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Creating opportunities for English practice

Erika Warner

I studied English at school in my home country, so by the time I was an adult I thought I could speak it fluently.

I did not think I needed much English practice. However, as soon as I arrived in the USA and had my first interaction, I realized I didn’t understand as much as I thought.

I was completely lost. I had all those memorized words and grammar rules in my head but when it was time to speak, nothing came out. 

Understanding real native speakers was very difficult.  They spoke at their natural pace (which is really fast) and I could only catch single words here and there.  If I wanted to improve my English, It was time for real-life English practice.

I started my English practice by focusing on my listening skills.

I wanted to understand everything that was being said in order to give a proper response. The most important words in a sentence are the ones that carry the most meaning – verbs, nouns, and adjectives – so I started to focus on those words. I realized that if you have context and you understand those main words, then you are able to understand almost the entire message. I memorized the most important wh- questions (what, where, when, who and how) and started to ask more questions when I didn’t understand something. 

I also started to ask for the meaning of words I didn’t understand. For example, my English teacher would say, “Your assignment is due tomorrow.” And I would ask, “What does assignment mean?” I would constantly ask people to explain the meaning of words with more simple words.

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For effective English practice, we must let go of our shyness and ask as many questions as possible. 

People who are engaging in conversation want you to understand what they are saying so they won’t mind to explain or repeat words.  

Instead of hiding our broken English by not speaking too much, we have to create opportunities that allow us more English practice. Here in the USA, people love small talk and that is a great way to practice. When you go to the store, people ask you: “How is your day going?” or “What are your plans for the weekend?” This is a great opportunity to practice, and if you give open answers instead of a simple yes/no, the conversation extends and allows more English practice.  When someone asked me, “Do you like sports?” instead of just saying “yes” I would say: “Yes, I love watching soccer and I play tennis sometimes.” This kind of answer would then lead to more questions like, “What is your favorite soccer team?” or “Did you watch last night’s tennis match?” Remember that it is also important to be one of the ones who asks questions! 

Once I became self-assured, I started to do more individual practice.

My main goal was to be always prepared for my next conversation.

I carried my little notebook with me and wrote down every single new word I learned. I started to watch series in English and always added subtitles, that way I was able to listen and read English at the same time.

I started reading books and articles in English and wrote down all the new words in my notebook. I looked up and memorized words that were the most used in my daily life. I bought one of those calendars that teaches you a word per day and I would read a word in the morning and repeat it to myself all day long so it would be memorized by the end of the day. I started to prepare in advance if I knew I had to have an important conversation. For example, if I had to ask my teacher about an assignment I would translate words like “deadline,” “schedule,” “rules,” or “style”, and I would prepare a dialogue and write down questions in advance. 

All of this helps, but what truly made a difference was being social. Practicing with other people is the best way to improve your English. I joined online communities for English conversation and I joined conversation clubs at the library. I started conversations wherever I went and I tried to make friends everywhere. 

It takes some time to gain confidence and become more talkative but once you do, your English skills improve quickly. The more you practice the more you learn so go out there and start a conversation every chance you get! 

Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.