During my first English teaching job in Korea, I worked with a staff member named Seo. Seo worked in the sales office of the school. His job was to convince parents to enroll their children. Seo was an energetic and friendly guy. He was also determined to improve his English, which wasn't great.
Since Seo worked at an English school which employed over twenty native speakers, his strategy was to "practice" his English with us at every opportunity. Each day Seo would look for one of the teachers. When he'd find one, he'd corner them and talk as much as he could using broken English. He was especially interested in idioms and made a great effort to use them during these chats.
During my year in Korea, I was cornered by Seo many times. Though he was a likable person, I quickly began to dread my encounters with him. The other teachers felt the same. Whenever we saw Seo, we walked the other way. No one wanted to talk to him!
What was happening? Were we being mean? The truth is, we avoided Seo because he was trying to use us as free English tutors. Rather than communicate with us as friends, he "practiced" English on us. He asked us to correct his mistakes. He asked us to confirm that he was using idioms correctly. He asked for pronunciation advice. Chats with Seo soon felt like teaching an English class rather than communicating with a friend.
By seeing us merely as practice opportunities, Seo killed the possibility for a true friendship. We felt he was trying to use us. Conversations with him were unnatural and annoying because his focus was solely on the English language rather than on true communication.
Because of this approach, Seo never made friends with any of the teachers. Ironically, had he just talked to us as people, without focusing on English, he would have easily made a number of English-speaking friends. He would have had the opportunity for many more real conversations.
Unfortunately, Seo is not unique. Many learners are obsessed with "practicing" their English. Because their focus is on practice, these learners search desperately for "conversation partners." Yet, by insisting that others correct their mistakes or offer English advice, these learners usually drive away native speakers who would otherwise be happy to chat with them.
This is why you must not try to "practice" English with native speakers. Instead of practicing, simply focus on being a true friend. Communicate, without focusing on the English language. Talk about your shared interests. Ask questions and listen to their answers. Show your appreciation and understanding. In other words, treat them just as you would a friend who speaks your own language.
One of the best ways to do this is to meet people who share a common passion. For example, if you love movies, join online forums dedicated to movie lovers. Join international fan clubs dedicated to your favorite movies or musicians. Connect with others who share a hobby with you.
When you communicate with these people, talk about your shared passion. Never ask them to correct your English. Don't apologize for your English. Don't ask for any English advice at all. They are not your English teachers, they are your friends. You'll learn far more by just chatting with them than by trying to make them your personal tutor.
A meta-research study at the University of Southern California found that error correction has no impact at all on spoken English. In other words, students whose verbal errors were corrected showed no improvement and were similar to students who were not corrected. The conclusion: verbal error correction is useless.
In fact, it's worse than useless. Error correction harms you by forcing you to constantly think about grammar. Instead of focusing on communicating your ideas, you increasingly focus on just the language itself. Doing so usually leads to more anxiety, which we know slows your learning and harms your performance. This is why you must never ask a teacher or friend to correct your spoken English. It is a waste of their time and yours. Error correction will also poison your relationship with English speakers and drive them away, just as Seo annoyed the teachers at the school in Korea.
This truth is a difficult one for many learners. Yet the research is clear. You will get no benefit from having your spoken errors corrected (note that writing is different because it is a slow process that can be done consciously and methodically). So rather than ask for error correction, ask others to avoid correcting your errors. If you pay a conversation partner, ask them to avoid correcting your mistakes. If they notice an error, ask them to simply restate the idea using correct English. By hearing your idea restated correctly, you'll intuitively learn to improve without thinking consciously about English.
When thinking of conversations, most learners focus on speech. They worry about speaking correctly. They worry about remembering vocabulary words. They fear making mistakes. In my experience, most English learners focus 90% of their energy on speaking.
Yet, the true power of real-life conversations comes from listening, not speaking. Think about it. When you talk to a native speaker you have a tremendous opportunity. Because they are a native speaker, they are automatically the best possible source for authentic spoken English. They will naturally use high- frequency phrases, idioms, slang, and grammar.
If during a conversation with a native speaker, you spend most of the time speaking — you have missed a great opportunity. When you speak to a native speaker, how exactly are you learning? You might get a little practice, but you will not learn anything new.
On the other hand, as you listen to a native speaker you get a wealth of learning. You'll hear the true native pronunciation. You'll learn natural phrases. You'll learn new words. You'll learn idioms and slang. In fact, most of the benefit of having English conversations happen when you are listening.
This is good news because most people love to talk. You don't need to feel stressed about talking with a native speaker because it's very easy. All you have to do is ask them a lot of questions. Ask them about their life. Ask about their job or school. Ask about their family. Ask about their hobbies and interests. Ask about their past experiences.
Then listen. Listen carefully. As they speak, look at their eyes and the rest of their face. Seek to understand as well as possible. If you don't understand something, ask more questions for clarification.
When your goal is to listen rather than talk, you'll learn more English and you will also be a better friend. Everybody loves a good listener! The added benefit to you is that you can relax. You don't need to feel pressured to speak. With a few simple questions, you will have all the conversations you want.
We have discussed natural conversation situations and how to approach them. In this last section, I'll teach you how to practice speaking and improve your pronunciation. Though you'll always spend the vast majority of your time listening, advanced learners can also benefit from a little bit of speaking practice daily.
Speaking practice is only recommended for advanced learners who are already speaking effortlessly. At that point, you are ready to work on your pronunciation and speed.
One of the easiest ways to practice speaking is to do mini-story retells. As the name suggests, you will use the same mini-stories described in Rule Seven: listen and answer mini-stories. You will continue listening to the stories daily. You'll continue shouting your answers to the questions.
Then you will add this next step. After you finish listening to the story, turn off the audio. Stand in front of a mirror. Get yourself into a peak emotional state — jump, shout, smile. Get energized!
When feeling great, retell the mini-story you just heard. Do not try to tell the story exactly, word for word. Do not try to memorize it word for word. Rather, as quickly as possible, retell the story using your own words. You can even change the story if you want.
The most important point is to do this quickly. Strive for speed! In a loud and energetic voice, tell the story to yourself in the mirror. This will only take you a few minutes. When you finish, take a short break and then repeat the process again. Try to retell the story even faster the next time.
The purpose of fast retells is to bypass your logical (and slow) left brain. By speaking quickly, you are forced to speak more naturally and more intuitively. As you do this daily, your fluency will increase. You'll speak faster without effort. English will flow out of you more and more easily. At this point, you are ready for the final step: pronunciation.
Earlier in the book, I described the movie technique and taught you a method for using it to improve pronunciation. You can use a similar technique with mini story retells.
First, repeat the steps in the previous section. Do a few fast retell of the story. When you can do that easily, it's time to work on the pronunciation.
Play one sentence from the mini-story and then pause the audio. As you play this sentence, listen very closely. Focus especially on the rhythm and intonation. Notice when the speaker pauses. Notice when the speaker's voice goes up and when it goes down. Notice when it gets louder and when it gets softer.
Then say the same sentence and copy the speaker's voice exactly. Again, imagine you are an actor trying to exactly imitate this speaker. Use their voice. Use their emotion. Even use your face and body as you imagine the speaker would. Try to become this person as you speak.
Then play the next sentence and pause, repeating the process. In this way, go through the entire mini-story. Be sure to mimic both the questions and the answers.
Of course, it's best to choose a speaker that you like!
Using the methods in this chapter, you will take your speaking to an advanced, near-native level.
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