Active language skills can sometimes be neglected because it’s easier for us to focus on the passive ones. In this article I want to give you eight ideas about how you can improve your active language skills so that it becomes easier to speak and think in English.
Active and passive skills
Passive skills can be easier for us to work on because, although we have to understand the language, other people do the work in terms of making the sentences.
Activities to improve our passive language skills can be things like reading books, watching films, and listening to audio books or podcasts. These things are all good for you if you want to develop your vocabulary and see how other speakers use the language, but you are not actively using English to express your ideas and construct your own sentences.
Active language activities involve speaking and writing. They can be more of a challenge at first, but you need to develop these skills if you want to be able to think in English, to participate actively in discussions, or to respond spontaneously to others. If you’re speaking, it will also help you to get used to hearing yourself speaking English and to grow more comfortable with mistakes.
After all, mistakes are inevitable. We can try not to make them, and this is important, but the only person who never made any mistakes was the one who didn’t try anything. In some ways, that’s worse than the mistakes that are a normal part of learning something new.
So, how can you improve those active language skills?
Here are 8 ways. Maybe you’re doing some of these things already. Some may seem more appealing than others. If you decide to try something new, let us know how it went in the comments, or tell me in a private message via the contact form.
1. Find an opportunity to speak
The best way to make sure that you speak is to commit to doing it. If someone else is expecting you to turn up to a physical or online meeting, it gives you a sense of accountability and you’re less likely to cancel or pull out at the last minute.
I offer opportunities for people to practise speaking English at my monthly conversation club events – check them out if you haven’t done so already. Maybe it’s the opportunity that you’ve been looking for!
If you don’t come to one of my events, maybe there are also local events where you live or events in English about one of your hobbies or interests.
2. Find someone to talk with
Maybe a group event feels like a step too far at the moment and it would be easier for you to start speaking or writing with one person.
Language exchanges can be good for this and I’ve had a lot of good experiences with them. However, it’s even better if you can find someone with whom you only speak in your target language.
This can be hard at the beginning. When I started learning Romanian, I focused a lot on language exchanges because I thought it would be boring for the other person to communicate at such a low level. However, now, the person with whom I speak most in Romanian doesn’t speak English with me at all. Romanian is our language of communication and we only use that.
Having friends who speak your target language really helps. You communicate with them because they are your friends. It doesn’t feel as though you’re doing something in order to learn, but every time you communicate, you learn something new.
3. Journalling in English
This isn’t something that I’ve tried, but I heard someone talking about it the other day, so I decided to add it here.
The reason I haven’t tried journalling in Romanian or German is that I don’t do it in English, but if this is a habit that you have already built into your day, it may be easier for you to switch into doing it in English. This will help with your writing skills and you don’t have to worry about anyone else reading it because generally journals aren’t something that you share.
4. Thinking in English and describing your day
This is something that you can do anywhere. You don’t have to be creative because you know what happened during your day, so you already have the material. The point is that it trains your “thinking in English” skills because the idea is that you retell the day’s events in English.
You can speak aloud if you’re on your own, or maybe you want to share your day with your dog or cat!
You can just think about it if it’s easier.
You can stick to the facts, retell conversations, or talk about how you felt. It’s up to you, but the point is to practise summarising the day’s events and thinking in English.
5. Start small – whatever that means for you
This isn’t a specific activity, but the point is that it doesn’t have to be a big thing at first. If you have a particularly big or challenging goal, you can build up to it and plan some stepping-stone activities first so that, when you get closer to your challenging activity, it doesn’t feel as big or scary any more because you have been building up to it for a while.
6. Take a course
I don’t mean an English course – although I do offer English courses and you are welcome to contact me if you need one. Here I’m talking about other courses – things that interest you – but where the course is in English. Someone recently told me that they’d done a marketing course in this way. Someone else I know signed up for a cooking course on holiday and they attended the English one because it was a common language. It could be a dance class or anything else that interests you, online or in-person. The point is that you learn a new skill and you improve your English at the same time.
7. Find some ways to interact on social media
Scrolling through posts in English on social media can help with vocabulary, but it can also be a fairly passive activity. So next time you want to click “like”, and it’s good to do that, but see if there is a comment that you can add as well.
8. Put yourself in new situations
Often we can avoid uncomfortable or new situations. You can write an email instead of calling someone. Especially if you don’t live in the country where your additional language is the main language for communication, you have fewer reasons to speak the language and you have to be proactive. Or maybe you do have opportunities to practise the language, but not in a way that is particularly demanding or challenging for you, which means you aren’t really able to grow or develop your skills.
It feels very comfortable if we keep doing things that are familiar, but this is not when we grow. Is there something that you can do that will challenge you – either to do something completely new, or to use English in a new way.
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