By Anne W

01 February 2024 - 17:30



Many learners of English tell me “I can understand almost anything - I just can’t speak!” It’s a common phenomenon in learning any language, and teachers or fluent speakers will tell you, as you probably already know, that it’s largely a question of confidence. 

So, just dive in, right? Easier said than done. Perhaps people tell you, “the more you practise, the more confident you’ll feel”, while you are thinking “without confidence, how can I start to practise?!”. If you are still reading because all this sounds familiar, then I won’t lie - making your transition from knowledge of English to speaking fluently will be a process, not an easy fix, but hopefully the 5 tips below can help you move forward. 


Listen actively to what people are saying, not just the meaning, but the words and sounds too. Listen and notice the rhythm, how words link together, which letters are dropped. Is there anything that surprises you? If you are watching a video, you can replay a section of speech until it sounds more natural to you. If you are face to face and feeling brave, you can ask the speaker to repeat, to listen to how you say it, to help you understand the difference. 

Keep a mental note of new things you learn, and play them back in your head afterwards. Imagine yourself saying those things, even practise out loud (when you’re alone!). If you want controlled practice, you can watch and listen to conversations at different levels on our website, and in the second half of the video you can even participate. 

You can also get some speaking skills practice with these videos from our LearnEnglish site.  

Reflect questions in your answer 

“Did you have a good weekend?” asks a British colleague one Monday morning. Panic! Suddenly you can’t remember whether you should use the past simple or present perfect to talk about your weekend. You know this - how have you forgotten??  

Stop. Instead of beating yourself up, go back to the question you were asked - it’s past simple, so the answer is too. “It was lovely, thanks. We went to my parents’. Did you do anything nice?” 

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Don’t be afraid of mistakes  

Of course, you shouldn’t worry about mistakes - they are an essential part of learning. But if fear of “messing up” in authentic situations is really stressful for you, start with a compromise where you feel more comfortable. Coffee and English conversation with your classmates is a good “halfway house” between the classroom and a real anglophone situation. Or search for an English-speaking or language exchange group in your local area.  

If you don’t go to English class, or have any English-speaking groups near you, try to find an individual to practice with. This doesn’t have to be a language-for-language exchange - you can meet with another learner. They don’t need to be fluent, either, they just need enough English to converse with you and help you start relaxing. In fact, it might be better for your confidence if your partner makes mistakes too. 

When you do find yourself in authentic situations, with native speakers or non-natives more confident than you, it might help to acknowledge to yourself or to others that you are a learner. Take your time - nobody has the right to rush you, interrupt to correct you, or second-guess what you are trying to say. Your English is in transition now; it isn’t your end point and the mistakes you are making today will be gone next year.  

Make a note, mental or written, of your mistakes - they are your learning tools, unique to you. They can help you understand how you think in English.

Accept the mess of English spelling  

If pronunciation is what’s holding you back from speaking, it could be that your brain is being too stubborn about looking for perfect spelling-speaking relationships that other languages have. You know English spelling is far from perfect, everyone knows it, but old habits (seeing a word and saying it just like that) die hard.  

If the above sounds like you, try to expose yourself to the spoken form first, wherever possible. If movies are a big source of English language input for you and you always watch with subtitles, turn them off. Learning the phonemic alphabet might help too - it sounds like a mammoth task, but most students get there in a few hours. Seeing, written down, that it’s not “mountain”, it’s /ˈmaʊntɪn/, might be the clarification your brain needs. 

Understand that English is yours as much as it is anyone’s 

Learning English is different from learning French or Chinese or any other language in one important respect - English is no longer the “property” of its native speakers. Of all the English language conversations in the world right now, which do you think there are most of: native to native speakers, native to non-native speakers, or non-native to non-native?  

Answer? It’s by far the last one. Most people speaking English together right now are, for example, Japanese and Argentinian, Russian and Greek, Moroccan and Hungarian. And non-native speakers are contributing to the evolution of English (for example by eroding our infamously complicated question tag system). So thanks, you guys, for streamlining “my” language, and making it more efficient. The English language owes you! 

 A last piece of advice, which relates to all the tips above: think about what underlies your anxiety to speak. What is it that ties you in knots when you’re trying to say something? Being laughed at? Taking too long and losing your audience? Losing the essence of what you want to say?  

Taking your time, and being conscious of why you struggle to speak will help you identify those situations where you are likely to have more difficulty. Then you can give yourself room to take a deep breath in those situations. For example, if you are worried about being laughed at for silly mistakes, you can openly say “Help me out here, how do I say…..?” Equally, it’s okay to say “Hang on, let me finish…” if someone is interrupting you with incorrect guesses about what you mean. 

For more ideas about improving your confidence, check out this LearnEnglish video about how to practice speaking outside the classroom.  

I started this blog by mentioning all the learners who complain that although they have a high level they can’t speak. I will finish by saying that I know just as many, even more, fluent speakers who say “I didn’t use to be able to say a word!”