Learning a second language requires the development of the four language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. The development of these skills has to follow this order of listing for the learner to be competent in the language. In order words, for you to learn the English language, you first have to develop the listening skills before going over to speaking, reading and then finally writing skills. So a person’s proficiency in a language is actually judged (first) based on his listening and speaking skills. Only those who have more dealings with the user will evaluate his reading and writing skills.
But, sometimes we pay more attention to developing our writing skills in English than we do the other three skills. The reasons for this could be because we write business letters and proposals than we listen or speak to our customers and employers. Whatever the reason may be the result is not impressive because we ended up having a lot of people who are highly proficient in writing the English language but encounter difficulties in speaking it.
Developing an oral proficiency in English is highly necessary in Nigeria. This is because English, though a second language, has taken up a prestigious position in Nigeria and is therefore an elitist language. In Nigeria today, English is considered the language of the upper class; it is used to measure someone’s level of education; and it is necessary for social mobility. Therefore, anybody that speaks it fluently is considered to be well educated and to have good social status.
English is the only language that links the 400 and more Nigerian indigenous languages. This is to say that failure to use the language competently can create a communication barrier between the participants if they happen to have different mother tongue.
Being proficient in speaking English in Nigeria can boost the confidence and self-esteem of the speaker. Good self-esteem and confidence is important as that will boost the speaker’s career success. Besides that, his audience will always find him impressive even on their first meeting.
Alright, let’s go over to some techniques we can apply in developing and improving our speaking skills. Before we continue, I’ll like to state here that language learning is a habit. This means that for you to improve your speaking skills, you have to make these techniques a habit. Some authors may recommend that you give yourself about 30 minutes to one hour every day to practice. But I’ll say that apart from those that will need the use of equipment (such as mirror), practice these techniques as often as possible. In fact make use of any opportunity you have to practice them. Let them be a part of you and you will see the changes in no distant time. And please, don’t put pressure on yourself by setting a time frame. Remember, you are forming a habit that will last a lifetime. So the changes need to be gradual but steady, if you truly work on yourself.
So, here are the techniques:
- Be Confident: This is one area that learners have challenges. Some have it deep down them that they aren’t cut out to speak English or that since they missed the opportunity of learning it at childhood, they can’t learn it again. I remember when one of my students approached me that he would love to speak the way I do but that he can’t because he grew up in a rural area. I taught him these techniques and he started practicing them. By the time he graduated, I noticed that he has improved greatly. So, I’ll say, be confident. The language isn’t meant for anyone in particular. Besides, what we speak in Nigeria is a modified version of English that is for all Nigerians alone.
- Sharpen Your Listening Skills: This will enable you to understand how some words are pronounced. Of course, if you can’t listen, you can’t speak. So, what do you listen to? Do you listen to English songs, news and films? Are you surrounded by people that speak good English that you can listen to? I hope the answers to these questions are yes. Find your role models today and start emulating them.
- Use the Mirror: I love this part so much. You don’t only use this to work on you speaking skills; you can also use it to sharpen your presentation skills. Ok, see how you do it. Stand before a mirror, look at your image, look yourself straight in the eyes and talk to yourself in English for nothing less than five minutes (Sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s the way it is. Lol). So, just have conversation with yourself on any topic for as long as you can. Allow the words to flow. Don’t pause to think. Observe the gestures and the way you move your lips. Do you like this experience? Do it as often as possible, but let it not be less than five minutes in a day. This technique also works on your self confidence.
- Record Your Conversation: This really helps a lot. There are a lot of apps for mobile phones that record sounds. Look for them and use them. Record yourself as you are having a self conversation or while having a phone call. You can also record yourself while you were singing or reading aloud (but recording during a conversation is more effective). After recording, listen to yourself. It will help you to evaluate your spoken English. You can also record news and record yourself as you recast it. Don’t worry if you don’t sound exactly like the newscasters, they have special training for that job.
- Increase Your Vocabulary: The basic way to expand your vocabulary is by reading. Listening also helps but reading is the best. So read as much as you can. Like one of my lecturers used to say, read everything you can lay your hands on, only be matured enough to sieve through the information contained in the book.
- Learn the Sounds and Prosodic Features of English: Every language of the world has sounds as their raw materials. English has 44 phonemes (20 vowels and 24 consonants). You need to learn these sounds so that you can pronounce words correctly. Most learners encounter challenges pronouncing some English words because they substitute the sounds in those words with the ones that exist in their native language(s).
English is also stressed timed language. So learners have to understand its stress patterns and intonations. I believe that there are good schools that train people on spoken English. But as you are searching for them, you can look for good books on English phonetics and phonology that have audio CDs. The Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary by Peter Roach and co can help here too.
- Use the Tongue-Twisters: Tongue twisters seem to be going into extinction these days. One thing tongue twister does is helping us in contrasting sounds. I always use it in my classes whenever I teach sounds that prove difficult to my students. A good example is the ‘th’ sounds. I also use this technique for those that have the L-R (you know, those that substitute L for R and R for L) and the ch-sh (substituting sh for ch, and vice versa) problem. So, locate books on tongue twisters and practice them a lot.
- Focus more on Fluency than Accuracy: This technique always raises eyebrows each time I bring it up. I’m not saying that accuracy isn’t important. Of course, it is. What I’m trying to say here is that when you focus more on saying what is grammatically correct, you will be slowed down. Trust me, your listeners may lose interest before you finish what you have to say. Learn the English grammar but don’t worry about it when you speak, at least not while we are developing your fluency. But if you noticed that you committed a blunder, you can retrace a little and correct it to show that it was a mistake, and not an error. But if correcting it will make the mistake too obvious, please ignore it and continue talking. Let those words flow freely.
- Have a Transcription Book: I learnt this technique from a public speaking coach. I started it and found out that I pronounce some words wrongly. So, if you have learnt the English phonemes, get an exercise book and use it for your transcription exercises. Write down words, sentences or passages in their orthographic spellings and then transcribe them. Use a good English dictionary to check for corrections. This exercise is truly very rewarding. By the way, make it a daily affair, just like every other technique.
- Speak English More: Of course, practice makes perfect, remember. So, you have been practicing all these in your home, what about outside? Do you speak English more as you work on your speaking skills? Or do you revert to pidgin and your native language(s). Ok, I’m not saying we should throw away our Nigerian languages because of English. What I’m saying here is that you need to practice what you’ve learnt. So, if the crowd you move with now will not provide you with the opportunity to practice English, look for another crowd that will. Just find someone that will encourage you to speak English more often. You can also look for opportunities to engage in public speaking using English. This may sound outrageous but it is worth it.
So, we have seen ways we can develop and improve on our spoken English. Let’s remember that we need this language for these reasons – to boost our career and our social status. Besides, it is still a part of the packaging.