By Kazuya Muto
At first I had a lot of difficulty communicating in English. The English spoken by native speakers seemed worlds away from the English I'd found in TOEFL and TOEIC textbooks. It was much more complicated, and native speakers speak so fast and use so much slang. In the beginning I couldn't understand much more than about 50 percent of what people said.
And when it came to speaking English, I couldn't speak nearly as quickly as native speakers, and so every time I would start talking, the conversation would come to a halt. So I started thinking of ways to improve my English conversation skills, and I came up with two ideas: improve your general knowledge, and know your English level.
General knowledge is the more important of the two when starting up a conversation. I'll give you an example. One day, in class, I started talking to the person sitting next to me: "How are you doing? My name's Kazu. I'm from Japan." He introduced himself in a strong Spanish accent, saying, "Hi, I'm Bruno. I'm from Peru. Nice to meet you."
Already my mind was spinning. I was trying to remember his name as well as find some topic related to Peru. "Oh, you're from Peru ... How long does it take to get to Australia from there?" I blurted out, trying to gain some time. And then: "Machu Picchu, right? That's in Peru." Bruno's face brightened, and he started talking about Machu Picchu with a breathless excitement.
Conversation then moved to Japan and sushi, which he liked very much and which he pronounced "suchi" because he couldn't pronounce the sound "shi" very well. I spoke slowly and he listened carefully. It was a good conversation, and we ended up continuing it later at a barbeque we both went to.
Getting people from abroad to talk about their countries is a great way to make your conversation more enjoyable, and it helps to be able to say more than, "Wow! Peru! Cool! I want to go there someday." It's better to have some knowledge of some famous person or place in that country.
Knowing your English ability is much easier. Don't try to speak perfectly, without making any mistakes, and always be comfortable about asking how you say something or how you describe a certain situation in English. Don't hesitate. Nothing is lost in asking, and talking with people is a great opportunity to improve your English ability.
Initially I'd been so reluctant about speaking English because I knew my English wasn't up to scratch. I pretended to understand what people said (I answered everything with, "Yeah, yeah ..."). I didn't even try to express myself and I tried to run away at the first chance I got. I'd only wanted to speak after my English had improved, which, thinking back on it now, is absurd, because you won't improve unless you make an effort to communicate.
So now, when I talk with other students, I try to express myself as much as I can. It doesn't bother me that I don't know the proper English expressions. The point is: I try. I found that once you accept your own English level, you become more relaxed, and also the listener will become more attentive and sometimes even lend you a hand.
Shukan ST: Aug. 25, 2006
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