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Increase Your Fluency in English

(Teacher Joe originally wrote these articles for College English Magazine in Beijing.)

In past lessons, we learned how to control a conversation, what to do when we can't remember a word, how to improve our pronunciation, how to increase our vocabulary, and how to deal with large numbers. Now it's time to work on speaking more fluently. There are two techniques I use with my students. One is called "shadow practice", the other is "timed pair practice".

Technique Number One: Fluency Using "Shadow Practice"

The main goal of this technique is to make the muscles of your mouth and face move faster. What you do is listen to any English you can, preferably fast and spoken by a native speaker. You can watch TV, listen to a song, use a DVD, VCD or cassette, whatever you have available. As you listen to somebody speaking English, you move your mouth, lips and tongue as if you were speaking. You become, in a sense, the speakers "shadow", following his or her speech pattern, rhythm, intonation.

However, be sure to NOT use your voice. You should be listening the whole time, so that you can hear exactly how words and sentences are being said. While you are training your ear, you are also training your muscles! It's important, especially at first, to NOT worry about the meaning of what you hear. At first, you should concentrate on moving your mouth as quickly and as smoothly as a native speaker. You should FEEL the rhythm of the language, FEEL the movements flowing naturally. Remember, the word "fluent" comes from the word "flow". You want English to FLOW from your mouth as naturally as Chinese does.

Understanding the meaning of what you hear will come later. Actually, as you do "shadow practice" more and more, you will find that you can catch most of the meaning naturally, without even trying.

Now, it's important to be patient with this technique. You will not improve in just a day or two. You need to do it at least a few times a week. I found that when I studied French, and I listened to songs a little bit every day for a few of weeks, my spoken French became more natural and smooth. Your improvement, for the most part will be "subconscious", which means that you won't be aware of how much you are learning, but in a short time, the change will be dramatic! Please trust me when I tell you that this is one of the best techniques you could ever use.

Technique Number Two: Speak English Fluently with "Timed Pair Practice"

I use this second technique almost every week with my students. As they practice together with their classmates, I can watch them speaking faster and faster, gaining more and more confidence. For readers of College English, this technique requires the help of a friend, just like the lesson on Vocabulary Development. (See College English, September, 2003.) Here is a simple example of how to help each other speak faster.

Ask the following ten questions to your friend. He or she must answer with a full sentence. For example, if you ask, "Are you Chinese?", your friend should say "Yes, I am", not only "Yes". Don't let your friend see the questions as you read them. He or she should be listening to English, which means you must practice speaking clearly! (If you still have trouble with pronunciation, please read my article on Pronunciation, in the August issue of College English.) Use your watch to see how long it takes to answer all ten. It should take less than three minutes to ask and answer all ten questions. Ready? GO!

1) Do you like to eat pizza?
2) Can you play a musical instrument?
3) Will you eat dinner in a restaurant this evening?
4) Have you ever been to Hainan Island?
5) Are you interested in tennis?
6) What foods do you like to eat most?
7) Where would you like to visit in China?
8) Who is your favorite singer?
9) When is your birthday?
10) What kind of music do you like?

After you finish, your partner can ask you the same questions, however, he or she should change the order. (Instead of reading one through ten, he or she should ask number five first and number nine second, or something like that.) With practice, you should be able to do ten questions in under one minute.

When you've mastered these ten questions, you can move on to more complex questions. You can get questions from any textbook, or you can make up your own questions based on a reading text. With more difficult questions, you will need more time, so be patient with yourself. Don't worry if you take more than a minute or two. The main thing is to improve your time as you practice. So, if it takes you five minutes the first time you ask a set of questions, it should take you four minutes or maybe only three minutes the second time.

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