Very few people are naturally gifted with the automatic ability to excel in their chosen field or skill. Prior to expertise comes feelings of exasperation and self-doubt, periods of making mistakes while learning, and a lot of hard work.
Learning English in the first place is commendable. The process can be frustrating and confusing, and to get through this you need buckets of determination which is why attaining fluency is so admirable.
The thing about English is, while there are grammar rules to help you, there are also many, many exceptions to these rules, not to mention the irregular spelling patterns, and words and phrases with multiple meanings.
To top it all off, there's British English and American English (and don't forget Australian English!) And did we mention the accents?
Which English do you choose? And which accent?
Is Accent Important when Speaking English?
In the past, accent was a marker of social standing and high-class education — the fancier the better if you were going to learn to speak English.
Is this the case in modern society?
In Britain, and in other English-speaking countries, including Australia, the Queen's English (or King's English, if relevant) is at the top of the spoken English hierarchy — the ultimate indicator of refinement.
The Macquarie Dictionary's definition of Queen's English is:
Standard Southern British English, especially considered as correct or desireable usage.
In fact, the Oxford Dictionary goes further by referring to the Queen's English being the language spoken by educated people.
These assumptions are often represented in movies and plays of the time. For example, in the highly awarded My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle's spoken English is considered inferior and so she is sent off to learn to speak English properly.
However, rather than insinuating that speakers of another English dialect are of a lower social standing, the definitions reflect historical opinions about the Royal Family and the continuing deference towards them. Instead, the ability to speak Standard English, today transcends previous suppositions.
Another form of British English is known as BBC English or RP English (Received Pronunciation)
This highly cultivated accent came about following World War One as a way of ensuring BBC Radio presenters could be understood despite the vast range of English accents, both in the UK (which had over 56 regional dialects) and internationally. In modern times, however, it is thought that less than 2 per cent of people who speak English throughout the world use BBC English.
The Australian accent is often thought to be difficult to understand, however, there are little to no regional dialect differences — despite the vastness of the country.
In 1965, linguists Arthur Delbridge and A.G. Mitchell identified three Australian accents:
- general — the most common type of English spoken in Australia
- broad — an accent often associated with working-class regions, or country areas of Australia
- cultivated — also known as 'elevated Australian speech' (or 'posh'), this is an accent which is likened to Britain's Received Pronunciation (or BBC English). Like RP English, it is not commonly used by Australian native English speakers.
With so many different accents, pronunciation of words and types of English, the decision about which English to focus on may be daunting.
Our recommendation is that you stay with Common or Standard English (i.e. the Queen's English) as this is the root of the varied dialects and will ensure your spoken English is understood.
Links Between Social Image and Language
As much as we might like to think we've moved past the days of My Fair Lady or even Pretty Woman, your spoken English, particularly your accent and enunciation, can and do lead to others making assumptions and social judgements about you.
As recently as the late 1950s, a finishing school was a necessary step for wealthy young ladies who required some 'social polishing' before they were to marry. These schools focused not only on teaching how to speak English elegantly but also a raft of desirable attributes, including social etiquette, behaviour, suitable feminine pursuits (such as music and handwriting), grooming and deportment.
You may think that finishing schools would have disappeared in this day and age and, for a while, there was a decline. However, if you look around in Australia today, particularly in larger cities, you will find numerous finishing, or etiquette and deportment, schools. Moreover, you will see that they are, in fact, increasing in popularity among both young men and women looking to gain an edge in the increasingly competitive job market.
Essentially, the traditional finishing schools taught their students how to behave in upper-class social circles and were designed to make them be noticed. Similarly, the modern finishing schools are all about social and professional etiquette, with the goal of building confidence and helping graduates stand out in job interviews. They've certainly come a long way.
In relatively recent years, there have been several reality TV shows aired in Australia which attempt to turn 'wild Aussie girls' into sophisticated ladies. One show, Aussie Ladette to Lady saw contestants receiving cooking lessons, elocution, dance and so on under the watchful and critical eyes of their specialist mentors and 'school principal'.
Surviving at least two seasons, Australian Princess placed 12 regular Aussie girls in the care of Paul Burrell (former butler to Princess Di) who had the formidable task of transforming them into a state suitable for royalty.
In both programs, there were as many success stories as failures — those achieving success spoke of increased confidence, self-love and happiness. The jury is out, however, as to whether the shows actually portrayed the advances in women's rights in modern society.
Whether you are a fan or a detractor of these types of shows, the fact remains that there is still a link between social identity and spoken language.
We may need to ask ourselves — what exactly is proper English? Is it fair to judge a person's character based on their pronunciation or accent? What about the vocabulary choices they make? If we practise speaking in a more refined way, will that automatically change who we are?
In the case of actors, accents make or break careers but is this true for other professions? We only need to look at popular TV show hosts to see that the way we speak is not necessarily an indicator of high or low intelligence.
Perhaps the day will come when English lessons will enable learners to practise speaking like Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee.
English Lessons: Speaking Skills
English courses will equip you with an impressive understanding of English grammar and a considerable word bank — certainly enough to match the native language speakers in a written test.
Conversational or functional English (i.e. the ability to navigate daily life, including official and professional issues) is a completely different prospect, requiring the English as a Second Language learner to synthesise all their knowledge and activate it.
Do You Need to Learn to Speak English Like a Local?
When learning a new language, it's natural to want to try to speak like the locals.
Many regional English dialects are easily identified in the UK and US. However, these unique dialects are also frequently heard in Australia with its high proportion of immigrants from countries like Scotland and Ireland, and often blend in with the Australian accent.
The chance of hearing 10 different dialects from 10 different people in one room in Australia is not as far-fetched as it may seem — and they may all be native speakers of English, or, indeed, Australian born.
If you're keen to speak English fluently as soon as you can, the recommendation from many ESL Teachers is to avoid trying to imitate accents. The variety can be overwhelming and shifting your focus to mirroring a particular dialect could have the effect of slowing your English speaking progress.
Concentrate on increasing your vocabulary and grammar instead.
Unless you have a very strong accent, as long as your sentence structure and vocabulary is correct, you will be understood. Actually, correct and coherent speech is surely a better indicator than accent is of intellect and quality education.
Learning Phrases Will Help You Improve
Learning sets of individual words is fine for a beginner, however, if you are serious about becoming fluent, particularly if you are at a university or professional English level, you should really be focusing on complete phrases.
Phrases provide context and further add to your vocabulary.
Often, when learning English, the fun aspects of this language are thought to be less important than mastering correct grammar and vocabulary.
Australian slang is right up there with the sheer amount of slang used in the US and in the UK.
Second language learners often shy away from using slang in case they get the context wrong. This can be embarrassing, however, if you can perfect just a couple of the more common slang expressions, you may find your understanding, at the very least, will increase.
Whether or not you decide to incorporate some slang into your speaking practice, you should be aware that native English speakers naturally use a lot of wordplay and slang — so be sure not to take everything for its literal meaning.
At a beginner's level, there are two certainties:
- When listening, almost all language learners translate what they've heard into their own language to aid understanding.
- Before speaking, most early language learners work out what they want to say in their native language first, and then translate it into English.
As you improve and become more confident, the need to do these things should lessen.
English is a language full of nuance and implied meaning. The enthusiasm of students to understand and participate in conversations, while commendable, can also lead to misunderstandings if they take everything that is said at face value.
Remember not to take every sentence or word literally in English.
Fluent Speakers Use Contractions and Connections
If you want your spoken English to sound natural, you will need to use connections and contractions. You'll also find it makes pronunciation easier.
Your listening comprehension will also improve if you understand how words are connected and contracted in speech.
There are rules for contracting and connecting words, all of which will help improve your English speaking.
Fluent English Speaking Requires Practice
So far, we've suggested focusing on areas used by native English speakers in everyday conversations — connections and contractions, common entire phrases and slang.
Once you have the knowledge, the next step is to put it into practice.
Speak English Every Day
If you want to learn English but do not have easy access to a language learning school where you can undertake English lessons face-to-face with qualified tutors, there are other options to explore. Think laterally, and you will find plenty of ways you can improve your English.
Listening skills are easy to practice — websites with English videos, podcasts and other audio materials are freely available. However, the challenge lies in finding opportunities to practise speaking.
One thing you may wish to explore are sites which offer conversation practice:
- Conversation Exchange: helps you connect with native English speakers anywhere in the world, including Australia. You organise when, how and where to meet — either in person or online.
- italki: allows you to select a qualified English teacher or community tutor (native or advanced speaker) with a view to undertaking hourly sessions and improving your English speaking skills.
- My Language Exchange: a similar concept to Conversation Exchange in which you pair up with another language learner for the purpose of language exchange (e.g. English and Japanese).
- Speaky: a platform with both audio and video chat options and a strong focus on connecting with a range of people who share your interests.
- Tandem Language Exchange: a worldwide language exchange community which not only offers opportunities to pair up (tandem) with native speakers anywhere in the world, they also offer online English lessons.
Downloading Skype may be useful.
Talking with someone face-to-face is often easier. You can do this with a webcam and ask your language exchange partner to focus particularly on your word formation and use of gesture.
A conversation only with audio can also be useful, and will actually strengthen your listening comprehension skills as you will not have other cues to rely on.
In addition to Skype, there is an abundance of apps accessible and easily downloadable to your phone. Look for ones that permit video chat options.
- Line: a chat app which offers free messaging, voice and video calls and is considered to be a high-quality app which is easy to use.
- Viber: also offers a full range of messaging, group chats, audio and video calls.
- WeChat: a Chinese messaging app owned by TenCent. While not commonly known outside of Chinese communities, it offers the usual messaging, audio and video chat opportunities.
- WhatsApp: owned by FaceBook, it's a free app (which relies on your data) where you can conduct audio and video chats, messaging and sharing document and photos.
Connecting with native English speakers anywhere in the world is easier than you may have thought!
Hearing and Interpreting Intonation in Spoken English
Many languages are classed as tonal, that is, pitch is used to distinguish word meaning. Although English is non-tonal, it is certainly not monotone. There are, in fact, many variations in rhythm and word stress which can change the implied meaning of a sentence.
Understanding and replicating these subtle intonations can present a challenge as you learn to speak English.
The same sentence can have different meanings depending on which words are stressed. Take this example:
She said she didn't take his money.
Simple? Not really. Think about how the meaning changes when the word in bold is stressed or emphasised when speaking:
- She said she didn't take his money. (But someone else did take it.)
- She said she didn't take his money. (Implying he told her she could borrow it.)
- She said she didn't take his money. (Not his money, but she did take something else.)
Can you think of other possibilities?
It is easy to see, from this example, that comprehension of spoken English requires a good knowledge of how intonation will affect meaning.
There are rules about which words require the application of stress, however, for the most part, intonation to imply meaning in conversational English requires ongoing exposure to internalise and use naturally.
Watching English language movies is a great way to gain this experience.
Internationally, British, American and Australian movies are very popular. Why not combine some leisure time with some English practice — with audio-visual clues to aid comprehension.
If you want more of a challenge (i.e. no visual cues), think about downloading audiobooks which will enable you to listen to more formal English in its spoken form. You can often find sites which offer free download options, including:
- Librivox: the variety of genres and subjects on Librivox is astounding. There are thousands of books to choose from, all of which can be accessed on any device. All for free!
- Amazon: as with Librivox, the range of titles is vast, from classics to modern contemporary. Audiobooks are free with Amazon in the UK and US, however, in Australia a subscription to Audible is required followed the 30-day trial.
Whatever you choose, listen as often as you can and you will soon find yourself incorporating the intonation into your own conversations in English.
Can you transfer your listening skills to spelling?
Speaking and Spelling: Learning English with Phonetics
Excerpts from movies and books with English narration are fantastic for roleplay activities during your English lessons.
First, you'll need to transcribe the sections you want to practise. While around 60-70 per cent of English words are spelt how they sound, the remaining third of the English vocabulary you need will require knowledge of phonetic spelling.
How do you locate the phonetic spelling of words?
In our age of technology, you no longer need to lug around a massive English dictionary — there are plenty of options available online. Some require subscriptions, others are free. Some can be downloaded for use without an internet connection.
If you plan to download a dictionary, make sure your device has enough free space.
Three advantages of using whichever dictionary you choose are:
- The phonetic spelling of every word will be there, directly under the word.
- The breakdown of syllables will be noted.
- A recording of the pronunciation of the word will be available. (Though, do check the accent before you download.)
While these tools are certainly valuable, be aware that the voice recording may not necessarily be the best pronunciation!
Equal use of phonetic spelling, combined with examining syllables, will guarantee progress with your speaking and spelling.
Become Familiar with Spelling Rules
Using phonetics and syllables is the first step towards mastering English spelling. The next step, to take you even further, is to learn the rules. We'll give you a couple of the basic rules to get you started.
English spelling can be tricky, but it is worth it to memorise rules such as what to do when making plurals, inflecting verbs or changing verbs into nouns.
Plural Rules: nouns that end in -y
The trick here is to look at the letter which precedes the 'y' — is it a vowel or a consonant?
If a word ends with vowel + y, just add an 's'.
For example: toy — toys; monkey — monkeys
If a word ends with a consonant + y, replace the 'y' with 'ies'.
For example: activity — activities; pony — ponies
Rules for Doubling the Last Letter
Along with grammar rules, pronunciation rules in English are somewhat inconsistent. Consider the vowel sound in putt and put (it changes). Now consider butt and but (it doesn't change).
Someone who has grown up speaking English may not even think of this, but if you're interested (and you should be), look up the etymology of the words you're wondering about. The word origin will give you a clue as to why the pronunciation is different.
For the record, putt is Scottish (meaning throw) and put is old English (meaning place) — have a go at looking up butt and but.
When you need to inflect a single-syllable CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) word, you have to double the final consonant to retain the original vowel sound:
- trip — tripping
- shut — shutting
- sad — saddest
Be aware of exceptions, for example, if a word ends in vowel + w, doubling does not apply.
The same rule is also applied to two-syllable (or more) VC (vowel-consonant) words — but only when the final syllable is stressed:
- admit — admitting
- control — controlled
- occur — occurrence
If the stress is on the first syllable, the final consonant is not doubled, as in happen — happened.
The best way to learn spelling rules is to practise slowly, regularly and in context. Choose a new pattern or a few new words or phrases each morning, and practise spelling them throughout the day.
New or interesting idioms, expressions you've heard in conversation or slang words are particularly fun to practise.
Will better spelling lead to improved pronunciation?
Often, our comprehension of words we hear on a daily basis is extensive — yet, if we have to write them, accurate spelling can prove to be challenging.
English words have been sourced from multiple languages, including Greek, Latin and Roman. Many words are composites of several terms. Knowledge of a word's structure and its derivation and history is fascinating and may help you remember how to spell and pronounce it.
Investigating English Slang with a Dictionary
There is no shortage of English learning resources. You can pretty much find everything you'll ever need in your local library, your classroom or online.
Everything, that is, with the exception of slang — despite the fact it's used ad nauseam in daily conversation. Along with idioms, these expressions tend to only be touched upon in the quest for cultural awareness, instead of an informative grammar activity.
The best you can probably hope for is to learn one or two terms, but it is unlikely the curriculum will include a module on English slang and how standard words are used in this way.
Sick, slay and dead — these words don't mean what you think. If you want to keep up with the times, use them when you mean: fabulous, succeeding and euphorically happy.
If you want to develop your understanding of modern slang, and know how to use it, have a look for dictionaries that specialise in English slang and colloquial terms.
Each country will have its own dictionary or list of slang words. If you're after American terms, try the Urban Dictionary. Peevish is a great resource for British colloquial terms. If you're after Australian English, check out Koala Net.
If you want to take a look into the history of slang and the evolution of the English language, you can't go past Green's Dictionary of Slang.
Of course, you can purchase hard copies of slang dictionaries too, but if you really want current terminology, online dictionaries are the best as they are regularly updated.
Issues with Using Slang
While using slang can be fun and can help you feel like you fit in, there are so many variations out there — which one should you learn?
Watching TV can help you pick up local slang, but also be aware that shows produced for the global market will tend towards neutral terminology.
An awareness of both broad (general) slang, along with more regional terms, would be useful.
The best suggestion is to develop your own dictionary of slang. Keep a notebook handy for this purpose (or create an online file) and jot down words and phrases you hear. Look them up - or ask your friends about their meaning.
Practise using your new slang words, frequently and in different contexts, and see what happens!
Who knows — you might find yourself speaking just like a local in no time at all.
What Can You Do to Nail Your English Accent?
The question above is a bit ambiguous — really, we should be asking which English dialect, or regional accent, do we want to develop?
There are considerable variations in English-language dialect and accent from America to Australia, or from Edinburgh to Dublin to London.
An Aussie really stands out in Canada.
An American is instantly identifiable in Ireland. Scottish speakers often need TV subtitles to be understood on Australian television.
Owing to the sheer amount of US content on televisions and radios around the world, American English is often considered mainstream and tends to be the most easily understood. British English, and its multiple dialects, are considered refined or romantic, but hard to comprehend. Whereas, Australian English speakers are often said to be impossible to understand!
Online ESL courses are available and will assist you to work out the best accent for you.
If you want to work or study in Australia, you need to attain an IELTS or TOEFL score. You could also benefit from checking out Australian English Pronunciation and Transcription (Felicity Cox).
Arthur Bronstein's The Pronunciation of American English is recommended reading before you leave for the US.
Alternatively, if you are planning to head off to the UK, have a look at English Phonology (edited by LLC Books).
Don't let a focus on accent draw you away from learning English. Accents are only a small part of the picture and may really only be of importance if a particular accent is part of your brand like Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly — would he be as funny with an American accent? Everyone will have an opinion on an accent and, unless it is essential for your future, it may not be worth being overly concerned about.
Do You Already Have An Accent?
Perhaps you've been learning English for some time and have acquired an accent already because of where you live or study.
Accents in the US and UK can be particularly easy to pick up without realising it. The table below contains some famous UK accents.
|Name||Where it originates|
If you want to improve your oral, aural and written/spelling skills effectively, but need to learn English online, you may benefit from these suggestions:
- Your language study should be based on Standard English
- Use spelling rules
- Study the phonetics relevant to the region you're focusing on
- Note the slang you hear and check dictionaries for meaning
- Find daily opportunities to speak to assist your fluency.
If you can do this, you're English is sure to improve quickly.
Websites and Apps for Learning English
Today's technology makes learning a second language easier than ever before.
A quick search will bring up numerous self-guided websites, designed to assist your skill development through exercises, hints and tips and video content. As with other skills, you can learn English in your own home, at your own pace and with minimal resources. Time and self-motivation are all you require to begin learning a new language.
A highly recommended website, which offers free resources along with an English level testing facility, is the Learn English section of the British Council website. If you're in Australia, and you want more specific Australian content, along with modules in grammar, vocabulary and speaking, the ABC Education website also has a Learn English extension.
Engaging in self-guided online learning using these sorts of websites means you can set your own learning goals and work at your own pace.
If you need more structure and guidelines on where to start and how to continue, websites often offer these as well.
Not surprisingly, Apps are becoming increasingly popular. There's an App for almost everything we need to do.
These days, people are constantly on the move, and looking for shortcuts and timesaving ways to complete tasks — including study. Educational organisations have acknowledged this and have responded by developing study and revision materials suitable accessing via your phone or device.
Language-learning Apps are perfect to use when commuting, cooking dinner or while you're waiting for your morning coffee. Many of these Apps, like DuoLingo, are almost game-like. They're fun to use and require only minimal effort to pick up new concepts.
Apps also 'test you' informally, and automatically advance you when you've achieved a certain level. In addition, they're usually categorised into specific topics, often relevant to daily life.
Once you've downloaded your App, you can access it whenever you have time. Why not forego scrolling through your social media and review your language skills instead?
Many Apps also allow you to set notifications — so you'll be reminded if you haven't been on for a while, or sent positive affirmations to keep you motivated.
Dictionaries are also available to download as an App. You might choose a multilingual dictionary or translation App to help you navigate between your native language and English, or you may decide an English dictionary, and perhaps a thesaurus, will better meet your needs.
If you have been learning English for a while, the Linguee App can be extremely useful.
Linguee, which is available in a number of language pairings, offers lists of words or phrases from actual English texts assuring intermediate and advanced users that the phrases they need will be grammatically correct and accurate in terms of the context.