3 Simple Things I Did to Speak Better English

Growing flower

I’ve recently received this message from Tanya, one of my former students:

How can I fix the grammatically incorrect English that I’ve been using for many years? I know people can still understand me and answer my questions, but I am sure I used the wrong grammar. 

I was in this situation too when I was learning English and these are 3 things I did to become more accurate and make fewer mistakes.

1. Asked the person I was talking to

When I was having a conversation and suspected that what I was saying was grammatically incorrect or didn’t sound right, I would simply ask the person I was talking to, ‘I said X, is this how you say it in English?’. Nobody ever refused to correct me or give me an alternative way to say the same thing. 

When the conversation was over, I would then think about those ‘corrections’. ‘I said X but I should’ve said Y. Mmm, why is it Y and not X? I need to look into it and learn more about this point. I’ll check in my grammar book tonight’

Other times I had different thoughts: ‘I said X but I should’ve said Y. Oh yeah, that makes sense because…’. In other words, I tried to remember and notice the corrections in some way. This helped me a lot. 

Obviously, you don’t want to keep asking questions about the quality of your language every five seconds. This would be quite annoying for the listener. Most importantly, you don’t want to turn every conversation you have into a chat about grammar and vocabulary. People would avoid talking to you, or at least I would! 

Take a mental note of the correction, keep these moments brief during the conversation and then try to process the new language in some way. You can even write them down in a notebook if this helps you. 

2. Focused on what I couldn’t do

I used to practice using structures I knew I wasn’t able to use correctly. It’s easy to do what you can do and it’s perfectly OK to do it. Using words and grammatical structures you already know is actually how you develop automaticity and fluency. 

But how can you improve and develop the quality of your English if you never get out of your comfort zone?

I learned this from my drum teacher. One day he said to me, ‘You should practice and work at things you have difficulties with, not the ones you’re already good at. That’s how you will improve your drumming’. 

For example, if you know you have problems with second conditional sentences such as I would tell you if I knew it, then practice making these types of sentences. There are different ways to do this and here are some suggestions:

  • Write a social media post using the structure.
  • Repeat it to yourself over and over again.
  • Take one of your photos and write a super short story about it including the structure you have trouble with. Share your story on social media.
  • Write it down several times (boring, but it works).
  • Sing it!
  • If you know you’re going to speak English with someone, force yourself to use it at least once when you’re talking to them.
  • Ask your teacher to give you some practice activities on it. 

3. Studied

A lot of teachers out there say that using the language to communicate is crucial and I’m one of them. But if you want to produce better and more accurate language to express yourself, focusing on grammar, syntax, vocabulary, collocations, pronunciation and other features of language is definitely something you should do.

For example, if every time you speak you’re never quite sure if you should use each or every, it would be a good idea to research when and how these words are used. 

Studying doesn’t necessarily mean buying a grammar book. Instagram, YouTube and the whole of the internet are full of teachers who make video lessons every day and some of them are very funny too. Follow them!

When I studied English, Instagram wasn’t a thing so these were my top 3 favourite websites:

EngVid.com – Learn English for free with nearly 2000 video lessons by experienced teachers. Classes cover English grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, exams, etc. Teacher James was my favourite!

BBC Learning English – It was excellent 10 years ago, now this website is even better. Take time to explore it. They even have a grammar show now! 

Oxford Learner’s Dictionary – There are many online dictionaries (MacMillan, Cambridge Dictionary, Collins, Longman) but this one is my favourite and I still use it A LOT to check definitions, collocations and examples. 

Dave Weckl, one of my favourite drummers, once said that studying and practicing alone on your drumkit is fundamental. But when you’re on stage with other musicians, you should forget about everything you learned and just play. You might make some mistakes, yes, but you should worry about making good music and communicating with those who are listening to you and your band. 

I believe the same is true with English. Study and practice, yes! But when you’re out there in the real world, forget about the imperfections. The more you think about them, the more anxious and tenser you get and the more mistakes you’ll make! So talk, have fun, tell stories, have great conversations and believe you can. Just enjoy it! 

But don’t forget to go back to your practice room after that.

Me in the practice room, 2012

Fabio Cerpelloni is an easy-going English teacher who helps adult learners speak better English through personal storytelling classes and book discussions. You can join his private email list by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.

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