Speaking success


in Beyond the Basics, Tools & Techniques, True Stories

It’s often helpful – when you’re trying something new – to hear how others have done the same thing. You pick up new ideas. You’re encouraged by their experiences and successes. And you learn that you’re not alone; others are trying to do the same thing you are. I hope these stories – about success speaking a new language – will do all of that for you.

Armando’s story

Armando is a young Mexican who works at a Jewish restaurant in Los Angeles. Armando speaks English well but, according to a Los Angeles Times writer, he speaks Hebrew even better.

How good is Armando’s Hebrew? The owner of the restaurant says that Armando “speaks Hebrew like an Israeli.” And four other native Hebrew speakers who listened to Armando’s conversational Hebrew described him as a fluent, comfortable Hebrew-speaker. Two of them thought he might have been born in Israel.

What’s most interesting is how Armando became so fluent in Hebrew. He did it by “observing and listening to co-workers and friends” from the restaurant. And that’s what we’d predict: Armando’s fluent Hebrew developed as the result of a large amount of comprehensible input – understandable Hebrew – in a relaxed environment.

Armando said that he had never learned to read Hebrew, never studied Hebrew grammar, and didn’t think about grammar when he was speaking. While he was acquiring Hebrew, he said that his friends at the restaurant helped him with vocabulary about five times a day, but not grammar.

Stories from Africa

Historically, many Africans have spoken several languages – their own tribal language, a European language, like French, and languages from neighboring tribes. A number of years ago, Eugene Nida, an American linguist, asked some of them how they did it. The answer was always the same: they listened.

Nida writes that “instead of trying hard to learn the language, they seemed to just take it for granted that after listening to the language for long enough, they would find that they could ‘hear’ it.” They were confident that their “ears and brain would take in the language” and that they would be able to understand and to speak sooner than they had imagined.

One more thing: they never worried about mistakes. They believed that their language would improve simply by more listening.

Adrian’s story

Four years ago Adrian, a Brazilian law professor, decided to learn English. He signed up for an adult English class but quit after a few months because he wasn’t getting anywhere. A Google search led him to discover the fact that changed his English experience: If I want to speak English, I need to experience it naturally, to listen to as much understandable English as possible.

Last year Adrian wrote that eight or nine months after he started listening, he met a friend from the class that he had quit. Without thinking Adrian said, “Hi, man! How are you doing? Long time no see.” They spoke in English for a minute or two, and then his friend asked him where he was studying. Adrian told him he was studying alone, just listening. His friend replied, in Portuguese, “I don’t believe you. Try another!”

As Adrian walked away from the conversation, he thought, “Wow! I talked in English without thinking about it!” And as he continued to walk home, he made a new resolution – to listen even more.

For more than two years Adrian listened without trying to speak. The first time he tried a lengthy conversation – with me – I was impressed. His overall fluency was very natural and he was able to easily move back and forth between formal and informal English. I was also impressed with his accent. His English had very little evidence that Portuguese was his first language.

Adrian’s story doesn’t stop with English. Since he began English in 2007, he has also acquired Spanish the same way – by listening and reading. His Spanish is good enough today that he has taken a leave of absence from the university in Brazil to teach at a university in Spain.

Your first story

Remember learning to speak your first language? Probably not. I wasn’t there, but I think I can describe what happened.

You began to speak your first language by saying … nothing. Remember that? From the time you were born you were surrounded by spoken language. But for a long time you said nothing. And everyone considered that normal.

When your parents and others spoke to you, they made the language as simple as possible. They used objects, pictures, and actions to help you understand what they were saying. And as they did, you absorbed – or acquired – more and more of your first language.

One day you did it! You said your first word. And everyone got excited. After that your parents probably talked to you more and more. They “fed” you as much language as possible. And as your language ability increased, they slowly increased the difficulty of the language – adding new words, more complicated sentences, and faster speech.

What your parents did to help you acquire your first language was to take advantage of your brain’s natural language ability – the ability to acquire new language from spoken language that you understood. And they gave you time to acquire the language you needed before you spoke.

Your next story

In each of these stories, there’s something that will help you find success speaking English. Let me summarize the lessons from the stories this way:

The only way to acquire the ability to speak English well is to listen to English. To listen to things that are interesting enough and easy enough that you forget that you’re listening to English – my first choice would be fiction. And to listen to as much as you can.

Warren Ediger

Related reading: If I wanted to speak better English

References: Krashen (2000) What does it take to acquire language? Nida (1982) Learning by listening.

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Ed. April 29, 2011

Great post, congratulations.

Roberto Geronimo April 29, 2011

Hello Warren,

I totally agree with you. Listening is the most powerfull exercise to learn and acquire English. Since I started listening my english skill has been improving a lot. I try to listen at least 30 minutes per day and I garantee it works. As you wrote the process to learn languages step – by – step, everyone can learn (almost) any languague – I said almost because I think Mandarin must be extremelly difficult – Another important tool is to read as much as possible, easy things to feel like reading you’re native language. Nowadays I’m looking for someone to start conversations in English, once I believe that you should talk as well to use everything that you acquired listening. That’s my opinion.

Keep doing this wonderful job.
Best Regards, From Brazil,
Roberto Geronimo

Warren Ediger April 29, 2011

Roberto – I’m delighted that you’ve discovered the benefits of listening! Conversation can be helpful, but I think language learners often expect the wrong benefits from conversation. There’s no evidence that speaking makes your language better; that comes from listening and reading. Conversation helps because it makes you feel like an English user – you become more confident and comfortable – and it creates more opportunities to get good, interesting input from the person you’re conversing with. It’s equally possible to experience what Adrian did, to be ready to converse simply as a result of extensive listening and reading.

Warren Ediger April 30, 2011

A reader who listens to short stories writes about his listening experience:

“I often try to listen to [the short stories] and the sensations are perhaps like a child learning his own language: now I undestand one word, then two or three words together, suddenly a whole phrase… Aboslutely exciting.”

Idi Oumarou Ibrahim May 2, 2011

Thank you very much indeed, Dr Warren Ediger.

David Monteiro May 18, 2011

Hi Dr. Warren Ediger!

I completely agree that listening to English is more efficient than wasting time learning from grammar books/textbooks because I used to do it for more than 3 years and when I first tried to talk to an American guy I froze and got tongue-tied. I could NOT understand a single word he said. Consequently, I got frustrated and disappointed on myself and thought I was stupid… I also thought to myself: “What?! After so many years of more than 10 hours a day studying English independently (still independetly so far), why can I not understand native speakers? So, all that effort was useless? What a waste of time! I can’t believe it!”. I was very depressed, thinking of giving up, of drinking lots of beers… But fortunately, I did NOT give up, but did drink 2 beers!

Well, the point I want to make is that what you wrote above is exactly what has improved my speaking and understanding. (Lots of comprehensible listening and reading, but making it harder gradually, in my case.) Before finding your fantastic website fully loaded with great methods and suggestions, I used to spend months trying to memorize all of those formal dialogs in the textbooks. But for what? Neither the President of the United States nor Queen Elizabeth speaks that formal, I guess. I used to speak like a robot paraphrasing the textbook’s exact order – word by word. I think it was absolutely nonsensical. Communication needs to be as natural as possible, as you said. But I can’t deny the fact that I picked up a good amount of vocabulary and ‘useful’ expressions from those books. I know I’ve still got a long way to go, but my English has improved in a way I NEVER thought it would! I dream of attaining native-like proficiency, at least in conversational situations. I know you wrote an article saying that it’s not important (this is a crazy dream of mine), but I’ve made it a habit to take at least two hours off to read and listen to English every day to achieve this goal. It’s my sacred time! Due to that, thank God I’m going to take a trip to an English-speaking country this year. Going to the U.S. is what I’ve really craved, but let’s see what happens by then. It’ll be another dream come true!!

Best wishes!

David Monteiro (Bahia – Brazil)

Warren Ediger May 18, 2011

Thanks, David. Your experience – better English as the result of comprehensible reading and listening – is exactly what the theory and research predict.

I smiled at your comment about drinking lots of beers. There was a study a number of years ago that suggests that a certain amount of alcohol – 1.5 ounces of bourbon to be exact – improves accent because it helps the speaker relax. Less doesn’t have a great enough effect and more … well, you know what too much alcohol does!

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