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Crafting Your Art of English Fluency

When I came to the United States, I was barely fluent in spoken English, although on paper I seemed competent in the language. In fact, it turned out the English I had learned over the course of my middle and high school years was quite different from American English.

When you’re not comfortably fluent in the language of your “new home,” a casual chat can rapidly turn into a rollercoaster of confusing words. I could barely even understand the information that the immigration officer told me when I landed in the U.S.

Now, after two years, I can proudly say that my English is lot better than it used to be, although I’m still trying to improve my speaking skills. To get there, I had to understand that assimilating to a language is an art. You have to feel it, visualize it, and experience it yourself. It’s an art that you create, not that you learn. Here are the four ways in which I have crafted my own art of fluency.

1. The Craft of Listening

Treatment with leeches. Woodcut from Historia Medica by W. van den Bossche.
Treatment with leeches. Woodcut from Historia Medica by W. van den Bossche.

Have you ever heard of leeches? There are slimy and tiny worm-like organisms that can suck human blood without even getting noticed. A leech will absorb as much blood as it pleases, and then instinctively lets go and begins its well-deserved digestion break.

I know, you must be wondering why I would talk about leeches in an article about learning English. But actually, those little creatures can teach us a lot about the approach to take when learning English. If you really want to be comfortable with daily spoken English, you have to start absorbing the language as much as you can.

It doesn’t matter how, where, or when. Just let yourself consume the language. It may feel like you’re not learning anything because you’re just hearing thousands of words you don’t understand, but trust me, your brain is subliminally integrating English into you.

I did this by watching television, turning up the radio, or even listening to strangers’ conversations — which is great until you get caught.

I also used an English-only dictionary to try to understand words in their proper context, rather than using a translation dictionary to learn what words meant in my native language (French).

One of my ESL instructors, Christiane Galvani, told us one day that every step we take towards our native language is a step backwards in English. Honestly, this is one of the best pieces of advice about language assimilation I’ve ever heard. It is so true; each time I was only speaking in French, it would hold me back from actually progressing in English.

2. The Craft of Watching

"Die eitle Alte" by Bernardo Strozzi. Oil on canvas.
"Die eitle Alte" by Bernardo Strozzi. Oil on canvas.

My other ESL instructor, Melanie Dando, used to tell us, “If you feel too comfortable, you’re probably speaking with an accent.”

One way to break the habit of speaking in your native accent is to watch videos on YouTube (or any other video site that has transcripts or captions) and try to emulate what the host is doing as you read from the transcript. I always try to exaggerate the sounds and overstress the pronunciations so I get more comfortable with the correct sounds.

It also helps if you do this in front of a mirror. This is another piece of advice from my ESL instructor Mrs. Galvani. Watching yourself as you speak helps you visualize the way you're moving your mouth. One thing I personally realized is that in English you have to hold your tongue a very particular way to pronounce certain words.

One of the most challenging sounds for me was the sound “th” in words such as “though,” “thus,” “through,” or “threat.” Sometimes that sound would come out sounding more like “v” in words like “the” or like “f” in words like “threat. At the beginning I felt really uncomfortable trying to mimic the correct tongue position, but that just meant I was breaking my incorrect habits. I tried to vary the way I moved my mouth until I figured out what worked best to let me make this sound.

I was really amazed when I discovered the proper way this sound should be voiced, although I still struggle to pronounce the word “thrust.” Watching and listening to myself as I practiced speaking also helped me notice that I project a better sound in English when I use a lower and deeper tone with my voice.

Practice always makes better, although NOT perfect, so I cannot stress enough how important practice is. Your mirror should become your best ESL friend - after all, you spend the majority of your time with yourself.

3. The Craft of Speaking

"John Wilkes Esq; before the Court of King's Bench," engraving from The Gentleman's Magazine for May 1768.
"John Wilkes Esq; before the Court of King's Bench," engraving from The Gentleman's Magazine for May 1768.

One thing that you need to understand as a foreigner is that you may never be able to visualize, understand, or even speak English the way the native people do. Native speakers have been speaking the language ever since they were toddlers. They have had the time to understand what’s to be said and what’s not. They can afford to speak English casually because they have a wide variety of contexts, situations, and experiences that have told them when, where, and how to use their language.

But we, as immigrants, do not have that freedom when learning English. We have to learn to communicate in English in 6 months or so, and it’s therefore important to pick up good linguistic habits early on. A great way to do so is to start off by speaking in formal English exclusively.

The other day, a classmate of mine, who is also a foreigner, asked our professor, “So, do we have to do this, or what?” I was literally in shock. It sounded very disrespectful to me as a way to address a professor. The professor answered the question normally, but I felt like this classmate had adopted a phrase used among friends that is not appropriate to use with authority figures.

This is why it’s important to trying to develop formal English at the beginning. It’s good to put constraints like these on the way you speak English. It may be difficult at first but your hard work will pay off eventually and you will have more freedom and choice in the way you speak English.

4. The Craft of Being Yourself

"Clown" by Károly Ferenczy. Oil on canvas. (Public domain in US)
"Clown" by Károly Ferenczy. Oil on canvas. (Public domain in US)

If you try to learn something you don’t like, you will always have a hard time. Since you will be living in an English-speaking country, you have no choice but to learn, and love, its language. But it’s always easier if you can relate it to something you are passionate about.

I love singing so much that I can devour any knowledge related to singing in enormous portions. I always find it easy to read about vocal terms and theory, and have found it a great way to learn English while devouring a topic I truly love. Whenever I start reading an article related to this subject, I always do so out of pure passion and hunger for knowledge. I can assure you than there’s nothing more rewarding than educating yourself about your own favorite topics of interest.

The funny thing is that most of the terms related to singing I have leaned in English are total strangers to me in my own native language.

Therefore, I encourage you to discover the things you are passionate about and to learn about them. It will make you learn not only about English, but also about your favorite subject.

It's all about finding the approaches that work best for you. Like art, learning a language is something that different people experience in different ways. From this article I want you to take away suggestions, not necessarily instructions. I believe that every person visualizes things in their own unique way, and so do you. So, get busy and craft your own art of fluency.