September 20, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Using filler words (i.e., “umm”, “ahh”, “kinda”, or “really”) when you’re speaking English as a second language could mean a couple of things.

In one sense, you can think of these filler words as a processing lag where you’ve gone ahead and your brain’s trying to keep up with you. And in order to do that, your brain will buy you some time by using “umm”s and “ahh”s.

But in another sense, when you do this TOO often, it becomes a fixed habit in your speech.

And it can be quite frustrating when you say it, but there are two things you can do to stop using filler words. These are:

  1. Notice when you use filler words and… use them less.
  2. Slow down when speaking.

And the first one is quite contradictory to what I teach my coaching clients (i.e., focusing too much on what you’re saying). But if your goal is to lessen your use of “umm”s and “ahh”s in your English conversation, monitor when you use them, spot them, and break them. This way, you can consciously reduce using filler words.

In fact, this is what I did when I first started recording things. I listened to some of the recordings I did and heard myself say the word “kinda” a lot. Way too much that it was horrifying! I even have the same habit in Japanese where I use the word “nanka” in conversations too. But I became conscious of this habit and over time, I actively reduced how I use “kinda” whenever I speak. So don’t feel bad if you can’t immediately reduce your use of filler words. It is a slow process.

And the other thing you can do to stop using filler words is… slow down. You’ve really got to slow down so you can reduce the processing load in your brain. That way, you’ll be able to catch up to it and no longer feel the need to use filler words. Additionally, you have to know the subject of your conversation. Slowing down can buy you some time to think… but you need a base where you can pull up information for your conversation.

And again, do these two things and try not to overthink speaking in English. Be confident and just not give a shit about what people think.

But if you want to speak English like how native speakers do, you can download the free guide I created. You can go here if you’re interested.

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

September 14, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

I created the first video on YouTube about using Shadowing for English as far as I know, so I think I’m definitely the right person to answer this question 🙂

What I’ll write here is a greatly updated shadowing guide (taken from my free ‘Good Shadowing Guide’).

First, shadowing is great exercise. But the way most people use it is kinda wrong, and so they don’t get the results they expect.

Here’s how to make it work for you:

Step 1: Understand the 5 Elements of Fluency

Have a look at this diagram:

Shadowing is just one of the exercises my clients use to develop the 4th Element of Fluency: Motor Skills.

True fluency in English is a combination of 5 elements working together. First, you have to ‘encode’ the blocks of English you need in subconscious memory. Next, you organise these into topics in your mind. Your English has to be properly “activated” to prevent translating from your first language, as well as that slow feeling when you try to speak…

Motor Skill is the physical aspect of fluency — this is all about your mouth and face muscles moving correctly, with the right rhythm and quality. Again, shadowing is one of the important exercises we use to develop this part of speech.

Finally, fluent English also requires you to reduce “cognitive load”. This is a technical term, but it is similar to your computer’s RAM — if you have a lot of software programs open at once, your computer will run slowly and overheat. Speaking English is the same.

Step 2: Is Shadadowing the right exercise for you?

Shadowing is a powerful exercise … but only if used correctly.

Many people say to me:

“Julian, I’m doing Shadowing but I’m not getting fluent – why?”

The answer is always the same: they’re using it incorrectly. It’s like they’re trying to use a screwdriver to put in a nail… when what they should be using is a hammer.

What Shadowing Is:

Shadowing is used to develop physical fluency in English to sound smooth, fluent and easy to understand. But that’s all it’s useful for.

What shadowing is definitely not:

Shadowing is not a method, and it is not a “magic pill”.

Just doing shadowing will not make you master English. This is like taking painkillers for a headache when actually you have a brain tumour and need surgery (this happened to my friend). Different problem, different solution. If your problem is related to one of the other ‘Elements of Fluency’, you will need a different exercise to improve fastest.

Step 3: How to “Shadow”

Shadowing is fun and Rinse and Repeat easy to do. All you need are high-quality materials with a natural audio version (don’t use the audio from textbooks, as this isn’t natural English). My Extraordinary English Speakers use the ones I give them every week.

Once you have this, follow these simple steps:

  1. Study your materials. Aim to understand 100%.
  2. Listen very carefully to the way the speaker “chunks” his or her speech — listen to how the words are crushed together, the pauses, intonation, rhythm and the way the speaker speeds up and slows down.
  3.  With the script in front of you, listen to the audio. Simultaneously mimic the speaker. Again, pay special attention to the things mentioned above. Try to match your speech perfectly to the speaker.
  4. When you feel comfortable with the script, try shadowing using the audio alone. Don’t try to memorise the English — just focus on the rhythm, flow and ‘chunking’ of what the speaker is saying.
    Then it’s just a case of rinsing and Repeating.

There is no correct amount of time to do this. Just do it for a few minutes each day, spending as much (or as little) time on each of your materials as you need to feel comfortable with it.

But here are some additional tips to make it even more effective:

Step 4: Don’t say every word 3 — “Chunk” it

People who pronounce every individual word carefully are very difficult for native speakers to understand.


Because native speakers are not speaking or listening using individual words and grammar rules like you were taught in school.

How native speakers really speak

Native speakers store blocks of words called ‘chunks’ in long term memory. This allows us to speak fluently because we don’t have to ‘compute’ everything we say like a mathematician working on solving complex equations. This works two ways: we can only listen in a fluent, chunked way if YOU speak in a fluent chunked way.

This is why something like “make a picture” sounds awkward and unnatural (yes; it is grammatical) but “take a picture” sounds natural.

Practise “chunked” speech with shadowing

Pay close attention to chunking when shadowing. It will make you much easier to understand, and your friends will thank you for it.

Step 5: Understand that Native Speakers don’t speak ‘Fast’

Do you believe natives speak fast?

Well, It’s not true.

We don’t speak fast… or at least, not all (or most) of the time. But we do use the speed of our voice to add meaning to what we’re saying. When a speaker wants to convey how excited they are or make it dramatic, they will speed up. When they are emphasising a point or talking about something sad, they will slow down. They will use long pauses for effect.

Shadowing forces you to pay attention and copy this: which is one of the reasons I have my clients use the exercise regularly.

Chunks Sound Fast… but they aren’t

Remember: native speakers speak in chunks. When we say something like, “let”s give it a go” we naturally blend all the sounds together, and it is pronounced as a single unit. When we say, “let’s try to do it” (not a chunk), we don’t blend the sounds. This is a common feature of chunks — the more frequent they are, the stronger the blending. As I said before, you need to pay attention to this.

Step 6: If you’re finding 5 Shadowing hard…

Shadowing is an intensive exercise, and it should make you tired physically (your mouth and face muscles). It should also make you mentally tired.

But shadowing shouldn’t be difficult.

If you are finding it difficult, you probably need to do other exercises to develop the other 4 Elements of Fluency.

For example, if you haven’t done the “Chunk Encoding” part right (the 1st Element of Fluency), you will find it very difficult to keep up with the speaker, and will make mistakes and say things wrong.

This is the same in real conversation If you make mistakes or say unnatural things, you probably need to focus on encoding first. If you translate in your head in conversation or find your English feels slow and ‘asleep’, you need to work on activation. If you panic or are stressed when speaking, you need to work on reducing cognitive load. If your English gets confused and messy, it’s because it is not properly organised in your brain.

In a nutshell: you need to use the right exercises for your specific problems.

If you found this guide useful and want to go further

If you want to download and keep this guide, I created an illustrated pdf here (it’s free).

To go further into fluency, and how to improve as a high-intermediate learner I created this free training. It’ll teach you the key changes you need to make to the way you learn to see real improvement.

Hope this helps.

Julian Northbrook

Filed Under: English learning
September 10, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Potentially, anything can be rude in English (or probably in most languages).

And this is because everything always depends on the context, situation, or how it’s done.

Here’s an extract:

Swearing is a perfect example of this. Saying a couple of bad words is something that’s normally seen as rude, but in British culture, it can also be seen as one of the strongest terms of endearment. Calling somebody an “asshole” can be aggressive in other cultures, but in British culture, it can also be an indicator of “you are my best friend now”.

Another example that one of my clients asked about recently is if it is rude to sigh in a meeting. Now is sighing rude? Well, it depends on the situation, context, and how you actually sighed. Let’s say someone in the meeting said “I’ve got a solution to this problem” and you sigh… that’s extremely rude. What was the intention behind that sigh? Do you want to express something with that sigh? And in that context… you’re most likely annoyed at the person and want to express it with a sigh. That’s why the intention behind that sigh is what’s considered rude. Always think about the intention, not the surface-level meaning of the English word.

On the other hand, if you sigh after a meeting you were nervous about like, “Right, I’m going to hand the chair over to you for next week. *sighs*”… That sigh is a totally different meaning from the one before. Because what you’re doing now is lightening the mood and indicating that you’re relieved that the thing you’re nervous about is now finished.

See the difference between the two? Totally different intention, totally different body language, totally different meaning within the context.

But again, the point is, you have to interpret words/actions based on different aspects. Consider the situation, overall dialogue, context, and the deeper intention behind it. And this goes the same for any English word, phrase, expression, and anything that’s so-called “rude”.

Now, if you want to learn English properly (and understand how to say something better in English), I can help. You can start with the one-hour free training guide I created. It will teach you the 5 key changes my best clients make to improve their English as higher-level English learners.

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

September 8, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

It depends on what you mean by ‘conversation’.

If it’s formal conversations (i.e., interviews, presentations, etc.), then yes, it is predictable.

But if you mean casual conversations and small talk… no, you can’t really predict what’s going to come up. And this is simply because topics can vary when you do small talk… there are just so many things that you can talk about.

But what I do recommend is instead of thinking predictively, think “retrodictively”.

What I mean by this is that if you’re talking to someone about a particular topic, chances are, you’re going to repeat the same thing with someone else. That then becomes the thing that you’ve prepared in your head. Because you’ve done it once, and now you can do it again quite easily this time.

Especially if you’ve taken the time to think about your mistakes in that previous conversation and fixed them ready for next time.

So, don’t worry too much about what topic may come up. Instead, my advice is to look back at what you’ve talked about in the past.

And you know, even if you have no idea what the topic you’re talking about with a person, there are still ways to keep the conversation going.

Here’s an example of this:

When I was in Lisbon, I went to get a beer and I got to talk with this absolutely fascinating Australian guy. He works as some kind of a technical engineer at an oil rig, and he basically works three months on and off at an oil rig. And I know absolutely nothing about oil! I have no idea how it works, how it affects the stock market, etc. But, despite not knowing anything about oil, we still had a very, very long conversation. I mean, it was basically a one-way conversation where I just asked him questions and he just explained everything.

There was no way I could have predicted that conversation. There’s no way for me to guess that I’ll pop out for a quick beer and two hours later, I’ll talk about how the price of oil affects the stock market. It just doesn’t work that way.

So the point of this is, the best approach is to always think about similar conversations you’ve had in the past instead. Again, when it comes to casual conversations, don’t think predictively, think retrodictively.

By the way, if you’re learning English (or want to improve your English more), check out my free daily email to get more English tips to speak better English.

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

September 2, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Pronunciation is really about the knowledge of how words, chunks, and blocks of English should sound. And combined with good motor skills, to be sure.

But really, native English speakers speak fluently because we “chunk” English. We articulate English in blocks, not in individual words.

Let’s take for example the phrase “at the end of the day”. This isn’t pronounced as “At. The. End. Of. The. Day” but “athendvthaday”. It’s articulated as a single unit, as a chunk so it sounds very, very natural. Whereas if you pronounce it using individual words, it’s going to sound super strange and awkward.

But if you’re still struggling with your English pronunciation, ask yourself: Is it because you’re TOO focused on the pronunciation of each individual word? Are you ignoring the chunked nature of English? And aside from that, you also have to learn the rhythm intonation, and flow of English, too.

So, learn how to chunk your English words well. And if you need help with your pronunciation, you can start with The Good Shadowing Guide that I created. It helps people build this rhythm and intonation, together with good chunking skills.

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook

August 26, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

A lot of people make the huge mistake of thinking that conversation apps will magically make them fluent in English.

But that’s not normally true at all.

See, relying on conversation apps ALONE is probably not enough to make you fluent in English.

And it’s the same with just relying on conversations with your teacher or with somebody on italki. And the reason why you won’t get automatically fluent by using apps or speaking with your English teacher/peer is that you’re in a comfortable setting. You feel relaxed when you’re talking to them. And that comfortable setting gives you a false sense of just how good your English is, when in reality… it’s probably not as good as you think it is.

Instead, what you need to do is start with the hardest things, the difficult conversations. Because if you find yourself in high-pressure situations, everything else becomes easier.

Let’s take this analogy for example:

I used to run marathons. I had years of practice with running. I trained in the nice, flat, paved streets of Tokyo. It was so beautiful and everything was easy! I didn’t have to stumble and fall while training, so that was great. But then I ran a marathon for the first time in West Cork, Ireland.. and it was an absolute shit show. I ran through hills, mountains, flooded sections everywhere, and it was even raining! It was absolutely horrible. But after all of those, did I perform well? Hell no. However, when I trained in that environment (no matter how absolutely horrific it was) every other marathon I ran was easy in comparison. And that was because I already got through the worst one.

And the same can be said with learning English. You’ve got to go through difficult, high-pressure situations so everything else becomes easy. But apart from going through hard situations in English, you’ve also got to find the balance between focus intensive learning and using English in relaxed settings.

In fact, you can learn more about this approach (or what I call the Two Track Method) and other useful ways to learn English efficiently. You can start with the free one-hour training I created, which will tell you more about learning English the best way.

Hope that helps.

Dr Julian Northbrook