Q&A: Gaining Confidence in Speaking English and Expanding Your Vocabulary

Speaking is usually the main aim for most people learning a foreign language. But there just seems to be something frightening about opening your mouth and speaking those first words in a foreign tongue. This is why Michael B – one of our English teachers in Brussels – has agreed to give you some tips on how to get over the fear of speaking and quickly expand your vocabulary, so that you can carry on even the most demanding conversations.

What would you suggest to someone looking to improve their spoken confidence?

I struggled with spoken confidence when I studied German and I found that when I studied interviews, with audio and transcripts, and I repeated what the speakers were saying, that it helped my confidence. It got me into the “flow” of how a native speaker speaks. I would listen to and repeat with each interview maybe 30 or 40 times. Any slang that they used became my slang. Any pronunciation became my new pronunciation. I used the power of mimicry, which is the way we all learned our first language as babies.

As a teacher, I ask a lot of questions to my students. I get them talking. My goal as a teacher is to make the student leave slightly more confident in the English language than when they began the lesson.

I’m a trained musician, so I believe in the powers of planning private practice, practicing private practice, group rehearsal, and performance and I bring this to my English teaching. When I teach a group lesson, this is our group rehearsal. When it’s an individual lesson, this is our duet rehearsal. My teaching philosophy stresses that we spend that time using the English language as much as possible. That means constantly engaging each student, asking them questions, getting everyone involved, pushing us to review and learn new material constantly. My job as an English teacher is to prepare my students for their daily “performance” of their language abilities. Along with a good private practice regimen, students of mine have seen great improvement in their spoken confidence over the course of our lessons. It is the biggest strength of my teaching.

What do you do to help people build their vocabulary?

I do my best to take time to teach methods for setting up language practice in between sessions. The best methods I’ve seen are apps, flashcards, and audio vocabulary training. I recommend using some combination of audio and visual vocabulary training outside of the course. Also, I encourage students to record our lessons, that way they can review any new words or phrases we covered in the lesson.

When I create lesson plans, I always take new and review vocabulary into consideration. Over the course of multiple lessons, assuming a student has good attendance, they will notice new words popping up consistently.

Breaking News English is a personal favorite source of mine for lesson planning. It covers all aspects of language learning: reading comprehension, speaking, listening, grammar, and it has an extensive vocabulary section. It has two levels, easy (A2-B1) and hard (B1-B2), and the subject matter is usually makes for engaging conversation which motivates the learner to use the language with fluency.

What’s the best way to help shy students get over the fear of speaking?

Kindness. I think one of the reasons I became a shy German speaker for a while was due to native speakers, including my German teacher at the time, shaming me while I was trying to speak.

I also have a policy of less interruption in class. A rule in my class is that our students do not interrupt other students as that is the teacher’s job. I have a policy of letting students finish a sentence or a thought before I correct their grammar or pronunciation. There are a few exceptions to the rule, however: If the student continues to make the same error over and over again, I reserve the right to interrupt and quickly remind them. Also, beginner A1 students require slightly more interruptions than advanced learners, because they are still developing their basic vocabulary. So with beginner students I will wait first, and then, if I sense that they are struggling, I will recommend a word that they might be searching for.

This policy can be controversial. I have been criticized by students and teachers alike in the past. Some students just want to be interrupted, or so they think. Or some teachers value the practice of constant interruption.

Again, I draw from my experience as a music teacher. When you’re teaching people how to sing a song, what is the better method: to have them sing confidently with errors for 30 seconds at a time, then fixing those errors after the pass or to constantly interrupt the singers, having them only sing for 3-5 seconds before interrupting them? It is obvious to me that the more effective way to teach both music and spoken language is to encourage learners to speak out loud, even with errors, and to fix those errors at delayed intervals in the lesson.

So far in my teaching career this method has worked, so I believe that I will teach this way forever. If you are in my class, or if you are my private student, you probably won’t be interrupted for grammar or pronunciation mistakes, at least not until your sentence is finished.

What’s the best way for someone to modify their accent?

I recommend getting a transcript and reading along with the News In Slow English audio. Or find a celebrity interview of someone you like, again get the transcript, and read along, imitating the voice of the interviewer and the guest. For more advanced learners looking to have a standard British accent, I recommend the audio edition of The Economist, and again, reading along. Audiobooks with their written book counterparts are yet another option. Librivox.org is a resource for public domain audiobooks in a variety of languages. I used this source when studying German and I recommend it for studying English, although public domain books are older and they use historic English, so this shouldn’t be the only source for learners determined to modify their accent to a modern one.

This is simply a matter of imitation. Use the written word, the audio version, listen, imitate, and repeat.

Mimicry is a powerful learning device. It is the way babies learn so much so quickly. When it comes to learning fluency, especially pronunciation and accents, I recommend using the strategy of mimicry above all others.