Try these specific preparation tips for the few minutes, hours or days before times when you know you will have to speak in English.
1. The obvious thing to do before having to speak in English is to practice speaking, keeping the questions, topics etc as close as possible to those which are likely to come up. If you have someone to practice with, you can keep on topic by giving your conversation partner a list of questions and/ or topics to include. You could also take the other role first to give your conversation partner some idea of what you need to practice, for example interviewing them as they pretend to be you and then switching roles so you can answer the same questions.
If you don’t have a place to rehearse conversations out loud before having them, it can also help to just think about exactly what people might say to you and how you could reply. In fact, even native speakers do this, especially before stressful situations like job interviews and presentations (especially Q&A sessions). Rather than thinking a lot about one part of the future conversation, it’s generally best to imagine the whole thing all the way through in real time as if you were acting it out, as this most closely resembles fluent speech. You can then replay the whole conversation in your head if you feel that would be useful, perhaps after looking up some words and expressions you could have used.
However you organize your preparation, you should generally avoid stopping and using a dictionary, instead practicing talking around words you don’t know (a vital skill also mentioned in the sections above and below). If there are any words or expressions which are absolutely vital to know, look them up after you have practiced the whole conversation and then practice the same situation again.
Just before speaking or when it is likely to be especially stressful for you to think too much about it, you might want to avoid actual rehearsal and choose one of the two tips below instead.
Particularly before something stressful like a presentation, speaking exam or job interview in English, it is well worth spending some time earlier the same day speaking in English in order to “switch your English brain on”. It is generally best at such times to avoid the topics etc that your next speaking in English will include, and instead have as light and easy a chat as you can. If you don’t have a teacher or conversation exchange partner to do this together with, there is no reason a friend who you usually speak to in L1 can’t just chat to you in English for the ten to thirty minutes you probably need to wake your “English brain” up – particularly as you are the one who should spend most of that time speaking. Any longer than 30 minutes will probably tire you out and so not improve your future fluency.
3. If it is absolutely impossible for you to talk to someone in English as a warm up, the other options are to speak to yourself (again about easy everyday topics), listen to something (again light, easy and fun – and without concentrating too much on it), or read something (light, easy, fun and reading very quickly just for pleasure). If you’d feel crazy having a conversation with yourself, prepare some easy questions about easy topics (e.g. from Cambridge First Certificate Part One) to read out and then answer, or just play act a conversation in your head.
4. Stress can be one of the great enemies of fluency, so if you know you have to speak English and are worried about how quickly and smoothly you will be able to speak, often the best thing to do is just to relax yourself. One small glass of beer or wine is a classic solution, but you might prefer listening to music, doing some exercise, etc.
5. Tips are given below on the longer term goal on improving your confidence while speaking, but it is also possible to do something to improve your feeling of confidence just before for the next time you have to speak English. Possibilities include getting your hair cut, having your nails done, doing something such as a sport which you do well, and dressing smartly.
Studying to improve your fluency
This section gives ideas for a longer-term strategy for generally improving your spoken fluency. It includes a mix of things you can do on your own and things you need a conversation partner such as a teacher for. Despite the title of this section, many of the tips focus more on improving your confidence and practicing fluent speech (or things close to it) than on actual study.
Use fixed conversation formats
6. The awkward pauses in the middle of communication can sometimes occur between the two speakers rather than during one person’s turn, and once uncomfortable silences enter the conversation it can be the end of smooth speaking for both parties. One way round this is to try to respond to most questions from the person you are speaking with an “answer, add to your answer, ask a question back” format. It can help a little to keep this in the back of your mind as a possible tactic while you speak, but it is more useful to actually try speaking that way as a kind of practice.
Stick to the easiest topics
7. To boost your confidence and get used to speaking fluently in English, it is often best to choose easy topics to speak on for fluency practice. Everyday conversational topics like hobbies and movies are good, and you can stick to just questions in present tenses and Past Simple if you also want to keep the grammar simple.
Choose an easy class or textbook
8. Choosing easy things to get into the habit of speaking fluently and boost how confident you feel doing so can also be extended to all you do in class, perhaps including choosing a course one level below what your level check might suggest. Although some teachers and schools have quite strictly decided levels, many will be happy to be flexible if you explain that you want to focus on fluency and confidence because you mainly have problems with those two things.
Do something difficult then relax
9. The opposite approach to choosing easy topics, materials and classes can also work. If you try something really tricky, a more normal level of difficulty should come as such as relief that it should suddenly seem easy, boosting at least your confidence and hopefully your fluency too.
10. Doing lots of speaking practice on talking about everyday topics like hobbies, work and holidays can also help prepare you for talking about just those topics in real life. Brainstorming a whole list of things you might realistically have to speak about such as “describing my company” and “explaining Japanese food” then practicing those topics should help even more to prepare you for future conversations that is likely to improve your fluency when the time comes. For example, if you are going to study abroad the people you meet are likely to ask you about your other travels, other languages you speak, your previous studies, your reasons for studying abroad, what your parents think about it, etc.
11. Perhaps the most difficult topics to prepare yourself for are current affairs ones such as the world economy, so if you think people might start chatting on news-related topics you will need to make sure you know what is going on in your country, their country and perhaps even the whole world. As well as reading and (preferably) listening to the news in English, it is worth practicing talking about any news stories you follow, even if it is on your own. To add the randomness and replying quickly of real conversations, you can choose topics at random by opening a newspaper on any page or pointing at the front page of an internet news service with your eyes closed. This will also help practice the realistic and useful skill of talking about topics you know little about.
Prepare your answers to probable questions
12. You can also go beyond just preparing to talk about topics by finding or brainstorming actual questions you might be asked like “What are you working on at the moment?” and “What kind of music do you like?” then practicing answering them. You can make this more realistic by getting someone to ask the questions to you in the order they decide, or at least choosing questions at random by slamming your finger down on the page.
Practice replying quickly
13. To help eliminate the uncomfortable pauses between two people speaking, one approach is to use the CD with a phrasebook and reply to all the things you hear as quickly as you can, even if it is with an “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” or “Do you mean…?” You can do something similar with more conversational topics by making a pack of cards with one question or statement on each, responding to it orally as quickly as you can after you pick each card. Although it’s not as realistic, the same thing can also be done silently in your head.
Practice talking your way around words
14. With a conversation partner you can practice this with something I call the Definitions Game, which basically consists of explaining what a word means without saying the word (or any variation on it) until the person listening guesses what is being described. For example, if the word is “table top” you could say “You put your books on it to study and dinner on it to eat. It’s flat and often made of wood”, making sure you don’t say “table”, “top”, “topped”, etc.
15. You can do something similar on your own with your list of words to learn. As you look at each word and try to remember its meaning, instead of giving a translation or just registering that you know it, explain in full what you understand it to mean (out loud or in your head) as if you were talking to someone who didn’t know the word. This also avoids translation when studying, an important tip which is mentioned below.
Choose topics you feel passionate about
16. When practicing speaking on your own or with a partner, one good way to get used to speaking at length with few pauses is to choose topics that you are likely to get so into that you forget about the difficulties you have with the topic. As well as your (obsessive) interests or hobbies, political topics you actually care about can sometimes be surprisingly easy to speak about.
Train yourself to think and speak at the same time
17. You can do this with a slight variation on the activities suggested elsewhere in this article in which you choose a question to answer or topic to speak about at random. Instead of waiting until you stop speaking before choosing another, as soon as you start speaking turn over another card or put your finger randomly down somewhere else on your worksheet to choose the next question or topic. Try to think about what you could say on that thing while you are speaking about the present one, switching whenever you feel ready to do so with no pause between the two at all.
18. You can also do more complex and fun practice of this skill by doing math puzzles with part of your brain while you continue talking about a totally unrelated topic, writing something like an address down while you speak about something else, etc.
Train yourself to think in English
19. The easiest way of doing this is simply to do it, meaning having a stream of English going through your brain as you walk to the station, tidy up your room, do the weekly shopping, etc.
20. As mentioned above, phrases like “some kind of…”, “more or less” and “or something like that” can be great ways of giving yourself thinking time, so it’s worth spending some time working on this kind of language. As native speakers use it a lot, the first stage should probably be listening to some natural dialogues and picking out that phrases you could use. You could then write a dialogue with such phrases included or take a more unrealistic textbook dialogue and add these kinds of phrases to them.
Learn sentence starters and longer stretches of language
21. Sentence starters like “In my limited experience” and “If you ask me” are great for speaking first while you are thinking of what you want to say. They can be found in phrasebooks and other self-study guides to conversational English. You can learn them by having a list in front of you as you doing oral practice, trying to slip them into the conversation. You can also do something similar on your own by choosing a topic and trying to use them to talk or write about it. The actual phrases can be learnt in similar ways to other functional language or vocabulary, e.g. seeing if you can remember the whole phrase from the first couple of words or a key word, seeing if you can remember corrections of wrong versions, or seeing if you can remember the complete versions of gapped phrases.
22. Fluency will obviously mainly depend of producing the language you know well quickly and smoothly, so it’s worth spending more time on reinforcing stuff you already know if fluency if your main aim. As well as a system for learning vocabulary and functional language (testing your ability to recall it in English after having learnt to understand it), you could try reading and listening to the same thing over and over (or at least the same writer or series), and redoing the same writing and speaking tasks.
23. Many people believe it is not possible for adults to really stop translating in their heads (instead suggesting that you just need to follow the other tips here like translating longer and longer chunks of language), but you can certainly stop translating during your own study. That includes switching to a monolingual dictionary and using gapped sentences, English synonyms etc rather than translations on your list of language to learn.
Arrange more opportunities to speak
24. People who already have plenty of opportunities to speak English but still don’t find their fluency improving should probably focus more on the tips about actual studying which are given in this article, but for others arranging more time actually speaking in English is probably the most important thing. As well as conversation-based classes (current affairs classes, telling your one-to-one teacher that you mainly want opportunities to talk, etc), good opportunities to get some speaking time in include study groups and conversation exchanges.
25. Ways of getting the chance to speak even when you don’t have someone to do with include answering (recorded or written) questions out loud, talking about topics for at least a minute or two, roleplaying both sides of conversations and everyday transactions (at the post office etc), describing everything you are doing out loud, and replaying real English conversations you have previously had. Some people like to do this in front of a mirror or picture of someone to add a feeling of a conversation to this, though I personally find having to look at my own reflection distracting! It really is best to do this out loud, but if that would disturb people or make them feel that you are crazy, then you can also rehearse in the same way in your head.
Build up your confidence speaking
26. Things that can boost your confidence and so make you more prepared to speak less nervously next time you get the chance include practicing speaking about the same topic over and over until you feel ready, talking about simple everyday topics, and talking about topics you know a lot about. Things to avoid if you really want to improve your confidence include too much correction, too much work on pronunciation, and definitely recording your own voice!
Get used to speaking fluently
27. Just like being in the habit of doing exercise and checking if you’ve locked the door when you leave the house, nothing helps speaking fluently quite as much as being in the habit of doing so. Tips to get accustomed to speaking quickly with few silences are mainly the same as those for building up your confidence above, plus those about extended speaking below.
28. One of the best ways of getting used to speaking a lot is doing exactly that, and that should also sometimes include speaking a lot each time your turn comes round. This can be quite unnatural in answer to actual questions, so instead yourself or your conversational partner should point at a topic that you should speak for at least a minute about.
Listen for how someone is improving their fluency
29. This tip, suggested above for vague language, can be extended to listening for people extending sounds, filling silence with noises, repeating themselves, starting sentences and then pausing halfway through, starting to say one thing and changing their minds, etc. Many lower level language learning books and even movies have less of this than natural conversations, so higher level textbooks and natural recorded conversations on YouTube etc are probably better sources.
30. This is more of a mental attitude than a practical tip, but when you are preparing to speak in English it’s always worth having achievable aims – you can always adjust them upwards later if you do surprise yourself! For example, if you are quite a hesitant speaker in your own language it is quite unlikely that you will be more fluent in English than you are in L1 (although it does happen sometimes that people change personality in L2)
Good luck! If you want a conversation partner, be sure to sign up for a lesson!