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Speaking in any language is all about imitating other people. You want to be able to speak like native speakers do. Before you can form your own correct sentences, you first need to see lots of similar ones in the language you are learning.
When you speak in your native language, you don't have to think about the grammar or the words you use. Correct sentences just come to you. In fact, your brain uses sentences you've already seen or heard. If you want to speak a foreign language fluently, you have to learn it the way you learned your native language - by massive input.
Reading and listening will help you develop language intuition. It's all about putting lots of correct sentences in your head. Then your brain can imitate them, producing similar sentences to express the meaning you want. When you read and listen a lot, paying attention to useful vocabulary, you will soon start to use new words and phrases in your speaking and writing. Not only that, you will develop language intuition. You will start to feel what sounds good and what sounds ugly - just as you do in your native language.
It may seem like you need more time to learn a language by reading and listening, as opposed to learning based on grammar rules. For example, to get a good feeling for the use of articles in English you need to read lots of sentences, analysing them closely. Wouldn't it be easier to read a unit on articles in a grammar book? Well, the problem is that it takes lots of time to build a sentence when you have to think of grammar rules. When you talk to someone, you don't have time for that. The input-based approach may seem to be more demanding, but it's the only way to achieve fluency.
The speed of reading
If you have ever attended English classes, you have probably been asked to skim a text and then complete a task connected with it. This is one of the activities you have to do in an exam/test. Most teachers encourage students to read very quickly, just to get the main points out of the text. Well, you might think that this way you will improve your English (because you are reading a text) and prepare for an exam (because you are doing an exercise). Unfortunately, it's the other way around. Reading in such a way not only isn't very useful but may even slow down your progress!
When you read in your native language, you read for content. Your brain focuses on key words that convey the meaning of the text. This way you are able to read faster. But this is the wrong thing to do when reading in a foreign language. You want to concentrate on the grammar, too. You should analyse the sentences closely.
Try to notice interesting things in every sentence you read. It could be a useful phrase or an expression that you could have written wrongly.
The two paragraphs below come from The Adventures of Nicholas and the Gang by Ren Goscinny (translated by Anthea Bell). I highlighted some interesting words and phrases. But there's plenty of other things to pay attention to - grammar structures, collocations, articles, etc. And these are only a few sentences!
Choosing the referee was easy enough: we'd picked Cuthbert. Cuthbert is top of the class and we're not mad about him, but we can't hit him because he wears glasses, and all that is a pretty good combination for a referee. Anyway no one wanted Cuthbert in their team because he's not much good at games and he cries so easily. However, we ran into a spot of difficulty when Cuthbert said he needed a whistle and the only person who had a whistle was Rufus, whose Dad is a policeman.
'I'm not lending him my whistle. It's a family heirloom,' said Rufus, and that was that. Finally we decided that Cuthbert would tell Rufus when he wanted the whistle blown and Rufus would blow it for him.
It's important that the content you read interests you. It doesn't have to be a convoluted novel. It can be a comic book, a detective story or a fable.
I very often read Disney comics in English. The language is very simple and, what's more important, there's lots of informal phrases. Have a look at the sample page from a comic book (click the picture on the left). You won't find phrases like 'Sure makes a feller thirsty' or 'Those oranges hit the spot' in your textbook, will you?
Unfortunately, if you live in a country where the language you are learning isn't spoken, it's usually really hard to get hold of such interesting content. If you go to a shop with foreign books, you will see mostly novels and textbooks for learners. Of course, novels can be interesting, but they often use very complicated language. Have a look at this sentence from Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List:
The council of new chairman Artur Rosenzweig's Judenrat, who still saw themselves as guardians of the breath and health and bread ration of the internees of the ghetto, impressed upon the Jewish ghetto police, the Ordnungdienst, that they were also public servants.
Or this sentence from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (an otherwise very interesting book):
Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, the inoffensive joint squadron operations officers, were both mild, soft-spoken men of less than middle height who enjoyed flying combat missions and begged nothing more of life and Colonel Cathcart than the opportunity to continue flying them.
Well, the sentences quoted above may simply be impossible to understand for a beginner. Unless you are very advanced, you shouldn't choose texts that are that complicated. Of course, it's good to read something compelling from time to time - just to keep you motivated. But most of the time it's best to read texts that use simple language and are easy to understand.
Take time to find resources to read that are interesting and not too complicated at the same time. There's plenty of useful stuff on the Internet. You can find free comics, articles and even whole books published in electronic format. A good start is my list of useful links.
Remember, the content you read must be enjoyable. If you find a book or an article boring, just drop it and find another one. Try to find materials on subjects that interest you. If your hobby is computer programming, you can find articles and books about writing programs in English. You can join online discussions on English-speaking forums and newsgroups. You will not only learn about your subject, but also improve your English.
Listening is as important as reading. It's a bit more difficult, but also more beneficial - it helps you improve your pronunciation and conversational skills.
Listen from the beginning
When you learn a foreign language, you should start to listen as soon as you can. This way you will get familiar with the sounds of the language. Learning pronunciation will be much easier for you.
If you are a beginner, look for audio recordings with transcriptions. Whenever you don't understand a word, check it in the transcription and look it up in the dictionary.
Listen to the same content repetitively
It's a good idea to listen again and again to the same content. Pick an interesting recording and listen to it lots of times. Make sure you can undestand every single word of it. While listening, try to remember useful sentences, or even whole passages. Then practise saying them from memory, imitating the speaker's pronunciation. After a while, you will notice that words and phrases from the recording become a part of you. You will start using them in your own sentences. Your pronunciation and listening comprehension will surely improve, too!
Listen every day
Try to do some listening every day. The best option would be to get hold of an MP3 player. Then you can listen when you commute to work or go for a walk. I burned a CD with my favourite audio recordings and have it ready in my MP3 CD player wherever I go.
What to listen to?
Find audio content that is both understandable and meaningful to you. Choose materials on the subjects you like. Make sure the voice of the speaker is pleasant. This way you will enjoy listening and look forward to doing it.
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