How to Break a Speaking Barrier?

speaking barrierSpeaking barrier is a problem that occupies the minds of many EFL students. Even if they have memorised some thousands of English words and dozens of Grammar rules, they can still stumble upon a mysterious invisible block as they try to communicate. “I am like a dog“, complained unhappily one of my students, “I can understand everything, but I can’t speak“. She is not alone, about 70% of Russians who start individual English lessons can’t speak English fluently (without noticeable errors, efforts or long pauses). That’s the main reason I devote so much time to speaking practice during the classes.

Personally, I was fortunate enough at high school to have a passionate English teacher who made us talk most of the lessons. I remember quite well my 9th grade when I changed schools and was the only person in “the strong group” who couldn’t speak English fluently. Two months of diligent practice, and I started to speak; one more year, and I excelled in English. What was the method? Very simple – learn lots of new words and use them in your speech. If we failed to answer quickly, to ask an interesting question or to say more than three sentences, we got low marks. One classmate called our English lessons “red terror” as they were rather stressful, and a person could get three bad marks during one lesson easily. Usually I spent 2-3 hours daily doing my English homework and learning.

Naturally, I can’t use this “bad marks” approach now with my current students as it wouldn’t motivate them efficiently. On the contrary, I try to apply positive motivation, encouraging them to learn for pleasure and helping them to build up their self-confidence. The more time they devote to English studies, the quicker they manage to start speaking. It works like a charm for majority, yet, a certain number of students still feel inferior and are afraid to speak. That phenomenon is a psychological one and has a solution.

What can cause a speaking barrier?

1) Fear to communicate (shyness)

Just as people feel uneasy when they communicate with strangers in their mother tongue, they avoid foreigners even more scrupulously. What if a foreigner doesn’t understand or ignores them? The anxiety can paralyse their tongue and make a person forget everything they learnt.

It takes some time to overcome this fear. Though expensive, the best solution is to spend some weeks in Great Britain, Canada or the USA, living with an English-speaking family and studying English at some language school. I know several people who started to speak fluently after such a stimulating experience.

Another solution is to speak only in English with your teacher, asking them to repeat slowly as many times as necessary. Little by little, you will become more fluent and forget your anxiety.  One more technique is to find regular practice with native speakers who live in your town or attend meetings of some English club. You can also find a native speaker for Skype practice at

2) Fear to misunderstand

Some people mistakenly assume that they need to understand everything they hear. If they don’t know only one word in a sentence, they feel at a loss. It doesn’t occur to them that a person needs to understand only key words to grasp the meaning. To make it even worse, such people don’t try to clarify what their interlocutor asked so as not to lose their face.

Here the solution is simple enough – listen. The more you listen to podcasts, audio books and other speakers, the quicker you will develop the skill to concentrate on key words. You can also learn some polite phrases: “Could you repeat, please?”, “I am afraid, I didn’t get the last sentence”, “Could you say it more slowly, please?”, “Do you mean that…?”.

3) Fear to make a mistake

This fear roots in school when teachers used to punish students for making mistakes. Many English learners are not schoolchildren any longer, yet, they have this fear inside. One of my students burst out scolding herself for each mistake, till I managed to convince her that it’s no use doing so.

Who said that a person should be infallible? When I notice this fear in my students, I tell them smilingly, “Don’t worry so much, you will make some mistakes anyway” or “Mistakes are your friends, you learn from them”. If you allow yourself to commit errors, you will develop your speaking skills much quicker. So, my advice is: find a tactful teacher, fix mistakes, forget school!

4) Fear to look stupid

That’s the favourite fear with managers who hold important positions. They think in Russian with complex constructions and then attempt to translate their thoughts into English. Naturally, they lack vocabulary and grammar to express complicated ideas and get angry at themselves.

The best solution for them is to learn how to speak simple English. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself“. As students progress in English, they learn to explain their thoughts in a more simple way.

In case you lack the ability to simplify, you can try to play some games in English, e.g. Alias  or Mafia. You will learn that there are many ways to paraphrase and express your ideas in communication.

5) Fear that other people speak English better

Even upper-intermediate students are not immune to this fear as it has nothing to do with actual knowledge but stems from person’s psychology. One female student told me about her experience in an international mountain-climbing camp when she met another lady from Russia with an excellent command of English and feared to talk in her presence. So, she just kept silent during group talks for a few days, but suddenly, when that person wasn’t around, she got talking to a Canadian lady. Her communicator felt great surprise at fluency of that silent Russian girl.

If you realise that you have this childish fear, you are already halfway through it. You can just remind yourself that you don’t need to be perfect in English. Try not to compare yourself to others, it’s no use as you will always find someone who will be better in any sphere you choose. You could just apologise that you can make funny mistakes, and your communicators will understand and won’t laugh at you.

Certainly, breaking a language barrier requires certain efforts but benefits outweigh the stress. It may seem hard only in the beginning, but after some practice, most people make a miraculous breakthrough and enjoy English fluency in their communication.