Tips for Non-native speakers of English

It has happened to all of us who use English as a foreign language: you are having a conversation with someone in English and suddenly there is this one word that you just don’t know. Or, for some reason or other you just have this black out and you can’t even think of what it was you were going to say, let alone HOW to say it. So what can you do to become more fluent in English?

Having been a teacher of English for the past couple of years now, I frequently get this question from students. My answer is usually the same. Of course there are tons of websites dedicated to this. Just google for ‘tips for speaking English’ and you will find so many websites that mean well. Some give good tips on how to improve your English in general. Some are aimed more at teaching you how to become a better speaker of English, whereas others tell you more about how to improve your accent once you are fluent.

Here are 10 tips I give to students :

  1. If you get stomped on a word, just stop for a bit. Think what the word means, and if you can’t think of the meaning in English, describe what the word means/ is/ represents. So: stop, think & describe.
  2. Also important: take your time! Don’t try to rush. It’s okay if you cannot speak as fast as in your native language. This is the mistake I have seen most: people are thinking that in order to be deemed competent they have to speak English like they speak their mother tongue. Wrong!
  3. Ask the speaker you are talking to, to slow down as well. This ensures that you understand what he or she is saying and gives you time to form your response in your head.
  4. If you are involved in a more formal situation where you need your oral language skills, let’s say a job interview, or a presentation, make sure you are prepared. Make sure you know your information well, bring your notes (also to an interview!) and take notes during the engagement. This includes jotting down difficult words and questions you want to ask.
  5. Get as much input of spoken English as possible. Listening to music and figuring out the lyrics, watching movies with no or English subtitles, watching English language TV (especially day time BBC programming is good if you want to learn some more vocab), reading English books/ magazines/ websites will all seriously help you improve your English.
  6. Some more tips regarding watching TV: BBC has a page on their CeeFax, page 888, which will subtitle all of their programs for you.
  7. Some interesting TV shows that are good tools when you want to learn some more vocabulary: Flog It! (antiques & English arts & crafts), Escape to the Country (homes & English countryside), Eggheads (game show bursting with facts), Jools Holland (talkshow & music), Jonathan Ross (talkshow), Top Gear (cars), Ready Steady Cook (cooking), Master Chef (cooking), any program/ series/ movie you may like. Just make sure you watch it without subtitles or with English subtitles.
  8. Link language items to things that make it easier for you to remember. It took me years to remember the word ‘beansprouts’ (Dutch: taugé), but then I taught myself that it looks like a  tiny bean that looks like it has just ‘sprouted’ something (Dutch: ontspruiten) and that’s how I managed to do that. I often also link things to movies, people, songs, smells, tastes, etc in order to remember things. It is important that you come up with these mnemonics (Dutch: ezelsbruggetje) yourself, as it will make it easier for you to remember them!
  9. Remember: It’s okay to make mistakes! Your English doesn’t have to be perfect for a Brit or American to understand you. Just get over that shyness and accept that you are at a certain level and take things from there. Which leads me to my final tip.
  10. Try to produce as much English as you can. Input of English is important, but if you want to become a better speaker of English, the only way to improve is by doing it: by making output. So like the Nike ad: Just Do It!

These tips can of course apply to any language you’re learning. All it takes is some guts and effort. Good luck!

If some of you teachers/ language learners/ native speakers have any other tips to share, please do so in the comments section below!

8 responses to “Tips for Non-native speakers of English”

  1. 5 I totally agree with, I find when I’m around you guys or I happen to watch say Sintaklass, my ears adjust better to hearing dutch, even if I don’t understand it all. Unfortunately in England programs in other languages and books, etc aren’t available so much.

  2. very useful, excellent of you sharing this !! we have been using the Ceefax 888 for some time now (aai is dit juiste tijd: vanuit het verleden tot in het heden doorlopend … )

    • Yep dat is de juiste tijd. Een present perfect continuous: je bent in het verleden ermee begonnen en doet het nu nog steeds. Signaalwoord = for. Als je dat woord gebruikt, dus for 10 years of for some time dan heb je sowieso altijd een present perfect (een voltooid tegenwoordige tijd). Doordat je ‘now’ gebruikt, betekent het op dit moment, dus dat je het nog steeds doet en daarom krijg je dan een continuous (bestaat niet in het NL). Dus je kunt het aan je gebruik van je signaalwoorden zien welke tijd het moet zijn.

  3. Hm, maar je kunt ook een periode van 10 jaar lang in het verleden aanduiden met “for”, toch?
    “I used my old tv for 10 years before I bought a new one.”

    • nee, dan moet het zijn: I had used my old tv for 10 years before I bought a new one. Dat is een past perfect. Een verleden tijd, die verder weg is dan de verleden tijd waar je het over hebt. Het zit em hier in het woordje ‘before’.

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