speaking practice myth debunked

Why speaking practice won’t help you improve your English skills

Discover why speaking practice alone won't help you improve your English skills. Learn how to effectively improve your level with a balanced approach to English speaking practice

Sometimes at my free consultations, I am asked about the possibility of improving the level of English with just speaking practice.

Many learners find traditional methods, like textbook learning, uninspiring. That’s why a common request “I just want to talk about things that interest me.”

Usually, such a request involves spontaneous answers from the student to my questions about their life, interests, work, etc.

I’m going to say an unpopular opinion, but just speaking practice will not help you improve your level.

Let’s start with what conversation practice will help you with.

What do you gain from English speaking practice?

If you just want to speak English, B1 may be sufficient – there is nothing wrong with that. For most people, this is enough to live in an English-speaking country and communicate with neighbors on a daily basis, or to hold positions that do not focus on communicating with foreigners.

But if your goal is to get a well-paid position in an international company, to improve your status, and be considered a sought-after expert, you need to master the language to a high level (= nuanced, accurate command of the language), and for this, just speaking practice is not enough.

Purely speaking does not improve the accuracy and nuance of statements.


Why speaking skills don’t improve from simply speaking

Speaking practice only reinforces what you already know and can do. Speaking demonstrates your skills but does not improve them.

When you speak, you use words and structures you already know, and mistakes you didn’t know you had keep repeating.

You continue to express your thoughts by translating the words from your head, one by one. As a result, you will sound more like a Ukrainian who is putting together English words.

In a conversation, you don’t have time to properly think about things that will improve your English.

You cannot actively listen, observe, memorize, and take notes on your observations.

Responding without actively listening (as a learner) does not improve your speaking skills.

The emotions that arise during such conversations in real-life situations when your English level is insufficient can do more harm than good:

  • fear, anxiety, helplessness, agitation
  • embarrassment, shame, regret over what was said or what should have been said and over mistakes (regardless of whether they actually happened)
  • withdrawal and frustration
  • beating yourself up and feeling guilty
  • ultimately, it’s a feeling of despair because you’re doing what you’ve been advised, pushing yourself to the limit, and still things aren’t working out the way you expected.

These emotions do not improve either language or self-esteem.

So if you want to practice speaking, first of all, answer the question:

What’s the endgame? Is it for pleasure, language improvement, or boosted confidence?

  • Pleasure? (because you’re not bored, you want someone to talk to and to connect)
  • Improve your language skills? (get rid of mistakes, expand your vocabulary, improve grammar)
  • To feel more confident? (to get confirmation from others that you are understood)

All these reasons are valid and play a role to some extent, but what is the main one?

If you’re in an English-speaking country, language improvement comes through:

  1. Listening to your conversation partners and analyzing what – from what you hear – is useful to you
  2. Using these ” goodies” in your speech (by trial and error)
  3. Getting feedback and use it to get better.

Unlike in an English-speaking environment, during conversational English lessons you have more control over what you learn and how you learn it.

You can rely on listening and reading to help you know how native speakers really communicate. It is a source of new words, expressions and grammatical structures, not to mention social and cultural norms. It’s where you’ll pick up the things that make you sound like a native speaker.

Does this mean you can’t practice speaking until you reach higher levels of proficiency?

No, it doesn’t.

It is necessary to speak English at any level. In a controlled environment, with a good teacher who knows what they are doing. With a clear connection to all the other material you are learning from.

Why speaking practice won't help you improve your English skills

So, to predictably improve your English level, my recommendations:

  1. Listen and read English materials (spoken English) carefully. Notice and analyze words, phrases and grammatical structures that may be useful to you (not just unfamiliar words).
  2. Use the vocabulary and grammar you have learned to express your thoughts and answer questions. This will help to cement them in your memory and improve your speaking skills.
  3. Pay attention and take corrective action on feedback. Work on your mistakes to avoid them in the future. Return to what you have learned and ” revise” vocabulary and grammar regularly (at specific intervals).

But here’s the kicker: achieving this alone is daunting. Enrolling in a course or training program with a good balance of interesting materials, speaking practice, and feedback may be the best solution.

Such an approach will allow you to practice English and get the necessary expert support, saving you time and effort.

Find out how to improve your speaking skills in 3 steps

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