If I wanted to speak better English


in Beyond the Basics, TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

Every English learner would like to speak fluently. And some have to. Most of my coaching clients, for example, are people who need to speak English fluently for business, professional, and personal success. Unfortunately, fluent speaking is often the most frustrating goal for English learners, especially those who live where English isn’t spoken. Happily, there’s a good way to improve your speaking – a way that takes time, but that’s too enjoyable to be called work or study.

If I wanted to speak better English

If I wanted to speak better English, I’d try to spend time with native English speakers. If I could sit and listen to them, I’d find what I was looking for. New vocabulary. When to use one word rather than another. How to pronounce words I’m still having trouble with. When to use formal or informal language. I’d hear how they use their voices to emphasize important ideas. And how their voices change when they’re angry, excited, or in love. In short, I’d pick up almost everything I need to speak better English.

“But,” you say, “I can’t do it. There aren’t any native English speakers near me or, if there are, it’s impossible to spend time with them.”

Yes, you can!

The truth is, you can spend time with native speakers any time you want. And it’s much easier than you think. Here’s how: audio books. If I wanted to speak better English, I’d spend as much time as I could listening to English audio books.

Dr. Frank Smith writes that

…reading [and listening] is a particularly powerful kind of experience, because it engages us – our mind or our brain – in a fully focused manner. When a book grabs us, we leave the everyday world around us and enter the world of the book. We are caught up in it.

And when that book is an audio book that includes people speaking English – and, for a bonus, a narrator describing what’s going on in the book – there you are in the company of a group of English-speakers. And all you have to do is sit back, enjoy the story, and allow your brain to absorb the English speaking ability you’re looking for.

If this idea is new to you

If this idea is new to you, take a few minutes to read a couple of important articles: First, The power of reading and listening makes the important point that most of our fluency comes from what we read and hear, not from what we study. And second, Using popular fiction to improve your English describes the special benefits of reading popular fiction, the bestselling books that everyone seems to be reading and enjoying.

Getting started with audio books

In Using popular fiction to improve your English, I described how to use bestseller lists to find good books. Once you find one, or if you’d like to listen to a book you’re already familiar with or you’ve already read, there are at least three good places to find audio books:

  • Audible.com – an Amazon company – is a good place to find books to listen to and the samples are long enough to get a good idea of what the book will be like.
  • The iTunes store is another good place to find audio books. Their samples are short – only about 30 seconds – but the prices of the books are often less.
  • You can also find audio books at Amazon.com.

The AudioFile magazine web site is all about audio books! You’ll find samples and reviews of audio books as well as samples of the work of the best audio book readers. Let me suggest a few starting points for you:

  • Best of 2010 – the best audio book readers, and books, for 2010. Scroll down the page to find winners in fiction, children and family listening, mystery and historical fiction, and young adult fiction.
  • If you want to explore the work of one of the best readers, visit Don Hill’s page. A special thanks to Adrian, one of my students, for telling me about Hill’s work.
  • Take time to explore the entire AudioFile web site. You’ll find a lot of good listening ideas, like All Ears! Audiobooks for Family Listening.

Using audio books

Be sure to choose books that are easy to understand. If popular adult fiction is too difficult, try young adult. If young adult fiction is too difficult, try children’s. There are many interesting young adult and children’s books. If you want help finding easier books, read Finding books for intermediate readers.

There’s no benefit to listening to something you have trouble understanding. When you choose a book to read or listen to, it should be easy enough that you can get involved in the story – and forget that it’s in English.

Consider listening to books in English that you’ve read and enjoyed in your own language. The first reading, in your language, will help you understand the English version. Another way to take advantage of what you already know is to choose books about a subject you’re already familiar with. One of my students, a law professor, began with John Grisham’s novels because they’re all about attorneys. His knowledge of law helped him understand and enjoy Grisham’s books.

Consider reading and listening at the same time. If you do, be sure that you get an unabridged, or complete, audio book. Some audio books have been abridged, or shortened. Abridged books are fine for listening, but they won’t work for reading and listening at the same time because some parts have been left out.

Warren Ediger

Reference: Smith (2007) Reading: FAQ

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Jody April 20, 2011

I just read today that some time this year Kindle users will be able to borrow e-books from 11,000 libraries across the United States. This could be great for using easy text to improve one’s English, too. I hope it will be a free or very low-cost service.

Warren Ediger April 20, 2011

I saw that announcement, too. This is a great time for English learners, especially those from other countries; there have never been so many good sources of comprehensible input – understandable reading and listening – which is the key to acquiring language.

Gordon April 21, 2011

Yet the word “books” strikes fear, or more accurately, boredom in the hearts of many learners or at least the younger, teenage variety…. I agree with you completely, I love my Kindle, and with an mp3 player and a 20 minute walk to school/work/gym. that’s perfect for a chapter or thereabouts. The walk back home is good to listen to that chapter again because what we pick up from a second listening is invaluable.

But there is still…this obstacle…among so many people in cultures where the TV came to dominate their free time. A lot of what you point out in your introduction is also covered by students’ love of English-speaking TV shows. Then it comes down to whether the addition of the visual adds to an all-round appreciation of where speaking fits in with western-world, English-speaking body language, or would you say it distracts from a necessary and specific focus on the spoken word?

Thanks for the links. I’ll be sharing them with colleagues and students soon. Also, thanks for the website in general. It’s certainly one of the gems I’ve found and now follow in my travels through cyberspace. Keep posting, please!

Warren Ediger April 21, 2011

Gordon – Thanks for your comment. You raise some questions that are helpful for the independent adult English learners that I write for on Successful English.

The belief that books are boring is an unfortunate belief, but it can be overcome. Often all it takes is what Jim Trelease first called one “home run” book, one book that gets the reader hooked on reading. And often, popular movies, such as the Ring Trilogy and Harry Potter, can become avenues into the reading habit. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly even among the students you talk about. And there’s a lot of research evidence in favor.

I’m not opposed to TV or movies as sources of input for language learners, and you’re right, the visual context helps make the language comprehensible, or understandable. But there are some weaknesses.

The kind of reading and listening I encourage here, including the use of audio books that I wrote about in this article, is better because it provides a much richer language experience. First, you do need to be exposed to words – and other language elements – a number of times to acquire them. A “word-rich” experience, like reading or listening to a book does this as well or better than anything else. Second, in popular fiction you are exposed to a great variety of language – conversations of different kinds among different kinds of people, descriptions by the narrator, etc. Popular media, like TV, don’t provide the amount or variety of language that the learner needs. Finally, it’s much easier to find books – to read or to listen to – that are appropriate for the individual learner. Reading and listening help only if they’re comprehensible.

Ahmed April 25, 2011

Hello everybody,

Thanks for all these courses that helpe us a lot improving our English. Could you please create also some audio video courses especialy in PRONOUNCIATION ?

with all my best wishes


Warren Ediger April 25, 2011

Ahmed – Thanks for your suggestion! Pronunciation is acquired, or learned, best by listening, not by studying. If you follow what I wrote in this article, you will pick up accent along with vocabulary and other language elements. The two articles What about my accent? and Too much accent? will also help you understand how listening will help your pronunciation.

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