One of the top priorities of learners of English around the world is to improve their fluency, by which they usually mean how quickly and/ or “smoothly” they can speak the language, including avoiding pauses. Unfortunately, fluency is one of the most difficult things to improve, particularly without living in an English-speaking country and if you are trying to improve this skills outside class. Here are some tips to try out:
If you are thinking “That’s a difficult question”, “I’ve never really thought about that before”, “I’m not sure that I could even explain in my own language” or “I really don’t know what my answer to that question is”, then that is exactly what you should say. Not only does following this tip fill silence, but you’ll often find that by the time you’ve finished saying that initial thought you’ve actually thought of at least some way of answering the question. Similar things that pop into people’s heads and should probably then pop straight out of their mouths include “I was following the question up until…”, “I don’t really know where to start” and “What part of the question should I answer first?”
2. Start speaking, then think about what you are going to say
This is related to thinking aloud above and to learning sentence starters, mentioned below. Phrases which can start lots of sentences and are long enough to give you thinking time include “In my limited experience,…”, “I have generally found that,…”, “From my point of view,…”, “I don’t have any strong views about this one way or the other, but…”, “Off the top of my head,…”, “My initial answer would be…” and “The first thing that springs to mind is…”
This is related to the two things above but is a much easier thing to keep in mind – fill all silence with something or the other, even it is just sounds like “um” and “err”, extending some words while you think of others (“It was kiiiiiiind of aaaaa…”), echoing back the question or statement that you are responding to, or commenting on it before you make your own contribution (“That’s a difficult/ an unusual/ an interesting question”, etc).
This is really only an emergency measure that could interfere with developing your fluency if you use it too much, but one way of avoiding uncomfortable silences is to ask something to the other person to give yourself time to think of what you want to say. The most natural way of doing this is to check the meaning of their question or previous statement with questions like “I’m not sure what… means”. This can be done fairly naturally even if you do understand what they want from you if you use questions to double check like “Do you mean…(or…)?”, “Are you asking me…?”, “Just to double check,…” and “So, if I understand you correctly you want to know…” As long as you don’t use it too much, you can also get people to answer their question before you have to, with questions “Can you give me an example of what you mean?” and “How would you answer that question?” There are also a few common answers that naturally send the turn straight back like “Doesn’t everyone?” and “Do you really need to ask?”
5. Use words from your language, then explain them
A lot of people get stuck when they think of a word in their own language which they can’t (quickly) translate into English. The easiest way around this is to mention the word in your own language and then explain it using phrases like “I don’t know how to say it in English but in my language we say ‘….’, which means something like…” and “There is an expression in my language ‘…’ which is something like…”
Native speakers often give themselves thinking time by saying things like “something like”, “or something like that”, “I suppose”, etc, even when in fact they are fairly or very sure about what they are saying. Other useful phrases to do this with include “I guess”, “more or less”, “You could say”, “I’d probably say” and “or so I’d imagine”. You can also use vague language like “thing” and “stuff” when you could get stuck on a word that you don’t understand, and there are more colourful versions of these like “thingy”, “thingamabob”, “thingamajig” and “whatsit”. You can also do the same for people’s names with phrases like “Whatshisname”, “that guy” and “you know the guy”.
7. Give provisional answers
One way to prompt yourself to speak before thinking too much is to always remember that you can change your mind later. Useful phrases when this might be the case include “Off the top of my head,…”, “The first thing that springs to mind is…”, “As far as I remember,…”, “I’ll check if this is really true but…” and “I’ve got the actual information elsewhere but…” These are useful sentence starters for filling silence and getting you speaking even when you aren’t likely to change your mind, but if you do you can add phrases like “Wait a minute” and “Come to think of it”.
8. Really prioritise fluency while speaking
It’s incredibly difficult to improve fluency and other things at the same time, so if you really want to improve how quickly and smoothly you speak, you have to put other things on the backburner. This particularly means not concentrating on accuracy, be that accurate grammar, perfect pronunciation, getting the level of politeness exactly right, or saying exactly what you mean to say. With the exception of the kinds of language that are mentioned as useful in this article like sentences starters and vague language, you will also need to (temporarily) forget about using more complex language and things you’ve just learnt and have been desperate to try out, instead trying to use language you already know well to explain more or less what you want to say.
9. Accept other weaknesses
This is another way of putting the point above. If you are going to speak more smoothly than usual, it will inevitably lead to grammar mistakes, more level 1 interference in your pronunciation, less complex vocabulary, etc, so just accept that and work on those another time when they become your priorities.
10. Use the language you know to say what you can
… rather than trying to explain exactly the ideas in your head. At the most extreme level this can include agreeing when you really have the opposite opinion just because agreeing is easier or saying “It’s something like an English bungalow” when you know it isn’t that much like it at all (if a more accurate description doesn’t really matter).
11. Spit out pre-constructed chunks of language
This can be an example of the tip above – saying whole phrases or sentences that you’ve used many times before like “I envy you” and “That’s a real shame”, even if they don’t exactly match what you’d ideally like to say.
12. Avoid the trickiest things
If speaking quickly with few pauses is your main aim, there are all kinds of difficult things which are just best avoided in your speech such as jokes, parables and untranslatable concepts.
Sometimes the two parts of fluency (speaking smoothly and avoiding silence) can contradict each other, with filling silence while you think about what you are going to say necessarily meaning breaking the smooth flow of your spoken ideas. For example, native speakers often repeat themselves while they sort out the next thing they are going to say. While native speakers do actually repeat the same words, it is obviously better to rephrase instead, saying things like “It’s a kind of school, a sort of educational facility” etc while you think of what you next want to say next.
14. Push yourself (but not too much)
If you want to develop your fluency in both the short and long term, it is worth forcing yourself to speak a little quicker, more continuously and quicker off the mark than usual. However, putting too much pressure on yourself can have the opposite effect, distracting you from thinking of what you are going to say, making you stressed and/ or taking away your confidence.
Using “I’m” instead of “I am” and “must’ve” rather than “must have” sounds more natural and should hopefully also help with thinking of those things as fixed expressions rather than things that need to be put together word by word, therefore perhaps producing them more quickly and naturally.
16. Feel free to go off track
This is obviously something native speakers do all the time, often using perhaps the most useful pair of phrases in the English language – “by the way” to go off topic and “anyway” to get back on topic. “That reminds me…” and “Where was I?/ Where were we?/ What was I saying?” plus “Oh, yes” are also useful.
Going off topic can also be a conscious tactic, twisting what you are asked so that you end up talking about something easier than what the person you are talking to intended. For example, if they ask “How did you learn English?” you can say “I first started studying English in school, but I didn’t like those lessons very much” and continue on the easier topic of school English lessons. You obviously can’t use this tactic too much or in speaking exams!
18. Answer the easiest bit first
This is another way of responding to difficult questions such as “When and where did you meet your wife/ husband?” There is no need to answer in that order, so just talk about whichever part seems easiest to answer. You can also do something similar with single questions. For example, if they ask you “How did you get here today?” you can first of all give a basic summary like “I came by bicycle, train and bus” and then you can give more details about where you swapped between them etc.
19. Steer the conversation towards an easier topic
Useful phrases for this include “Moving on from that,…”, “Changing the topic a little,…”, “By the way,…”, “That reminds me a little of…” and “For some reason, that makes me think of…”.
20. Be realistic about how fluent you can be
Although it’s usually worth pushing yourself to fill silences etc, if you get stressed about your lack of fluency it can have the opposite effect. Native speakers pause, give up on a train of thought, change their minds halfway through a sentence, repeat themselves, correct themselves, go back to something they forgot to say, explain something in a disorganized way, make grammatical mistakes, or find themselves interrupted halfway through what they were saying. You should therefore should certainly allow yourself to sometimes do the same, particularly if you are the kind of person who often does those things in 1.
21. Don’t try to structure your speaking/ Don’t stick to a plan
An oral answer to a question isn’t (and shouldn’t be) anything like a written essay or even a conference presentation or lecture, so sentence starters like “There are three main arguments against this” are unnecessary. They can also be counterproductive, as it will take some (probably silent) thinking time to decide what you are going to say, plus probably more pausing when you forget what your plan was or realise that you don’t actually have the ideas to say what you promised to. More vague versions like “I can see both points of view” and “There seem to be loads of reasons why it wouldn’t work” can be useful, as long as you don’t feel you have to list all of those things once you start going into the details.
It is quite natural for native speakers to say “I forgot to mention…”, “Before I go on,…”, “To go back to… for a minute” and “…, which brings me back to…”, so feel free to do the same.
23. Clearly mark the end of your turn
As well as when you are speaking, silences can also occur when you’ve said all you want to say. Clues that should make the other person realise that you are done (and with most native speakers make them speak with little or no silence in between) include the intonation of your voice going down, tag questions (“…,isn’t it?” etc), eye contact, and body language (even clearly gesturing towards them).
24. Dramatic pauses/ Waiting for a reaction
There are some kinds of pauses which don’t come across as a lack of fluency at all, such as “and you’ll never guess what happened then (pause)” and “and when I opened the door I couldn’t believe my eyes (pause)”. If you have a drink you can sip at that point, that makes the silence even more natural and dramatic.
25. Slow down and speed up
There are plenty of times in a conversation where it is perfectly natural to speak slowly, such as emphasising something in expressions like “Oh… my… god!”, and you can use these naturally slow parts to think about what you will say next.
Although real fluency might seem like producing lots of words, it is often more natural to stretch out fewer words, especially when that has communicative function, as “I beliiiiiiiiieve…” (expressing doubt) and “You whaaaaaaaaaaat?” (expressing shock). This also gives you thinking time, hopefully helping you to speak more fluently afterwards. Other words which sounds as natural or more natural when stretched out include “Weeeeeell”, “Reeeeeeeally?” and “Iiiiiiiiii seeeeeeeeee”.
27. Use confident body language
Even if you are on the phone, sitting up straight and smiling can really help with your confidence and so your fluency. If you are face to face, make sure you also keep eye contact and it will also probably get the same positive body language from the person you are speaking to, making you feel more confident and so setting off a positive feedback loop.
If you want to practice speaking, sign up for a trial lesson. Good luck!