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I can’t speak English fluently even though I read a lot: why?

July 8, 2020 , by Dr Julian Northbrook
I can't speak English
“I can’t speak English fluently even though I read a lot: why?” ー in a nutshell, it’s because they’re different.

I can’t speak English even though I read all the time: why? In this article, I explain the 5 elements of fluency, and why you can’t speak.

“Why is it so hard for me to speak fluently even though I read all the time?”

This is a common question.

And one I get a lot from students on the MEFA course.

There are two things to consider:

  • Reading fluency and speaking fluency are slightly different things.
  • It also depends on *what* you are reading.

This video explains both points in detail:

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So, as you see, “fluency” in English is more complicated than people think: and speaking is much more complex than reading.

What actually is fluency?

Fluency is simply how efficiently English is being processed in your brain, and if we look at what’s going on there are roughly 5 key elements to fluency:

  • Encoding (is the language you need in long-term memory).
  • Organisation (are those bits of encoded language properly organised and connected within the network of the mind).
  • Motor Skills (do your mouth, face, etc. muscles know how to move properly to produce the language you have encoded and organised).
  • Activation (how ‘awake’ is your English; this is a little simplistic, but the brain puts stuff it’s not using to sleep to save energy).
  • Cognitive Load (like your computer, if you have lots of things happening at once, your brain will slow down).

That’s a pretty quick ‘n’ dirty summary. For more detail (and how to use the ‘shadowing’ exercise to develop them), go here.

Basically, fluency is the result of all 5 of these elements working smoothly together. And that’s why it’s perfectly possible to be fluent in some topics but not others, be able to understand but not say it well, why you can know something but fail to remember it when you need it… and on and on.

I can’t speak English fluently… about just some topics

This is an extreme example, but I had a client who could use English all day at work but struggled to order a coffee in Starbucks. Another of my clients said she could understand conversation, but not the news (others say the opposite).

There’s a video here about this:

The point is, we never get “fluent” in English, exactly. We get fluent in topics, but not others if we don’t learn to be fluent in them.

Reading Fluency and Spoken Fluency are Different

The second part of this problem is that reading only uses some of these 5 elements of fluency – but not all.

Encoding and organisation (to an extent), yes. And while reading will help with “activation”, it’ll do little to nothing to develop motor skills (see here for an exercise that will), for example.

You get good at what you do.

So if you want to get good at speaking, you’ll need to:

  1. Learn the language you need for speaking from high-quality materials (not ones that are badly designed) and
  2. Do more real speaking in the real world (none of that comfortable practise rubbish).

The 5 Changes Improve in English Fast

If what I’ve said here resonates with you, and you’re stuck of saying “I can’t speak English!” there’s a free training here that will teach you the nuts-and-bolts of how to improve as a higher-level learner.

Julian Northbrook

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