Shy? What you can do alone to improve your fluency

Common advice for improving your fluency seems to be “just go out and talk to people”.

Of course, you already do talk to people. I wouldn’t wish to discourage you from communicating. That’s the point of languages after all. Speaking another language opens up a new world.

But sometimes talking to others, knowing you’ll probably make a few mistakes, or are embarrassed about your pronunciation, can be intimidating.

Maybe you’ve felt embarrassed when they misunderstood you. Maybe you’re quite sensitive to other people’s comments. Maybe you can’t think of all the grammar and vocabulary you already know fast enough when speaking. Maybe when you try and talk about complicated things, it just comes out wrong.

When this happens regularly you might lose motivation to talk to others. Or lose motivation to practice.

I have felt all these things when learning a language. Often, I could think of a whole sentence, but I wasn’t sure about one word, so I’d keep quiet. Or I would prepare in my head, and find the courage to speak. But sometimes people didn’t understand me, and were too polite to say so. I found myself becoming more shy and afraid to speak. Despite being very motivated, I felt quite frustrated at myself and discouraged.

Comments and corrections, by kind people trying to help, left me feeling like I just wasn’t doing very well. At all.

The teacher in me would remind myself to think of the progress I’d made. To remember all the times I said something right, or made someone laugh. To remember that mistakes are normal and a natural part of learning. And that you only get better with practice.

When you’re in front of other people and feeling embarrassed, stupid and frustrated, you can easily forget all the positive self-talk.

If you’re shy and want to become fluent, it’s too overwhelming to do all your practice in front of other people. If you’re an introvert like me, you’ll probably feel most at ease alone. And do your best thinking alone. You can practice speaking and improve your fluency alone too.

What can you do?

You might like to start by thinking in English, and work your way up. Do whatever you feel comfortable with, you’re alone.

Talk about whatever interests you. If you’d like some ideas, speaking prompts are listed afterwards.

Think: This is obviously the least intimidating option to practice using English. I wouldn’t suggest trying to do it all the time, you’ll just end up frustrating yourself. But set aside a few chunks of time each day to think in English. Great for when there’s other people around.

Speak aloud: Speaks for itself really. It’s important to verbalise and practice speaking out loud.

*Bonus Tip: If you’re not alone, like in a supermarket or on a busy bus- don’t start talking aloud to yourself! Stick to thinking.

Record yourself. You can keep this private. You can listen and spot some areas for improvement. Practice and have another go. You might also like to get feedback from a friend or teacher you feel comfortable with.

You might also think your voice sounds funny. That’s pretty common at first. I know I often think “is that me?” You will get used to it.

*But please, don’t try to thoroughly critique it and spot every error. Choose one or two things to focus on improving. And be kind to yourself.

Draft: Not expecting your speaking to be perfect the first time is important. Accept that there may be some fumbles as you try to find the right words. It takes time. If you feel more comfortable writing- do that first. Formulate your thoughts, jot some points down. Read out what you’ve written. Summarise it aloud spontaneously. Have another go.

Shadow: Want to practice without coming up with something original? Try shadowing. You follow along with an audio book, video, etc and speak as they do. Like a spoken shadow.

It has many linguistic benefits. You can mirror the intonation, rhythm, pronunciation, etc. You practice speaking and focus on improving those things without having to come up with your own things to say. Verbalising will help it “sink in” and over time will help your speech sound more natural.

*Tips: It’ll take a few listens and attempts. The practice and repetition is good for you. Focus on a short section of what you’re watching- around 2–3 minutes. I’d suggest you get something nice and easy for this. Bonus if there’s a transcript available.

Speaking prompts

If you’d like some inspiration, I’ve listed a few prompts below to get you started. These things might seem basic, even silly. But they can be as simple or advanced as you’d like them to be.

  • Do a recap of your day in the evening.
  • What’s one of your favourite things to cook? How do you make it? Is it a family recipe? Is it something for special occasions or a regular weekly meal?
  • What’s something you can do well at work? Explain the process.
  • Say what you’re doing around the house and why. I do this constantly, for the benefit of my inquisitive child who asks 200 questions a day.
  • Summarise a news article. Was it shocking, or upsetting? If it was an opinion piece- did you agree or disagree?
  • Pick a TV show, movie, YouTube video, etc. Choose a short scene and have a go at shadowing.
  • Have you ever been somewhere beautiful or amazing on holiday? Talk about where, when and who you went with. What was your favourite sight? Did you try any new or unusual foods while there?

‘Relax’, and other helpful tips

  • Talk about things that interest you. If it’s boring, you’ll quickly lose motivation.
  • Try to focus more on the message, and not stress about grammar.
  • Choose “native” texts, i.e. made for natives and not simplified for English learners.
  • Use audio ideally. It’ll give you a good model for your speech.
  • Try to relax. You’re alone and no one will judge you. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

Your daily task

Start with one week. Set aside at least 15 minutes of quiet time, to think or speak in English. Keep it simple and pick one activity for each day. There’s a lot of potential in doing something simple consistently to reach your goal.

Thanks for reading this article! I really do hope at least one person finds it helpful. If so, could you recommend and help share it with others.

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