Richard Gould

CTO, Software Developer, Language Learner

Improving Your Speaking and Listening Skills

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A colleague wrote:

Hello! I want to ask you to share your experience or ideas about what is the better way to improve the English level. Of course, the question is not simple how it seems because I have not bad level (according to a test it closer to advance) and I try to use all general advice like use English sources for getting information (for my work and other aspects of my life), watch videos in English etc., but I still feel not comfortable in a speaking part and sometimes with understanding (some accents are easy to understand some harder). How did you manage similar problems? Thanks!

I believe the best way to improve your speaking is to, well, speak. The more you can speak, the faster you will improve. It can help to figure out what specific problems are being encountered. Others having problems understanding what you’re saying? Improve your pronunciation. Can’t recall the word you want to use in the middle of a sentence? Use Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) to boost your recall rates. Don’t know the word to use in the sentence? Increase your vocabulary size.

To speak more, try to incorporate speaking into your life more. If you can speak your target language with your friends or family, try to do so as much as you can. If you’re watching TV, you can repeat after hearing something (“shadowing”). You can also talk to yourself, which is maybe strange, but can be very effective. There’s an article over at Universe of Memory that goes into the details of talking to oneself. But speaking without feedback risks ingraining mistakes. To that end, I recommend hiring a native speaker who can give you feedback. They don’t need to be a trained teacher (those can be very expensive) - just a native speaker who can tell you when you’re saying something wrong.

I’ve had very good luck finding native speakers on Italki - you can find a native speaker there under “community tutors”. You can also find a language exchange partner, but I don’t recommend them. If you’re doing an exchange, you’re spending time and effort on your own language, when you could be spending that time and effort learning your target language. It’s also a significant amount of effort to find a suitable partner in the first place. Go with a community tutor if you have the financial means.

To improve your pronunciation, I recommend learning the IPA of your target language. Once you identify the words that you have trouble pronouncing, you can use the IPA to identify the specific sounds that are difficult for you, then intentionally practice them. Note that unless you’ve intentionally trained your ear to hear these new sounds, it’s unlikely that you’re hearing (and thus pronouncing) them correctly. As an example, see Perception of English /r/ and /l/ by Japanese speakers. The Speechling app can also help with this. You record yourself speaking sentences aloud, which are then reviewed by a native speaker who points out what is being said incorrectly.

To increase your vocabulary size, I recommend actively engaging with new words, or with words that you find yourself forgetting. To active engage, you can create sentences (written, typed or spoken) using these words. You can type them into your SRS application to decrease the chance that you will forget them.

To get used to different accents and speakers, listen to media from many different sources. YouTube is a fantastic resource for this. Listen actively, and try to pick out words. Take note of new words you don’t know and try to use them. I also recommend the article Listening comprehension in a foreign language - 12 ways to improve it.

To improve the recall of your vocabulary, I recommend using Spaced Repetition Software, in particular Anki. The vocabulary you learn will be periodically shown to you based on how well you know it. This helps slow down memory decay (see Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve and the Spacing Effect). It can also be useful in identifying vocabulary that you need to pay more attention to, for example a word that you keep getting incorrect can be used in more sentences, help to boost the recall rate.

Disclaimer: I am no expert on language learning. I have some background knowledge, have read a bunch about it, but they were mostly secondary sources. I have tried many things and have failed more times than I have succeeded. Take my advice with a grain of salt. I highly recommend Universe of Memory as Bartosz actually cites his sources, so you can question his recommendations by delving into the source material.