds more impressive to say I'm listening to CNN rather than a children's program. If you choose something too difficult, you can get frustrated. With something easy, you get confidence.
Remember Dr. Krashen's idea of understandable input. If you don't understand, you are not learning. No understanding means no improvement. Easier listening is almost always better than difficult. Eventually, you will be ready for more difficult material, but take your time and listen to plenty of easy English.
If you're just starting out, try listening to children's programs since the English tends to be simpler. You can buy audiobooks online as a download, and get the audiobook immediately so you can get started.
If you find yourself listening to something more difficult, you can still use it, but you usually need the text. You can get an audio article or a speech, and use the text so you can read and listen at the same time. For more advanced learners, another great source of casual English conversation is film. Listen to American and English movies and read the subtitles. This will also help you. Just remember, listening is the most important thing. To get the most from films, use the movie technique below.
If you don't have an audio player or smartphone, get one. It will enable you to listen to English conveniently whenever you can. Listen in the morning when you get up. Listen when you go to work, or when you are at home. Listen when you are at lunch. Listen when you are coming home from work. Listen in the evening – lots and lots and lots of English listening, lots of easy listening. I even have a free Effortless English podcast on iTunes and you can listen to that. Listen, Listen, Listen.
Rule Three is the reason that all of my courses are based on audio. Effortless English is a listening system where most learning is done through the ears. It's okay to use text to help understanding, but focus most of your time and efforts on learning with audios.
No matter how you choose to do it, it's important to listen to English as much as you can. Some of my students have been reluctant at first. But most of them say that getting to choose what they listen to starts to make it enjoyable. Instead of suffering through yet another boring textbook drill, you can relax and listen to something that is interesting to you.
Looking for another great way to practice listening to English? Perhaps you might want to follow my weekly Effortless English Show. I do a talk show about mastering spoken English. This show is a great way to get easy English listening. As most Effortless English members know, easy and relaxed English listening is an important key to speaking English fluently.
To speak English fluently, you must listen to a lot of English – preferably easy and understandable English. My show is one way to get plenty of English audio. These are a great supplement to other English lessons or materials.
It's very easy to get my show! Just "Follow" me on Twitter. Go to Twitter.com/ajhoge. If you don't have an account, create one. Then go to my page and click "Follow." That's all! It's super easy. Each week, check my Twitter page for "tweets" about the next Effortless English Show. Click on the link in each tweet to watch the video and download the audio.
If you prefer, you can search for the "Effortless English Podcast" on iTunes, where I put all of the audio recordings of the show.
The video recordings of past shows are also available on my YouTube channel, which is another source of learning suggestions and English audio.
Subscribe to my YouTube channel at Youtube.com/ajhoge
To help students improve their listening, I often suggest an exercise known as the "Movie Technique." To do this, you need to pick an English-language movie that you enjoy. Again, pick a fairly easy one, where you will understand most of the words used.
Begin by watching the first scene. This should take about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn on the English subtitles. As you go through it, pause if there is something you don't understand. Look up the meaning of the word or phrase in an idiomatic dictionary. Watch the scene until you know all the words of it and understand.
The next day, watch the same scene again, several times. Once you understand the vocabulary, turn off the subtitles. Then watch the scene again, listening without the subtitles. Do this every day for the next five days or so. You might spend four or five days on one scene, but that's okay. Each repetition improves your English listening ability.
Now watch the scene again, but try pausing after each sentence or phrase. Repeat the sentence out loud. In fact, don't just repeat the sentence, act out the scene. Copy the speech of the actors. Copy their movements, facial expressions, and emotions. Pretend you are the characters in the scene. Remember the movie pronunciation exercise? This is another version of it.
This entire movie technique might take you a whole week for just one scene. When you feel you have mastered the scene, you can start the entire process again with the next scene. It might take several months to get through one movie, to really learn it, but that's the point. The movie technique is a way to thoroughly learn and master all of the English used in a film. This method will improve your listening, your fluency, and your pronunciation. If you just watch a movie once, without using this process, you get little to no benefit from it.
WILL LISTENING TO MUSIC IMPROVE MY ENGLISH?
I get this question a lot. Personally, I don't suggest learning English through music. I get students coming to me with lyrics, and I can't understand half the words the singer is saying. Music is an art form with lots of imagery in the language. Even native speakers often don't know what the singer is trying to say. Likewise, the pronunciation used in songs is not normal. Singers frequently change the natural pronunciation in order to fit the words into the melody of the music. In terms of learning English, it's much more efficient to use television or movies. The meaning of what people are saying is usually clearer, and you also have a video to provide visual cues that help you understand. So yes, please listen to English language music if you like how it sounds, but don't expect it to help your own communication in English.
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