You probably heard multiple times that in order to improve your listening ad speaking skills in English, you need to have lots of practice. This is not news for any language learner and in fact, this is something most of them try to do anyways. But “practice” is a very general term, and sometimes, learners may struggle recognizing opportunities for brushing up on their English.
Today, I would like to describe my five untraditional ways of improving speaking and listening skills. They come from my personal experience as a language learner, and just as they worked for me, I hope these strategies will also be helpful to you.
Strategy 1: Watching movies without looking at the screen
Wait a minute! Watching movies without the actual watching? That’s right! As strange as it sounds, this activity tremendously improved my listening comprehension.
This is how it works:
I suggest that you select a movie that you are well familiar with, so you would have an idea what it is about, and you would not have to worry about the plot and the characters. Instead, you would focus your entire attention on the listening part. The best choice is your favorite movies.
As you watch the movie without looking at the screen, you will concentrate on the conversations happening in the movie, imagining the scenes and contexts and trying to figure out the details. I also suggest that you pay attention to the intonation, the pitch, and the volume of characters’ voices.
I promise, you will eventually become a very attentive listener and not only will you be able to better understand what people say, but you will also have an increased understanding of what kind of intonation people use to pronounce certain English expressions depending on the context, the topic of conversations, and even the relationships of interlocutors. Since intonation is a huge part of foreign language pronunciation, this activity will also indirectly improve your pronunciation.
Strategy 2: Window shopping—with the goal of speaking English
If you like shopping malls, this is a perfect strategy for boosting your speaking skills, listening comprehension, and learning some useful vocabulary. The purpose of this activity is to get engaged in conversations with sales managers by asking them questions about the products they sell. You don’t need to buy anything! In fact, you should probably put off your actual shopping goals for a different day. For this activity—your focus is on English.
This is how it works:
I suggest that you go to a local shopping mall or a department store (if you have one around) because it has lots of options of different stores—thus a better variety of products that you can discuss. Then you go to your favorite store, walk around, find an item that you want to know more about and ask the manager to give you more information about it. Try to ask more questions. Try to listen for the new words and phrases the managers use. Try to pay attention to how these words and phrases are used in context.
I also recommend that you have a goal before you go to the mall. Certainly you know the areas you need to work on: to learn particular vocabulary words or to practice the ones that you just learned, to notice how certain grammatical structures are used or to practice the ones that you recently acquired, and so on. I also suggest that you carry a small notebook and a pen with you to write down interesting things (e.g., vocabulary, usage of particular words, grammar) that you notice.
You could go to the stores that you like, or you could challenge yourself by choosing the ones whose products you are not familiar with. However, it would probably not be the best idea to pick the store where everything looks like from a different planet to you. I know for myself that I would not be able to have an effective conversation about stuff in a hardware store. But once again, if you just learned particular words or structures and you want to practice them—go for it!
Grab a friend who is an English learner too, and your “English shopping” will be even more fun!
Strategy 3: Teach someone what you have learned about the English language
Speaking about friends, there is something else you can do with other people, and this is teaching them about something that you have learned in English. Research shows that people can better acquire and more effectively internalize things that they learn if they teach others about them. Why? Simply because when you teach someone, you try to explain it in a clear and understandable way, which requires your own understanding first. So if you struggle explaining to someone else what a certain word means and how it is used in a sentence, you should probably invest a bit more into learning that word. The same holds true for grammar or anything else about the language.
This is how it works:
It’s a pretty straightforward technique. Teach a friend, a colleague, or a classmate your newly acquired piece of knowledge. It doesn’t have to be another English learner, by the way. You would be surprised to realize how little some native speakers know about the nature and the structure of their own language. So help them out by helping yourself!
Strategy 4: Say out loud what you are doing in English as you do your daily activities
This strategy comes in handy when you don’t have anyone around to talk to. This certainly happens quite often when you get busy with your daily chores. So as you are going through the day, describe out loud the activities that you are doing. It may sound strange, but honestly, I did it so many times (and still do) just for the purpose of practicing my English, and I found it very effective.
This is how it works:
It’s another self-explanatory strategy. Basically, whatever you do at the moment, try to articulate your actions in English. At the beginning, it may not be as easy as it sounds, and you may realize that you substantially lack vocabulary (of course, depending on the type of the activity that you are trying to describe). But don’t let it discourage you! You may have to start with phrases or even single words—it’s ok. As your English improves, you will be able to form complete sentences, perhaps the simple ones first, and then more complex ones.
And of course, don’t forget to write down the words and phrases you want to look up later. In one of my previous blogs, I shared a mistake that I made as an English learner—not carrying around a notebook with me, so I lost many chances to learn some nice words I heard in conversations but could never recall later because I did not write them down. So make a notebook to be your pocket friend!
Along with the increase of vocabulary, this strategy will also improve your pronunciation. As you speak, listen to yourself with a critical ear. If you are not happy with your accent, this activity can help you work on it. No one is going to hear you, so you can repeat the same words over and over again. Finally, this strategy will also help you get used to thinking in English, which, in my opinion, is a big indicator of your language progress.
Strategy 5: Cooking with a friend
Another great activity that you can do with other people is cooking. Cooking is always fun, especially if you make your favorite recipe and if you cook it for someone or with someone. Now, try to do some cooking with an English twist!
This is how it works:
Strictly speaking, you are going to be a chef, teaching your friend how to make cook favorite recipe. This is a combination of Strategy 3 (“Teaching someone else”) and Strategy 4 (“Saying things you do”). The difference between this strategy and the teaching activity described above is that here, you are not going to tell your friend what you have learned about the English language; instead, you will use the language to teach your friend how to prepare your favorite recipe. And the difference between this strategy and the “articulating-your-actions” activity is that in the former, you actually have an audience, to whom you will be describing what you do (opposed to talking to yourself).
As easy and unchallenging as it sounds, you will realize that there are many words and phrases that you need to explain how you cook a certain type of food: from the names of the ingredients, to the cooking verbs, to the cookware you use. If your friend is a native speaker, he/she can also help you with some idiomatic expressions that you can use while giving your cooking instructions.
Finally, research shows that people can better—and more effectively—memorize foreign language vocabulary if they apply multiple types of learning at the same time: visual (by seeing what you are learning), auditory (by listening), and kinesthetic (by doing, moving or by using hands). To this end, in my cooking strategy, you will be able to apply all of them! First, you will obviously describe what you do and provide instructions to your friend; and by doing that you will be able to hear yourself, which will activate your auditory learning. Second, you will be able to see some of the objects whose names you will learn (e.g., cookware, ingredients, seasonings). Finally, this activity also involves a kinesthetic element, as you will physically “perform” what you describe.
As you see, these strategies are not difficult to implement. But more importantly, they are fun, so I hope you will enjoy them and find them helpful. Remember that learning English does not have to be arduous and boring. With some creativity, you can make it pleasurable and motivating!
Let me know what you think about these strategies and feel free to share with me your own ways of improving your speaking and listening skills.