I believe that becoming fluent in English is easy. I believe this based on my experience of teaching students to be fluent in English. I have done this with intermediate and advanced-level students, but not with beginners because they need to learn basic grammar and vocabulary. The amount of time it takes for a student to go from timid, nervous, and only speaking in short sentences to speaking English as if it were nothing depends on how much the student already knows. With the right lessons, advanced students become fluent in about 3 months. For intermediate students it can take 6-9 months depending on how well they know English grammar, which is the foundation for everything.
The concept of how to become fluent is fairly simple. I repeat the same process with each student to great effect. Some students improve very quickly. Some very slowly. Some students become fluent in a few months. Some never do. The single factor that determines the difference in student outcomes is the time and dedication they put into their studies. More effort equals greater results. This, I’m sure, surprises no one.
I define English fluency as functional fluency. Language by its nature is functional. It serves a purpose. That purpose is communication. Therefore, I call someone fluent when they can communicate smoothly and effectively in all the normal day to day situations in life that they would find themselves in. For example, can a person communicate effectively at their job, at a restaurant, at a grocery store, at a school, at a church, at a wedding, etc? (Yes, you could even consider fluency to be contextual in this regard).
Keep in mind that there are four areas of language – reading, writing, speaking, and listening. To be fluent in English, you’re going to have to reach a near native level of speaking and listening. Many people around the world are fluent in their native language without knowing how to read or write, so I don’t count those two areas even though they’re important.
So, with all that said, how do you become fluent in English?
#1. – Don’t be afraid to speak English and make mistakes. Recently I was speaking with one of my top students. He lives in Panama and works for Dell, the computer company. He told me about his coworkers who solve the customer support problems. Instead of answering the phone to speak in English with their American clients, these customer support workers always say that the microphone is broken and that they have to communicate in the text chat. Although their solution works, it robs them of the opportunity to practice speaking English.
Think about it like this. We become good at whatever we practice, so if you want to be good at speaking English, then speak English. That’s rule number one.
#2. Find new vocabulary words to learn. This is where things start to become complicated. The more you know, the more difficult it is to find new words that you don’t know. Moreover, you need to learn words that are just a little beyond your current level of English. If you’re a beginner, then there’s no point in learning academic English words like “vicissitudes, ontological, or loquacious.” If you’re an intermediate student, then learn upper intermediate to advanced level vocabulary. If you’re advanced, then learn upper advanced or academic-level words.
Where do you find these words? Well, that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? It’s not easy to find new words. But when you do find new words, the process is simple. Go to a dictionary website like www.dictionary.com, look up the definition, understand it, and memorize it. Do this word after word consistently for years, and eventually you’ll reach the point where you rarely encounter words you don’t know.
#3. You must study informal English. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students tell me that they understand English during our conversations but not when they watch Netflix. Most of the time, the things they don’t understand are not meant to be understood literally. Remember, language and culture are inseparable. If you tell an American to “stop monkeying around,” we’re going to know that that means to stop wasting time and get back to work. We’re not going to think about actual monkeys. If I were to say to those of you who are currently studying English that “I don’t have a nickel to my name,” I would guess that 95% of you would not know what that means. Do you see the problem here?
Normal English schools and textbooks only teach basic grammatical and formal English. Yet in the real world, native English speakers use informal English as much as, if not more than, formal English. This means that half of what you need to know, you’re not going to find in a textbook. I know this. That’s why in AEVIC, my English school, I specifically teach informal English. Idiomatic expressions like “monkeying around, to be a rebel without a cause, to jump ship, or to have two left feet” are a major part of what I teach.
Time and time again, I’ve seen the English level of my students explode once they start learning informal English. After enough time and study my students reach a level where talking with them is like talking with another American. In fact, the other day a Brazilian student and I were joking around about internet memes. So if you want to be fluent in English, then don’t let your dreams be memes and study informal English. (By the way, the word meme rhymes with dream, a lot of non-English speakers incorrectly pronounce it as may-may).
#4. Write it down. The secret to learning is repetition. This is as true in learning a language as in anything else. If you hear or read a word one time, you’re going to forget it. Therefore, you need what you learn to be in writing.
I know that. I also know that taking notes is boring and I hate doing it. This causes problems for me in my second and third languages – Spanish and French. I should study more, but I hate taking notes, so I don’t.
I imagine that my students are the same. So instead of making them take notes, I simply give them a copy of every lesson for them to keep forever. That way they can review them whenever they want without writing down a single word. How convenient, right?
#5. You need a native speaker to correct your pronunciation errors – a linguist is even better. The way that the mouth physically moves to produce the sounds of a language are slightly different in each language. A major part of Linguistics is the study of phonetics and phonology. A linguist can tell you specifically what to do with your mouth to produce the sound that native speakers are saying.
I can give you an example of this from when I was working as an assistant English teacher in France. I taught in high schools that had students that had studied English for 10 years or more. Yet none of them pronounced the word “the” correctly. That’s because the dental fricative “th” does not exist in the French language. In fact, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear that many Europeans say “ta, da, or za” instead of “the.”
Having studied Linguistics, I was able to teach them how to pronounce “th” like an American in less than two minutes. (Place the tip of your tongue on your top teeth. It slides down a little to create friction. Otherwise, you can just put your tongue between your teeth and say “the” sounds as an interdental [tongue between teeth]).
It’s not my belief that every student needs to study with a native speaker. I think that beginners can learn from anyone. Yet at the advanced level, students need to be more precise with their pronunciation. Having a native English speaker for a teacher would help many students. However, the advanced knowledge of how to use the mouth to make sounds isn’t something that a normal English teacher can teach you because that’s not English – that’s Linguistics.
Having majored in Linguistics at Michigan State University, I can tell you that it’s not a popular thing for people to study. I’m sure that somewhere in the world there are other linguists who teach English as a foreign language. I don’t know where to find them. However, I do know that students who study with AEVIC get to have a linguist for a teacher, and that helps a lot.
#6. Conversation practice is essential. To be good at speaking English, you have to speak English. You will need conversation partners for this. Where do you find them? All around the internet, honestly. I often see people looking for conversation partners.
Every AEVIC class ends with discussion questions. These questions allow the students to practice English conversations about new topics in new ways with each class. This, more than anything else, is what leads students to English fluency. In fact, I would say that you will not become fluent without conversation practice. It is absolutely essential.
AEVIC, the Advanced English Virtual Immersion Community, is meant to be a community of students who are dedicated to becoming fluent in English. Rather than having students trying to find one another across the internet, I’d rather gather them in one place to make it easier for them to find people to practice with.
#7. Consistency. I tell my students to practice at least two hours a week. Part of that practice time needs to be conversation practice. Those who do at least that much get better quickly. Those who don’t, do not. It’s very frustrating as a teacher to see a student who only practices once every three months. Many students have progressed so fast that it has astonished even me. Yet there are others who stay in the same place month after month because they don’t practice consistently.
The number one most common reason for why students take lessons with me is for career and economic opportunities. The second most common reason is to study abroad at foreign universities. The third most common reason is for travel. The fourth is for the intellectual challenge.
What about you? Why do you want to be fluent in English? I hope that it’s a strong enough reason to motivate you to practice consistently for the 3-9 months that it would take for you to become fluent in English (presuming you’re not a beginner and have already learned basic English grammar).
In conclusion, becoming fluent in English isn’t difficult. The biggest challenges are finding the right things to learn, finding a good teacher, finding people to practice with, and motivating oneself to practice consistently. I created AEVIC to bring my system of teaching students to be fluent in English to more people. Everything that you need to become fluent AEVIC provides for you except for the motivation to practice consistently. That’s something that only you can give yourself.
If you’re not already a member of AEVIC, then you can try a class to see if you like it. Classes are $10. If you want to commit to studying over the next few months to become fluent, then you should become a member. Members pay one low price per month and can take unlimited classes and participate in the community forum.