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Learn to Speak English Properly with our Complete Guide

By Jon, published on 17/05/2018 We Love Prof - AU > Languages > ESOL (English) > Learning How to Speak English

Like so many professions or undertakings, no one really knows what goes into excelling at any metier unless they too have experienced the frustrations and difficulties of learning it.

Being an English student is laudable, but becoming fluent in English is a lot of hard work, a fair amount of aggravation and more than just a bit of confusion, isn’t it?

Tricky grammar rules, irregular spelling and verb tenses that mark time as well as indicate an action can sometimes seem like insurmountable roadblocks rather than mere challenges.

To say nothing of which English to learn – British or American English, and which accent to cultivate.

Let’s start on the road to learning English by discussing that quandary.

Learning Spoken English

The Queen’s English

Many non-native English speakers naturally want the fanciest possible accent, because of what it represents: social class and quality education.

Is refined speech vital in everyday English?

Historically, the Queen’s English (or the King’s English, if there is a male ruler in place) was, and still represents the epitome of education, polish, and poise.

The Oxford Dictionary of Living English defines Queen’s English as:

The English language, as written and spoken by educated people in Britain.

By no means is anyone suggesting that Britons who speak Cockney, Welsh, or Scottish are uneducated or unrefined.

Rather, that statement is a reflection of the long-held supposition that the British ruler represents the ultimate in social refinement. Anyone who can speak Standard English must surely be from the highest of social ranks.

In the movie My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins – a refined gentleman indeed! proposes to transform a guttersnipe of a girl into a high society lady, simply by dressing her properly and changing the way she speaks.

‘The Girl’, as she is often referred to during the film, does, in the end, succeed in proving social distinction by altering her spoken English through hours of rigorous speaking practice.

BBC English

BBC English, on the other hand, is known as Received Pronunciation, or RP.

Much like our Fair Lady, it is a cultivated accent, not meant to impress, but so that it could be understood internationally.

When BBC Radio started broadcasting just after the first World War, the variety of spoken English around the world virtually guaranteed the operation’s failure.

Who would tune into a radio broadcast if it could not be understood?

At that time, British English was comprised of more than fifty-six regional dialects, most of which are still in existence today.

The variety of English accents, in the UK and around the world, meant that presenters had to learn a more elaborate, exaggerated way of speaking so that they could be understood, even via the low-tech medium of the wireless radio.

In spite of BBC presenters’ diligence, today, it is estimated that fewer than two percent of English speakers globally speak BBC English.

As you continue to study English and expand your vocabulary, we recommend you focus on Standard English pronunciation: the same English the Queen speaks.

My Fair Lady grew more refined the more she practised spoken English In My Fair Lady, the Girl shocked everyone with her Cockney accent Source: Wikimedia Commons Credit: Figaro

Langauge and Perception

But novels and novellas aren’t the only examples of language playing an important role in how you are regarded in society.

Finishing schools were a popular teaching resource for young women that focused on teaching them the fundamentals when it comes to being a member of the upper class. This included teaching them manners, how to develop what were seen as female qualities (i.e. handwriting, flower arranging etc…), linguistic skills and how to take care of their physical appearance, making them the all-around epitome of grace.

While finishing schools have somewhat disappeared now, it was as recently as the 1960s that this decline took place. Moreover, Switzerland is still holding on tight to its elusive finishing schools.

The term, finishing school, derived from the idea that the lifestyle course followed on from ordinary school and completed the girl’s education.

Etiquette classes weren’t so much designed to make other young females look bad but instead to make the enrolled girls stand out as high-society ladies. The primary goal of finishing schools, however, was to make the individual more attractive an option to her future husband, which just goes to show how far society, in general, has come along since the last century!

As with the many disparities between British and American English, across the Atlantic, these educational establishments (which put academic subjects secondary to teaching class) were referred to as charm schools.

In 2005, a reality TV show was aired in the UK called Ladette to Lady, which involved a group of young females being turned into debutantes under the strict instruction of Gill Harbord, Principal and floristry teacher and Rosemary Shrager, Vice Principal and cookery teacher. Other influencers were a dance instructor, an elocution coach, and a social protocol teacher.

The show, which ran for three consecutive years in Britain, highlighted the changes in modern society not only with reference to the position of women but also the development of colloquial language. Many success stories came from the production, with a number of participants turning their previously turbulent lives around and progressing with their lives with more self-respect, femininity, and confidence.

Putting aside the somewhat debatable positives of this television programme, it throws up a number of questions about language and identity.

Should we be judged by the way in which we speak and the choice of words we use? Why is our class directly relevant to our capacity or incapacity to speak our language ‘well’? Does speaking in the ‘proper’ way make us better human beings?

Actors and actresses like Kate Winslet admit that their accents help them to get roles, which we can interpret as we wish, but other TV personalities such as Stacey Solomon are proof that an image is not a true reflection of our intelligence. While Solomon doesn’t pretend she is unintelligent, people perceive her to be dim because of her broad Essex accent.

Will there ever be a day when learners of English are taught to speak like the cast of TOWIE?!

How to Improve English Speaking

Many people who study English acquire a substantial vocabulary and use verb tenses at least as well as native English speakers.

Putting that wealth of knowledge together in such a way that everyday conversation and official matters are all handled with a minimum of stress and complication is a quite a different proposition.

Speaking English like a Local

In order to assimilate into society, many people strive for language skills that mirror their environment.

We can all identify the prominent regional dialects, like Scottish, Welsh and Irish – languages unique to their regions that cause British English to be spoken differently than mainstream.

Your local dialect, be you in England or elsewhere in the world, it likely not the same as any accent spoken by a native English speaker.

To more quickly become fluent in English, many Esl teachers recommend less focus on mirroring any speech patterns.

Because of the sheer variety of dialects, getting bogged down in imitating any accent could actually hamper your English learning.

Your focus should be on improving your vocabulary and English grammar.

While, as a British national, it may seem odd to hear someone speaking in English with an unusual accent, it is nevertheless impressive when you hear all parts of their grammar and vocabulary on point. If language is still to be a representation of our educational background, then correct speech, as opposed to accent, is definitely going to make a speaker of another language appear brighter and as if they have been taught English by the best schools.

Focus on English Phrases

To gain fluency, and especially if you are learning college level or business English, you should progress to learning entire phrases at once.

Learning phrases will not only increase your vocabulary, but it will give you a context in how to use the words you have already learned.

Reflecting further on the ardour of language learners in general, it is easy to understand why the more lighthearted aspects of the English language might be perceived as less significant than proper English vocabulary and grammar.

English speakers in the UK have one of the most exhaustive slang vocabularies in existence.

As an English learner, you might be uncomfortable using slang phrases in your spoken English but there is no harm in learning a few more popular expressions, if only to increase your comprehension.

Knowing that the average English speaker liberally peppers the conversation with fun words and slang phrases, we urge you to not take everything a native English speaker says literally.

  1. Just about every language learner gains comprehension his/her second language by translating English words and phrases it into his/her native language.
  2. Equally true: any learner at the basic English stage will formulate ideas in his/her native language, and then translate them into English.

If you are at or beyond the middle-intermediate stage of learning English, you should have grown away from both of those practices.

Most likely due to the earnestness of those studying English, their sincere desire to understand the spoken language leads them to accept everything a native speaker might say as literal truth.

Taking everything a native speaker of English says at face value – literally, can make for some grave misunderstandings.

Speak English Fluently by Using Contractions and Connexions

Using contractions and connexions makes English speaking both faster, and easier to pronounce.

Knowing how native speakers connect words will also help improve your listening skills.

To improve your speaking skills, learn the rules for connecting words.

You can practice your new talent by taking some quizzes on that page, too!

Sharpen your English listening skills anywhere, anytime. You can practice your English listening skills virtually anywhere Source: Pixabay Credit Couleur

The Need for English Speaking Practice

Connecting and contracting words, learning whole phrases and listening for slang used in everyday English are all great ways to improve your English.

How do you put these theories into practice?

Talk English on a Daily Basis

For those English learners across the globe who live far from metropolitan centres – where language learning centres abound, finding quality opportunities to practice newly gained language skills requires some imagination and innovation.

Web pages that permit listening to English podcasts and other materials are fairly common. What the average English learner abroad lacks is an avenue to practice spoken English.

With no particular endorsement or preference, we present these sites:

  • italki is a language tutoring website specifically for developing speaking skills. After registering, you choose which teacher you wish to work with, and schedule a session.
  • Conversation Exchange is a site that connects native speakers with language learners. If you have the opportunity – if you are living in the UK, for example, you can even arrange a face-to-face meeting with a chat partner, or you could simply meet online, from anywhere in the world.
  • Speaky is a language learning community that has its own audio and video chat function built-in. With a gathering of more than five thousand people online at any given time, you are likely to find several conversation partners suitable to your needs.

If you do not already have it, you might consider downloading and installing Skype.

Using a webcam, your video chat partner can closely watch how you form words, and make suggestions for improvement.

If your Internet access is limited – for whatever reason, you can still gain from practicing your language skills with a native speaker by having an audio-only conversation.

Besides Skype, here are some of the world’s more popular chat apps that you can access online and/or download to your phone. Many of them even offer free video calling!

  • Whatsapp is a platform that permits video chat, as well as sending pictures and text messages.
  • WeChat features instant messaging, video-sending and video chat capabilities. You can also send short audio files.
    • This platform is web-based, too: you scan a unique code with your phone to log in to your account on your computer.
  • Line is considered by many to rival Whatsapp in video quality and ease of use.
  • Viber rounds out this list of chat apps. It too features video call capabilities, along with all other common messaging features.

You can use any or all of these means to connect with native English speakers all over the world!  

Listening for Tone and Inflection in Conversational English

Like so many other languages, English has its own rhythm. Discerning and selecting one is among a language learner’s biggest challenges.

Speakers of other (tonal) languages tend to adopt a monotone when speaking English, perhaps not understanding the significance of rising and falling pitch in their second language.

Stressing certain words while speaking changes the meaning of a sentence. The phrase

I didn’t tell you to clean your room.

can have a different meaning, depending on which word the stress is placed when spoken.

“I didn’t tell you to clean your room” could mean I ordered you to.

“I didn’t tell you to clean your room” suggests I meant your should clean my room.

Learning from listening to English calls for an understanding of how tone, stress, and inflection can change the meaning of a sentence.

You can learn rules for how to stress individual words. Learning inflection to give meaning might take a bit longer to absorb.

To that end, we suggest watching movies in English.

Movies are a popular form of entertainment and, judging by the success of British and American films worldwide, their popularity extends all over the globe.

Movies provide both visual and audio clues for understanding English, but audiobooks expose you to proper English speaking without the benefit of visual indicators.

To improve your English comprehension, you can download audiobooks for free from these sites and listen to them as you go about your day:

Librivox has thousands of audio books free for download to any of your devices. You can listen to classic literature or modern tales of love and money on the go!

Amazon US  and Amazon UK both stock a wide selection of titles. You can choose from classics by H. G. Wells, or modern tales of intrigue by contemporary authors.

The more you listen to spoken English, the more you can catch its rhythm and tone, and the sooner you can incorporate it into your spoken English.

But how does listening to English help you learn how to spell?

Don't trifle over misspellings: learn phonetics Learning phonetics is the key to quality English writing and speaking. Source: Pixabay Credit: Andreas160578

Finding the Phonetic Spelling of English Words

As you listen to books and movies narrated in English, you might wonder how you could roleplay dialogue segments during your ESOL courses.

Although fully two-thirds of the words in the English language can be correctly spelt by how they sound, you still have a substantial portion of vocabulary for which you might need the phonetic English spelling.

Where might you find it?

These days, finding a quality English dictionary is only as hard as booting up your computer. You can choose from a selection of lexica that function either with an Internet connexion or without.

Prior to downloading, you should make sure your phone or tablet has plenty of disk space.

Once you have secured your dictionary of choice, you are guaranteed the phonetic spelling of any word, located just under the word itself.

As an added bonus, your dictionary will present the syllable breakdown for any word you look up.

One last, valuable tool you will find in your newly acquired arsenal of English learning tools is a voice recording of how the word is spoken, in some cases both in British and American English.

Beware that those recordings are not necessarily the best way for you to learn how to say a word!

Besides relying on the phonetic spelling of words, breaking them down into syllables is your greatest help in learning how to speak… and spell!

Common Spelling Rules to Help You Master English Lessons

Phonetic spelling and identifying word syllables can make you an English spelling master. Let us give you a few simple rules to abide by on your way to becoming a champion speller.

Some of the more tricky aspects of English spelling lie in adding suffixes and prefixes to word’s root.

Changing -y to -ies

When a word ends with a vowel + y, simply add -s to pluralize.

Thus, a key becomes keys, a ray becomes rays, and the day becomes days.

Conversely, difficulty has a consonant + y, therefore the plural of the word is spelled difficulties.

Here are a couple more examples:

baby multiplies to babies, and a company becomes companies.

The Doubling Up Rule

Have you ever wondered why there is a difference in the vowel sound between put and putt, but not but and butt?

A native English speaker would look up the word origins. Putt is a Scottish word meaning to throw; put is an old English word.

Why not take a moment to look up but and butt?

To maintain the correct vowel sound in one-syllable words, the consonant is doubled, like so:

Put – putting; tap – tapping; shop – shopping; big – biggest; fat – fattest

This rule also applies to longer words with a vowel-consonant ending, but only when the stress is on the last syllable:

occur – occurring; begin – beginning; refer – referral.

The last consonant in the word benefit is not doubled when written because the spoken stress is on the first syllable.

To practice English spelling, you could choose a few phrases each day and spell any new words, ones that are not familiar to you, as you go about your everyday activities.

Slang phrases work particularly well for this exercise, as does the idiom or any new expressions you might pick up in daily conversation.

Many English words have a slang counterpart. Learning slang can be fun and informative Source: Pixabay Credit: GDJ

Can improving your spelling help you to better pronounce words?

It is interesting to think that there are some words in our verbal range that we hear regularly and know what they mean, however, when asked to spell them, we may struggle to get them written down correctly.

Words usually derive from other words, two or more terms put together or are directly related to another language (like Latin, for example). As such, understanding the true make-up of that word, i.e. how it is spelled and the history of how it became a word, could completely change the way you think about that collection of letters.

Have you ever repeated a common word to yourself over and over again and convinced yourself that it just doesn’t or look right in your head?

Getting to know the structure of a word could indeed help you to pronounce it better.

English Slang Dictionaries to Help you Speak English

These days, you can find tools for learning English online as well as libraries and in classrooms.

What you most likely won’t find in class is everyday English slang, and the idiom is usually approached as a means of cultural understanding rather than a grammar exercise opportunity.

More specifically, you may well learn a few slang terms, but ordinary English words used as slang might not be included in your English learning curriculum.

Blinding, smashing, ripping… frightening words that indicate violence are used in slang form to mean wonderful, fantastic, or great.

To build a vocabulary of contemporary slang and how it is used, you could check out these dictionaries expressly compiled to explain English slang phrases and terminology.

The Urban Dictionary focuses more on American English. For British slang, turn to Peevish.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang takes a historical look at how and why the English language has evolved through the centuries to include words and phrases with ambiguous meanings.

The greatest advantage of using online dictionaries in general and especially for slang phrase interpretation is that those sites are routinely updated to include the latest terms.

The Trouble with Slang In Modern Conversational English

Using popular vernacular is fun and a good way to fit into society, but the question remains: which slang should you adopt?

You may have found that local television shows have their own distinct set of slang phrases, while nationally produced – and globally broadcast shows like Dr. Who embrace a more region-neutral phraseology.

While it is good to educate yourself in general slang, you might also find dictionaries of regional slang more helpful overall.

A Concise Dictionary of English Slang, by B.A. Pythian, should be a good place to start.

You could also build your own slang dictionary. Simply write down words you’ve never heard used in that fashion and look up their meaning in the slang dictionary of your choice.

Once you have learned how to use that word in its slang form, be sure to use it as soon – and as often as possible.

Doing so might even help you ‘nail’ your regional dialect!

How to Improve Your English Accent

That is an ambiguous statement: which English accent do you wish to cultivate?

The manner and rhythm of English speaking varies widely from one to the other English speaking region.

An American English speaker would stand out among a crowd of Australian English speakers.

Even across the UK, the regional dialects bring about their own accents.

A Scotsman would have to tone down his brogue when visiting Brighton, just as a Bristolian might have to make special effort to be understood in Dublin… or even London.

American English has become mainstream through global proliferation of movies, music and other materials, but British English – and all of its regional accents remain exotic and, to an outsider, sometimes incomprehensible.

You can take ESOL courses online to help you determine which accent would best suit your needs.

If your goal is to pass IELTS and work or study in the UK, cast an eye on English Phonology: Regional Accents of English.

Should you choose Australia as your destination, take a look at Australian English Pronunciation and Transcription, by Felicity Cox.

Maybe you have taken the TOEFL with the intent to live and work in America. In that case, have a glance at The Pronunciation of American English, by Arthur Bronstein.

Don’t get too caught up in the implications and connotations surrounding a specific accent.

Love them or hate them, our accents are just one piece of the jigsaw that makes us. Cheryl Cole’s strong Geordie accent has said to have let her down from time to time in her career, because it is famously hard to understand (even for us Brits!) yet, on the other hand, others love it and say that it is what makes her stand out. Could you imagine if the superstar came out one day speaking the Queen’s English? It just wouldn’t fit!

Similarly, Scouse, Brummie, and Glaswegian accents have all faced controversy over the years.

In the case of the accent stemming from Liverpool, and those heard all around Scotland, the speakers, in fact, use a much wider range of sounds than a London accent, making more use of the back of the mouth and throat. Could it be argued, therefore, that these accents form fuller, more decorated examples of spoken English?

Do You Speak English With An Accent?

See some examples of the famous UK accents below.

NameWhere it originates
GeordieNewcastle
WelshWales
GlaswegianGlasgow
ScouseLiverpool
CockneyLondon
BrummieBirmingham

To learn English online speaking, spelling and listening effectively, you only need a few guidelines:

  • Make Standard English the focus of your language studies
  • Follow rules for proper spelling
  • Learn phonetics for your desired region
  • Pick up on slang by consulting dictionaries
  • Gain fluency by speaking every day

Follow them and watch how rapidly your English skills develop!

Spoken English Websites

Learning a new skill couldn’t be easier with the advancement of technology.

All over the Internet, you can find self-help websites teaching you to enhance your skills in a number of ways using advice, lessons and video tutorials. Learning languages is just one of those areas you can cover easily from the comfort of your own home, with no need for machinery or equipment. Just you, your brain and perhaps a strong will and determination are all that is needed to learn a second language!

The British Council is an expert in language teaching and offers a range of tools and resources to help you to learn English. Their LearnEnglish venture offers you the opportunity to test your level of English, find pages of free materials aimed at learners like you and search the contents for specific sections on grammar, vocabulary or other topics you wish to focus your attention on.

Using websites like the above enables you to tackle your learning objectives with flexibility, plus there are no deadlines to commit to nor any financial outgoings associated.

In terms of the website itself, you can use this in a number of ways but there is also guidance on how best to start and continue on your learning journey.

English Speaking Apps

Apps are growing in popularity, and it isn’t hard to see why.

With such busy lives, we often want easy and convenient ways to do our everyday chores and activities, including, at times, our schooling. Many revision websites have recognised this trend and adapted their revision tools to be viewed and used whilst on the move using a mobile phone or tablet.

Meanwhile, many language apps have also been developed to target those who commute or who use their personal gadgets at home or whilst on breaks at work. Using apps like DuoLingo, you can learn a new language with minimal effort. Not only is it easy and fun to use, the game-like nature of the app offers a great distraction from learning, so more often than not you don’t even realise what you have just taken in!

The app allows you to move up levels according to what you have learned and splits topics up into logical and useful lessons.

The beauty of downloading an app is that it is always there with you, so if you get a few minutes to yourself to check your social media or write an email, you can just as easily use this time to brush up on your language learning.

Plus, with most apps taking your email address, you can’t forget about the tool as you will be sent reminders and encouragement from the team to keep the momentum up.

Finally, another underrated way to use apps in language learning is to simply download a dictionary. You can opt for an English dictionary and thesaurus, but you might prefer to download an international dictionary which translates words from your mother-tongue into English.

Linguee is a fantastic resource for intermediate to advanced learners and comes in a range of language pairings.

The site lists examples of words or phrases found in real, pre-existing texts so you have the opportunity to glance down the list and find the phrase that is most relevant to the meaning you intend to get across, with the assurance that fluent speakers use this order of words in their own speech.

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