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More English Practice Daily – Listening and Speaking

Let’s continue to explore ways to use English (or another language) more in your everyday life. The previous part was about Reading and Writing and this one focuses on Listening (Watching) and Speaking.

Just as a reminder, the idea is to make English part of your life to create the opportunity of natural acquisition of it, as opposed to conscious learning. Don’t get me wrong, learning is all well and good, but it may suppress the brain networks responsible for picking up language from everyday life. Here I summarised an article about it with the most interesting bit being this:

“intentionally trying to learn specific information can get in the way of unconsciously learning probabilities, patterns, intuitions, and other experience-based understanding.”

So, let’s see how we can add more Listening and Speaking practice.

Listening/ Watching practice

Songs (and checking the lyrics). Are you listening to a lot of songs in English? How well do you understand the lyrics? With my app (Yandex.Music) I can usually see the lyrics on the same screen where the track is playing, which is very convenient. Often it’s enough to check once or twice to start hearing every word and being able to sing along. Easy and useful.

Short videos, like reels and stories. These are often made for fun and often have some very informal language. They can be quite informative as well if they are made by media channels. Anyway, short videos may be a good way to start if you spend a lot of time on social media – just find some natives to follow and don’t scroll past them when you’re checking your feed.

By the by! It’s a good way to practice switching between different languages as well. For example, my feed is a mixture of five languages – Russian, English, French, German and Spanish. A year or so ago I tended to skip posts and videos from the French accounts I was subscribed to, because it required extra effort. But with time it’s become easier to stop and read/ watch what’s in those posts. Now I hope to do the same for Spanish and German. In this sense social media rock =)

YT channels for fun, information or something practical like yoga, cooking, travel, history, culture, cars, design, children crafts etc, including vloggers. Some of them I shared here. The idea is to focus on the subject matter that interests you and let your brain absorb the core vocab that goes with it. Very convenient, two-in-one, I’d say.

Keep in mind, though, that people who speak to the camera, speak a lot and constantly hone their speaking skills, so their skills may be well above average and it’s no good comparing yours to them, whatever your level is. Speaking in general, as being able to communicate what you want, is not exactly the same as public speaking, whose aim is to influence the audience.

I’m mentioning this because, when I was younger and a perfectionist, I was always comparing myself to the people I heard, like actors, or TV / radio presenters, and always not to my advantage to say the least. But, if you come to think of it, it’s very unfair and quite pointless. And it’s not only about them being natives, and me not (you can find non-natives who speak wonderfully). It’s much more about the amount of speaking they do and the fact that it has to be decent and correct as it’s constantly being assessed by the public. Of course it won’t be the same for people whose main activity doesn’t involve speaking on this scale.

RadioFor me it’s one of the most convenient ways to get some language input, especially because it may be combined with doing the housework. The biggest advantage, as I see it, is that it suffices to just turn the radio on in the background. You don’t even have to listen attentively to what’s going on there. Or you may, and then it’s an excellent way to practise listening for gist, or the ability to understand what is being discussed and whether it’s of any interest of you. If it is, then you’re up to developing listening for detail.

The main disadvantage, though, is that you probably won’t hear too much slang and very informal language. Watching series will yield much more in this sense (see more about them below).

Podcasts. While with the radio you may tune in and out and still be more or less comfortable with it, with podcasts this may not always work. It depends, of course, but when I choose a podcast to listen to, I do it based on the topic and I really want to hear the discussion with its arguments or the exchange with all the little jokes in it in detail. So I listen to podcasts when I walk. On the other hand, podcasts are different and I’m sure there are plenty of them that can act more or less like the radio and can be played in the background, especially if they revolve around one topic, say football.

An important thing to mention here, though, is that here I don’t mean podcasts for learning English, I mean those focusing on some topic for the native audience. With podcasts focusing on new expressions or grammar the focus shift to conscious learning, and it’s different.

Audiobooks. I’ve read and heard that some people prefer audiobooks to accompany their walks or housework. I guess it needs some getting used to it, but then you’re absorbed in a story of some kind and time flies.

However, it’s worth remembering that, while with the radio and podcasts we’re exposed to authentic spoken language constructed on the fly, with audiobooks it’s different, as is with series and films: every sentence (line) were carefully written and chosen, so they may not reflect the messy way people sometimes speak in real life.

Films and series. Films and series are also a wonderful resource to pick up on some slang and very emotional language, like arguments, threats, love talk, angry talk and so on. This is something that’s quite difficult to recreate in the classroom, but my impression is that just being immersed and repeating something to yourself may be enough to remember the key phrases. Be careful with slang, though, and mind regional dialects.

Three things to keep in mind here. First, if you keep stopping the video to check on unfamiliar words and phrases, this is a conscious learning activity, which interferes with natural acquisition. So, before watching it’s better to choose where you focus will be – on learning or on acquisition.

Second, subtitles are good, but at one point it makes sense to switch them off and get used to not being able to understand every single word and not feeling guilty, ashamed or lost over it. At the same time, you may make mental notes of the scenes where not everything was clear, come back to them with subtitles and clarify the lines. It develops another important skill, that of keeping in mind what you didn’t understand. Sometimes it just helps to move on with the movie and the context will clarify it (the same happens when reading books). Sometimes nothing but subtitles/ translation help, especially with regional dialects, slang or metaphors. But remembering what you didn’t understand is really useful, as a skill.

And third – as I mentioned above, lines in movies often carry a lot of meaning, so that a little may be said to mean a lot. I’m sure they are made to closely imitate what would’ve been said by a given character in a given situation, but still they are the same as real language, which may simpler or messier.

Speaking practice

Singing favourite songs and paying attention to how you articulate sounds. That’s probably the easiest thing you can do to improve your Speaking skills if you like music and singing. I used to do this (in French) quite at lot when I was at university and head over heels in love with the Notre Dame de Paris musical. I was lazy, though, and just skipped the lines that seemed too difficult for me. Don’t do this =) Take a little bit of time to read and articulate such lines slowly and you’ll appreciate it later when you’re able to sing the whole song like a pro =)

As an idea, you can find different covers of your favourite pieces and listen to them performed by singers with different accents (say, British vs American English) to learn to hear the variations of the sounds. It also makes sense to watch video clips to observe the movement of the mouth and tongue. I remember once my little sister shared a video with me where she mimicked singing an English song. Well, just by looking at her I could say she didn’t really check/ understood the lyrics so it looked a bit funny and unnatural =) Well, I hope you won’t cut corners and will find a way to make singing both enjoyable and useful for your English.

Translating the things you see around in your head. It doesn’t have to be something difficult, all the time or for a long time. Rather, it’s more like constantly keeping a little question at the back of your mind, whatever you do, ‘Do I know the English for this?’ This way you can extend your vocabulary significantly without taking extra effort (if you take notes of your discoveries, that is).

Say, you’re cooking – do you know the names of all the ingredients you’re using and the actions you’re doing? You’re walking in the park and observing people – will you be able to describe their outfit in detail? And the sounds around you?

Or, instead you can choose a specific language aspect and focus on it for a longer period of time. For example, I’ve been observing and analysing my use of idioms in Russian for almost 6 months now. So, whenever I use an idiom or even think to use it, I write it down to later check whether I can come up with an equivalent in English. It’s been so fun! I’ve never really paid attention to my choice of idioms, but now as I see them in a list, I almost see a new dimension of my personality, or at least some not-so-obvious aspects of it.

Figurative language is especially powerful in this way, which is why it’s often advised to be careful about how you use it or it may take effect on your body, and vise versa – a set of favourite, strong expression may indicate some problem with health, e.g. “it makes my heart bleed” or “it breaks my heart to…”or “my head is killing me”. Some years ago I was quite keen on using phrases, mostly with negative connotation, that had ‘head’ in it, and, guess what? I was suffering from really bad headaches. Once I’d noticed this, I had to get rid or those expressions however much I liked them. Whether it helped I can’t say for sure, but as least I know that it’s not my language skills that bring on this pain. But I’ve gone off topic. The ideas is that it may be very interesting to translate yourself and analyse how you use your native language in general.

Other ideas like this may include abstract nouns, verbs of feelings and emotions, adjectives to describe things, adverbs to specify adjective, informal language, formal language, slang, spoken expressions, other figurative language like metaphors and similes and so on. Any sort of lexical chunks, basically.

Speaking to yourselfYou may start with recording/ speaking as if for a diary or talking about your plansThis is similar to writing a diary and plans and is very helpful in accumulating the vocab your need for your day-to-day life. Don’t think much, just start talking. Even if you simply enumerate the events of the day, you may find what you lack in English or what you can’t easily recall. The more details you include, the better, obviously. Recently I found myself lost for words when I tried to convey an idea that my GP “sent” me to another doctor (”referred” would be a better one). Like, I reached to my memory and there was nothing. So it may be something simple and everyday like but not covered by traditional books. If you record yourself, you’ll have something to compare and check for progress later.

Another option would be to summarise what you’ve just watched/ listened/ read and use some vocab from there. Or you can imagine situations at work/ with friends and what you would say. I’ve noticed that it works like magic when you think of conflicts or something that makes you feel outraged, indignant or hurt. Or when you want to prove yourself right or the smartest person in the room. Especially when around the same time you watch series where there’s lots of stuff like this.

I experienced this magic after binge watching The Mentalist and Suits when I couldn’t fall asleep because some odd image had crept into my mind and set some language areas in my brain on fire. I never knew I could use so much strong language so well =) The key thing is to feel that strong emotion, whatever it it, and imagine your opponents well (so you’ll be speaking in dialogues) Give it a try =)

Playing guessing games in English with friends and family. That will depend on your relationships, of course, as not everyone feels comfortable not speaking their native language. But if you don’t mind, why not? It may be as simple as making a chain of associations or trying to guess something with Yes/No questions. It may be a good way to pass the time while commuting or waiting for something.

Honestly, I’ve never tried it, but I’ve seen parents doing something similar with their children. If you combine it with the translation technique mentioned above, it may become interesting and engaging for everyone, especially if done regularly.

Finding more people to talk to. For example, you can find someone on Tandem. Or take initiative, and, when the opportunity presents itself, offer to organise regular meetings with people you met somewhere and liked.

This is how we stayed in touch with two English teachers from Hungary and Spain after we had done an online course together. Since then we’ve been scheduling calls every 3-4 weeks, and, the beauty of it, we never know what we’re going to talk about. It starts with small talk and a general catch-up on things but then the conversation just flows and oftentimes we find ourselves discussing complicated topics like politics, mental health, religion or history. This is probably the best test of my English abilities, and it’s been extremely helpful and satisfying.

Option number two: find a study buddy but don’t study any books together. Instead, choose a topic and focus on your ideas and opinions. This site with topics by levels is my favourite, but you’ll find lots on similar ones on the internet as well. Don’t forget that you don’t really have to answer all the questions. Feel free to skip or modify them as you see fit.

Here I outlined some skills you might need to learn from conversations.

Tabletop games. This will be my last idea for you. Again, I haven’t tried it out for myself, but I’ve heard that one can find clubs where to play board- and other games with natives. That should be a wonderful opportunity to change the focus from the language to the action, learn to communicate in the given environment and pick up some practical phrases along the way. Oh, and make friends along the way?

That’s all I can come up with for now. Hopefully, you’ve found some ideas for increasing your daily Listening and Speaking English practice.

What about you? Have you tried anything of the above, and if, yes, how did it go? If not, what would you like to try?

Photo credit: picture by artursafronovvvv on Freepik

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