7 Solutions to Fix the Problem “I can’t speak English”

7 Solutions to Fix the Problem “I can’t speak in English”

The problem of not being able to speak English when you know the language already seems strange but... “I can’t speak” is exactly how many, many students all over the world feel!

Unfortunately, the majority of advice is always - “Practice, be patient, practice, it will come with time.” But I hate giving advice like that – even if it is true, which it is – but that doesn’t help you TODAY.

So here are my 7 activity types you could do TODAY to make a BIG difference!

  • “Fishing with no hook”: You feel your brain goes blank
    • The problem here is that you are not helping yourself access your ideas
    • Good exercises? Getting Started exercises, or, “Saying something exercises”
  • “Jumping not Dancing”: You feel your speech is not fluent at all
    • The problem here is that you are not using linking language to help you speak
    • Good exercises? Linking exercises, or, “Saying no-thing exercises”
  • “Teaching yourself Surgery”: You're always thinking about how to speak
    • The problem here is that you are creating the rules yourself, but they exist already!
    • Good exercises? Muscle Memory exercises, or, “Talking without thinking”
  • “Biting a watermelon”: You sometimes just don't know where/how to start
    • The problem here is that you are trying to talk without any clear structure in mind
    • Good exercises? Structuring exercises, or, “Thinking without talking”
  • “Watching the stairs”: You are too focused on how you are speaking
    • The problem here is that you have a fear of your own ability and skill in talking
    • Good exercises? Unfiltered Output exercises, or, “Talking without care”
  • “Calling Your Lawyer”: You focus too much on what you want to say
    • The problem here is that your filtering of content is disrupting your fluency
    • Good exercises? Calm Output exercises, or, “Talking with a delay”, or phrases that simply let others know you would like to think for a second!
  • “Learning to Juggle with 5 Knives”: You are trying to improve everything at once, and so you just feel confused about what to do!
    • The problem here is that you are never giving yourself the chance to practice talking in a learning environment.
    • Good exercises? Practicing all the aspects of speaking that you find difficult or awkward SEPARATELY!

A Quick Overview of Each of the 7 Problem Areas

From my 20+ years of teaching I think I can boil down the reasons for why a student really struggles to speak into those 7 main problems I just listed, before I go into each one in MUCH more detail here is a useful summary of each.

7 Overviews

Overview: “Fishing with no hook”

Here we have the classic ‘empty mind’. But unlike the empty mind that your meditation teacher wants you to have, you want a ‘full mind’ so you can start talking and making conversation! This is often because the student has never learnt the types of opening phrases that allow us to capture and ‘verbalise’ our thoughts. It can be easy to fix!!!

Overview: “Jumping, not Dancing”

Here is another common problem that could be helped greatly with new phrases. The problem here is that the speaker feels their spoken English is not fluent, that it seems to jump around from sentence to sentence and that it flows very badly - making it difficult for the listeners to easily follow. The key trick here is to learn some linking language that helps signal to the listener where you are going.

Overview: “Teaching yourself Surgery”

Here the student is often very inexperienced with speaking. The problem here is that they do not have a lot of English conversation styles to copy from. Perhaps they have lots of grammar, or written English styles, or songs even – but spoken language is different. So the student is forced to create the rules themselves, this is a very difficult task and so the result is often a student who doesn’t speak at all.

Overview: “Biting a watermelon”

Here the student feels they have something they want to say. It is tangible and real – but they just don’t know where to start. This is a problem of structuring their information, there are many options to do this and we will look at some of them below!

Overview: “Watching the stairs”

Whenever we concentrate too much on the stairs while we use them we risk falling down! This analogy is the same for the type of student who concentrates too much on the technical nature of talking (grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary etc) while trying to talk. It is normal that we think we should be looking at the stairs while we use them but actually it is counter-productive - you need to forget about the stairs!

Overview: “Calling Your Lawyer”

This is when a fear of what you want to say is actually causing you speaking problems. ‘Calling your lawyer’ is the problem of filtering the content of your speech too much. Yes, we often have to think carefully about what we say but if you are always thinking too much it is going to seriously impede your speaking ability! The least you can do is to signal to the listeners that you are taking a moment of reflection!

Overview: “Learning to Juggle with 5 Knives”

One problem to appreciate about conversation is that we don’t really think about it too much when we speak in our native languages. Just look at when we write, we approach it in steps: we understand the idea of thinking about a purpose, then we structure it a little, then we write it , then we scan it, then...

But with speaking it is a single act - however in a foreign language (in order to perform better later) we really ought to do some activities that focus on the different aspects of speaking, not continually approach it as a single activity. Practice juggling with balls before knives and practice 2 then 3 then 4 balls before trying all 5! Asking yourself to perform perfectly all at once can put a lot of pressure on the speaker!

Scenario 1: “Fishing with no hook”

Getting Started exercises, or, “Saying something exercises”

“Fishing with no hook” PROBLEM:

The student is not able to physically express themselves. There could be the sensation that they have nothing to say but it is just as probable that their ideas “can’t be made to exist in English” - so their brain goes ‘blank’.

In classes the student forces themselves to speak and if they succeed even then they are speaking slowly. In group classes they are too slow to express themselves compared to the speed that a flowing conversation requires.

Something to consider here is that language is not only ideas. When we speak we do not just list our ideas. Meaning we do not say “Yes. Pasta. No, tomato. Lots.” Those words are just the basic information that you have that you want to communicate. It is funny (strange) that sometimes we only really understand our ideas when we actually say them out loud – we knew the idea but they arrive so fast that our ears are kind of learning from our mouths what we are thinking!! Ha ha!

So the sensation of your brain going ‘blank’ is also because you haven’t heard yourself speak. This “verbalisation” of ideas can also be in silence, internally in your brain – but until you “verbalise” (speaking or thinking) you are unsure about your thoughts.

This seems like an impossible problem to solve, I need to ‘hear’ my thoughts to ‘say’ my thoughts so that I can ‘hear’ my thoughts? This seems an impossible loop to get started. Until we remember that language is not just our ideas….

The second content of language is the structure and phrases around our ideas.

This language itself does not have the ‘ideas’ you want to express- although it can have ‘information’.

So going back to “Yes. Pasta. No, tomato. Lots.” - well the person may begin with a phrase like… “You know I would like...” or “Could I have...” or even… “Oh..” before continuing “...yes I am hungry.”

Think about difficult or strange questions…

  • “Are you really happy?”
  • “Who was your favourite teacher when you were 8?”
  • “What will the world be like in 100 years?”

Instinctively, the most common way to begin an answer is probably with some ‘starting’ language.

For example:

  • “Well… let me see… I think… Yes I am…”
  • “When I was 8? Hmmm… maybe…. Perhaps it was….”
  • “Oh! I have no idea...ummmm …. I guess….”

The starting language is the way to access your ideas.

A common problem for students who cannot easily start to answer questions or speak is that they do not have these starting phrases. They are trying to start talking but without really learning these phrases they are ‘fishing with no hook’ in the sense they are trying to catch their ideas but the brain needs them to start talking first.

The great news is that the phrases we use to ‘trigger’ thoughts are everywhere but the student has never really studied them. They have studied grammar, adjectives, etc etc but not the way we start our ‘turns’. The hundreds of expressions that we automatically use to allow us to get close enough to our vague ideas to express them!

Just think of the number of expressions you use in your native language before you start to really communicate your ideas.

  • “Well, I guess….”
  • “If I think about it then...”
  • “Who? Me?...”
  • “Hmm I wonder if you could...”
  • “Well, on the one hand….”
  • “Hmm, let me think a second...”
  • etc etc

“Fishing with no hook” SOLUTION:

Well, the solution, if you think about it, like I am now, in a round about way, without… you know… I guess…

The solution is for the student to start to copy the very, very useful phrases that we use to start talking and access our thinking.

There is no need for the student to invent this language. It is some of the most common language available, native speakers of all levels use this language. A problem is that many textbooks just don’t give enough emphasis to this important vocabulary set. And exercises are rarely available. They just tell you to ‘start talking’.

Also, this language is actually not used in written formats - unless it is very informal. So it is not produced by students in class for feedback from their teachers very often at all!

“Fishing with no hook” EXERCISES and ACTIVITIES:

There are two main issues facing students, where do I find these words and how do I practice them... let's look at both problems:

1 How to find the words and phrases

  • a Real conversations
  • A problem here is that this type of language is not often used in written form, the most common sources would be transcripts – especially interviews that are unplanned. Celebrity interviews are not always great because they have a good idea of the the questions they are going to be asked so their answers are not always spontaneous. So consider street interviews, or news programs or investigative journalists talking to politicians etc.

  • b Linking language
  • There can be useful phrases in written language. In books, in presentations etc, there are many cases of people who use linking language to move between different ideas: many of these expressions are valid for introducing your own speech.

  • C Film and TV language
  • So while most of a film or tv script does not have characters thinking in the moment and the dialogue is ‘tight’ (no extra words) there will be scenes where characters are written as thinking in the moment. This language could also be copied.

  • D Use your native language
  • Think about the phrases that you naturally use in your own language and find an equivalent phrase in English. Begin to use these phrases when you start speaking in English.

2 How to learn these words and phrases

  1. Use a flashcard system

  2. In class every time you are about to speak aim to use one as your first few words – think about using 3 new phrases each class. One idea here could be to not worry too much at the beginning if the phrase is perfect for what you are about to say. The idea here is just to start to engage your brain verbally.

  3. If you keep a diary, or if you write in forums on the internet, then try to use a starting phrase too – even if you don’t need to. You will notice on forums how many people start their own posts with such phrases out of habit.

  4. Interview yourself. Read a question to yourself and just start the answer with one of these phrases – get used to just starting to speak!

Scenario 2: “Jumping not dancing”

Linking exercises, or, “Saying no-thing exercises”

“Jumping not dancing” PROBLEM:

Here the student might begin speaking well, or often they say three or four words and then it starts to get very slow. Lots of pauses. Uhmms and Ahhs.

What is probably happening here is one of two possible problems, and those two problems are also related. Activity type 3 will look at the second possibility.

The first possible problem is that the student doesn’t have a lot of small speaking and linking structures in their vocabulary.

What are ‘small speaking and linking structures’? Well, I guess I am using that phrase to describe the type of language that we ‘hang’ information on. Much like the language I recommended in Activity Type 1 for getting yourself to start talking – here the student just doesn’t have the type of ‘conversational English’ that we use to join our ideas together.

For example, the phrase ‘for example’ for example! Or, phrases like “...it’s also true that...”, “...and then she said...”, “...it made me think that...” etc.

This means that the student has some ideas, but can’t move freely between them – they end up speaking in utterances, hence “Jumping not dancing”. They are unable to move smoothly between their points.

“Jumping not dancing” SOLUTION:

The language needed here is mostly not new to the student. They do need to make it more active, or 'accessible'.

The type of language you will need to include here really is language that says very little.

This language has the purpose to ‘hold the listener’s hand’ while you are talking to explain where you are going. It links ideas, times, reasons, people, purpose etc. And importantly these phrases are reusable in all types of situations.

When you listen to someone talking it is possible that their actual ideas are only 50% of the language they use, the rest of the language is structural – and we come back to this later with “Biting the watermelon”.

The difference here is that this is not the main structural language but rather the much smaller linking ideas.

When you start learning English the first linking words you learn are usually: ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘because’ and really as you progress further in your English you need to keep increasing the number and type of expressions you use for linking!

“Jumping not dancing” EXERCISES and ACTIVITIES:

Again the problem for many students might be where do I find these phrases and how can I learn them so they become more 'active'.

1 How to find these linking words and phrases

  • A For ‘classic’ single words and expressions
  • Words like ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘on the other hand’ - well you can find lists of these ‘linking words and expressions’ all over the internet. They are though often a little formal and not the only expressions we use.

  • B Look for expressions in texts that you meet
  • As you study your English try to notice the type of language that is being used to move between ideas:

    Phrases like

    • “...and I did that because...”
    • “...this meant that...”
    • “...one of the reasons for this was...”

2 How to learn these linking expressions

Well obviously... I think the most common method of ‘memorizing’ is the flashcard method, there are various resources available, including the flashcards I put here on my own website (advantage: all cards written by me, a qualified teacher, disadvantage: for now you cannot make your own cards).

So how about some different activities? I am making a great list of resources here and I keep adding to it so check it out for new ideas!

Scenario 3: “Teaching yourself Surgery”

Muscle Memory exercises, or, a.k.a. “Talking without thinking”

“Teaching yourself Surgery” PROBLEM:

Here the problem is that the student just hasn’t PHYSICALLY talked enough! The student is almost trying to invent how to speak in English themselves.

Think about when you cook something you know very well. It is very easy.

And speaking in your own language can be easy as well.

But if you start cooking a new recipe, you are probably doing things that you know how to do already - cutting, frying, boiling etc - but you need to do it in different ways.

The choice here for the cook is to copy a recipe or invent. Inventing is fun - but it can lead to a lot of stress, failures and disasters. And often is just not a good idea to re-invent the wheel. Just copy a successful recipe if you want to perform better faster.

“Teaching yourself Surgery” SOLUTION:

In brief you need to talk without thinking, just doing. Here is some of the theory….

Muscle memory (or motor learning) is a term used in sports training whereby athletes are trained to successfully perform actions – it can be kicking a ball, driving a golf ball, doing basketball hoops (this is a simplified description of a much more complicated phenomena). It is by performing this single acts successfully that they learn to perform them later under pressure, this is because the actions have been 'learnt' by the body.

And this can also be applied to any physical activity, include language learning - and is especially valid for students who just do not believe that they can speak. By practicing this activity successfully they can draw on this positive experience and copy it independently.

People might be sceptical about this activity - but many students have found this useful - so give it a try!

“Teaching yourself Surgery” EXERCISES and ACTIVITIES:

So here I will tell you about the most effective exercise to resolve this problem, it is called Shadowing.

Shadowing (in brief)

Undoubtedly I will soon write a longer article about shadowing and why it is one of the most prescribed activities by so many many teachers, students, polyglots and educators!

NOTE: Other benefits of this 'Shadowing': It is an activity which really improves a lot of other aspects as well as this idea of muscle memory:
  • It helps pronunciation
  • It helps fixing vocabulary and phrases
  • It helps in appreciating intonation
  • It helps your listening skills and your listening memory bank of sounds.

It can be used in a variety of ways too – one way that can be quite interesting is to do it and focus solely on the prepositions being used if that is a particular issue for a student. Anyway back to the matter in hand…!

So what is “Shadowing”? There are many versions of this activity and this is the one I would recommend in this particular situation:

  • Find a piece of audio (5-15 minutes is fine) that has a word-for-word transcript available.
    • Side notes:
    • It can be multiple speakers but I think it can be difficult if the dialogue switches quickly and/or constantly. Monologues are easier.
    • Aim to get text that is spoken in nature, podcasts or film monologues are slightly better than newspaper articles or descriptions in books.

    Now you are ready:

  • Play the audio (without stopping) and read aloud as soon as you hear the words spoken, so you are about half a second behind the speaker (like a shadow!)
    • Side notes:
    • Whispering is ok, as long as it is audible
    • Louder is better though
    • I think speaking so softly as to make almost no sound is much less effective

This exercise can be very tiring (and quite boring/tedious sometimes) if you do it for extended periods, so an intense 10-15 minutes is probably great!

Scenario 4: “Biting a watermelon”

Structuring exercises, or, a.k.a. “Thinking without talking”

“Biting a watermelon” PROBLEM:

Here the student has an idea what to say, and is even starting to say it – but then as their mouth opens it seems to fall over itself and get jumbled in the mouth like some sort of word spaghetti! The student then stops talking and then just shrugs – giving an oversimplified answer or even lying with “I don’t know”.

“Biting a watermelon” SOLUTION:

Sometimes we underestimate how proficient we are in our own native languages. We fail to appreciate how much a capacity in language is also a capacity in thought. Thoughts and ideas without words that actually express them are difficult to hold in our heads. So the student knows they know but can’t start to express.

Here is where structuring is really going to help!

What is structuring? In general it is just the ordering of a piece of text in its entirety – rather than an individual sentence or paragraph even (although paragraphs are the basis of structure).

Structuring is a skeleton, a framework to hang your speech from. It, like a skeleton, gives some hard bones for the wobbly meat to take shape.

Now when you speak your native language(s) you will often use very sophisticated mini-structures. Or it appears that you do not actually use any fixed structure but that you jump around. This is normal – even if possibly not desirable in more formal/serious situations.

And in fact using structures is an ARTIFICIAL solution in many ways. They are a bit like scaffolding that goes outside the building and not really part of the building… but structuring can be a great solution here and when you get better and better using it, you can stop using it! You can take away this artificial structuring!

I like to think of this as biting a watermelon. You can see the watermelon, you can hold it, you can even lick it (why? I am not sure!)! But it is just so hard to actually bite into it (if you wanted!). What you need here is a knife. A way to get started and this is where structuring can really help.

It just gives you that push-start. The way to start the ball rolling, then momentum will take its course and the rest is all downhill!!

“Biting a watermelon” EXERCISES and ACTIVITIES:

Here are 2 activities about structuring that you can try so that you can get that first 'bite' of the watermelon!

These exercises are about getting you to start speaking but it is also about you being able to grab your thoughts, so the thinking part is where you will start improving.

You can even do some of these exercises without actually speaking afterwards. They are about learning to structure your thoughts. Some you can just start a little bit, some you can even carry on and finish if you want, but what is key is that you practice how to actually structure your answer in order to make your ‘thinking’ lightning fast when you actually need it!


Very Rigid Structure : “Driving the Bus”

This is a very structured approach to conversation. It is much more suitable for formal, or business or serious situations BUT it can be used in social conversations too. Although I would not talk like this very often, it can help if you are stuck!

NOTE: What is Driving the Bus in general?

In general ‘Driving the Bus’ is about telling the listeners where you are taking them on ‘your bus’ i.e. your conversation – you use this language to make sure your listeners (‘passengers’) know where they are going and know when you are changing direction.

The big advantage is that they don’t feel ‘lost’ or ‘confused’ as your speaking continues, and at what point you are in your general argument!

For example, using language like

  • “Well on the other hand...”
  • “..and if we look further at this...”
  • “...firstly… secondly….”

All these phrases help the listener follow where you are taking them. They are especially useful when giving presentations or explaining difficult or multi-layered topics.

However, you may notice about Driving the Bus that there is a lot of language that is used in the middle of a conversational turn but here we are interested in the starting phrases and structures, so really one part of Driving the Bus – the beginning!

So the part of Driving the Bus that is most applicable here is the initial structuring phrases, in a formal presentation you may begin like this:

“Hello, today I am going to talk to you about XYZ and why it is so wonderful. Firstly I will tell you about A, and then we will look at B before we talk about C and then some conclusions for the future. So beginning with A, we can see that….”

Now clearly this is a very formal structure that is perfect for a presentation.

However, we can modify this Driving the Bus rigid structure in normal conversations if you feel it would help you to organize your thoughts and so get your speech started and your ideas out!

Let’s look at a social situation:

“Hey Adam, what did you think of that film?”

(Very structured answer)

“Oh it was good you know, there were 3 things I really liked about it. The story, the acting and the special effects.”

This is very rigid but you have started to talk, you have given the three basic areas but you haven’t had to express yourself in any detail yet – this gives you the chance to get your teeth into the conversation.

Now you can continue, with a more focused question to yourself : “What did you like about the story then?”

“The story was good because it had a great surprise ending.”

And the acting?

“And I really thought the woman, what’s her name?, was really good especially in that scene near the end.”

And the special effects?

“And the special effects were amazing!”

So yes, putting them all together we get a conversation like this:

“Hey Adam, what did you think of that film?”

“Oh it was good you know, there were 3 things I really liked about it. The story, the acting and the special effects. The story was good because it had a great surprise ending. And I really thought the woman, what’s her name?, was really good especially in that scene near the end. And the special effects were amazing!” (Very structured)

As you practice the 'Driving the Bus' opening structure, or even if you want from the very beginning you can start to answer without actually saying the precise structure you want to use.

(With practice and internalised Driving the Bus logic)

“Oh it was good you know, the story had a great surprise ending. And I really thought the woman, what’s her name?, was really good especially in that scene near the end. And the special effects were amazing!”

This is what I mean by practicing first this rather artificial external structuring, and then be able to internalise the style - and so later not use such formality as 'Driving the Bus' for general conversation when it is not necessary*!

NOTE:When is Driving the Bus necessary in general & social conversation?

Please do use driving the bus language when you want to change direction or really build on ideas.

For example:

“Oh it was good you know, the story had a great twist in the middle... And I really thought the woman, what’s her name?, was really good especially in that fight scene BUT ON THE OTHER HAND the special effects were awful and THAT REALLY MEANT THAT the film just seemed a bit silly in the end”

Driving the Bus explainers;

  • "On the other hand": changes bus direction
  • "That really meant that": accelerates the bus towards a further point


A Complete Structure : “Alphabet Structure: AB(CDEF)”

The Alphabet Structure is the following:

  • Acknowledge & Answer
  • Belief & Because
  • Plus optional:

  • Cause & Consequence
  • Detail(s)
  • Example(s)
  • Future / Further

Again as with 'Driving the Bus' the 'Alphabet Structure' is artificial. It is a way for you to practice getting your ideas out of your brain!

This can also be used to turn vague ideas into more concrete ideas. And then with practice you can no longer use it.

Here is how the Alphabet Structure works:

A is for

Acknowledge & Answer:

  • * This is accepting that it is your turn to speak, or that you are ‘taking’ the role of speaker.

Phrases here allow everyone to start to listen to you, and for you to take a breath – not doing this may mean that the other listeners actually miss what you said. If you have something that is worth saying then remember it is worth being heard too! If possible get everyone's attention before you speak.

In your own language you may be able to say something that is clear over the other people speaking, but in a foreign language you may not be able to communicate such force! Just learn your personal abilities and limits!

  • * You may also wish to acknowledge what was said before.

This is a great tactic to get people to listen to you, when people have finished speaking their first thought is “Aren’t I correct?” Not “Now you speak” - they are thinking about themselves, so at least acknowledge that you heard them!

It also gains you valuable more time.

  • * Ideally you will answer in some way the actual question, or topic.

Some people delay actually giving an answer, this can confuse the listeners as they are expecting to know where you are coming from. So remember to answer the question.

Remember though your answer can be vague, or your answer can be half for one idea and half for the other idea – but ideally you should state your position.

So for the A phase, such phrases as;

  • “Well, as for me, firstly I agree with you...”
  • “Yes, I think that’s a good idea but I am not convinced...”
  • “If I could say something, what you said was right/wrong/great..”
  • “If you ask me, then I think you are making a big mistake.”
  • “Stop! That’s a lie! I don’t disagree with you in principal but….”

B is for

Belief & Because

  • *This is now giving a reason for your answer, it could be just what you believe or for a factual reason – either way you are justifying your initial answer. It could be long or short.

Some phrases for the B phase

  • “...because I saw him do it!”
  • “...because I believe that is what we need to do first.”
  • “...and that is due to the fact that we arrived late.”
  • “...I can’t give a definite answer at the moment seeing how everything is still up in the air...”
  • “...and I know that’s true from all the things I have read on the subject.”

After A & B we can start to use some of the optional parts of the Alphabet Structure.

The sections could be missed if you feel they are unnecessary.

C is for

Cause & Consequence

This step is about thinking of your opening statement in terms of time – either going back in time (causes) or forwards (consequences)
  • * We might already have touched on causes and consequences when we were explaining our reasons in Phase B (Beliefs and Because) –

  • * But here we could also just be giving more information about the past or the future. It is normally a very useful perspective to consider.

Some possible Cause phrases for this phase could be (just imagine trying to explain your idea with more ideas about the past)

  • “...and that is probably why it failed.”
  • “...so when he arrived there was no one there.”
  • “...it was a complete disaster.”
  • “And I say this because of what happened before.”

Some possible Consequence phrases for this phase could be (just imagine going forward in time now)

  • “...and this means we can...”
  • “…if we don’t do this it means...”
  • “...looking at this I think that next year will be too late...”

So just to summarize until here, we acknowledge and take control and give an answer with a brief reason, then we give some context in terms of time (in relation to past or the future).

Next we can give some details.

D is for


  • * This is where we have the opportunity to really explain the ideas we are trying to communicate, giving information about factors, about events, people etc

And then we can look to give something more concrete

E is for


  • * Now we can aim to make more sense of all the details that we gave, in order to communicate a clearer idea.

Here finally at the end of this structure we can finish by giving – if we haven’t been interupted already – the turn to someone else. Possibly with a question even!

F is for


  • *In a longer turn you could summarize, otherwise a brief statement or a question to another person,

Some finishing expressions could include

  • “And that’s what I think.”
  • “Look that is just my opinion, that’s all, what do you think?”
  • “So what do you say? Yes or no?”
  • “And that is that for me.”

Ok, all very super-structured, and remember this is another exercise that should be done in order to be forgotten. It just gives you the chance to feel how you could structure your thoughts – there is no right or wrong way, just that at the moment you feel you would like a starting point.

Let’s have a look at some social conversation.

Alphabet Structure Examples

Here are two examples:

“Hey Adam, what did you think of the film?”

“(A) Oh it was cool thanks, (B) I really liked the story and the acting (C) it wasn’t what I was expecting at all! (D) I thought all the dialogue and special effects were great (E) especially that scene in the spaceship near the end (F) what about you?”

Second example:

“...there is no way I am going to go...”

“(A) Hold on a minute, listen to me, I think you have misunderstood something here, (B) I don’t think he meant that ( C) I had spoken to him the day before and I know that he has to come back tomorrow so I can’t believe that is true what they said...(D) I mean look at the way he did this and said that and the way she said that, (E) just think about when he said “I am going to do my best,” (F) for me it means you can trust him, that’s my take on this!”

As you can see this structure is very powerful BUT of course it needs a lot of practice, and it is a little artificial of course. Yet on the other hand there is no need to pass through all the steps A B C D E F…. Practice using it and think of it as some food for thought and an exercise in ordering your ideas!

Scenario 5: “Watching the stairs”

Unfiltered Output exercises, or, “Talking without care”

“Watching the stairs” PROBLEM:

This is undoubtedly one of the most common problems. It is the act of filtering everything you say in terms of grammar, structure, word choice.

People who do this say (or are thinking) something like this:

“So I was walking...going?...down the road… along?...the road… street? And I met… have met?… have meet?… have meeted?….” etc etc

So obviously this is an extreme case but it is not something that surprises us – we have all seen this. And to a certain degree we have done it ourselves.

Basically the person is concentrating on the FORM (the idea that language is something constructed) rather than something which has a FUNCTION (to communicate).


Now, form is important. I disagree with people who say not to worry about it. It is LESS important than the information you are communicating BUT IT IS ALSO A PART OF THE INFORMATION YOU ARE COMMUNICATING : Namely, who you are.

Who you are, and the type of person you are, and the image you want to create is fundamental. Teachers who tell you to stop worrying about this are missing the whole point. We are US expressing OURSELVES with a FOREIGN language, but we are always OURSELVES.

The fixation on form in these situations is when you are actually creating more problems in communication than you are solving. That is when the student must start to filter less.

You will know yourself if this rings true and that it is a problem you need to address.

It is definitely a phase every language learner must pass through – either in learning languages in general, or even for each language you learn.

I think it is natural to start to have doubts about what words and phrases to use – especially as your whirring brain starts to throw choices at you!

“Watching the stairs” SOLUTION:

So I call this problem ‘watching the stairs’ because it is like the phenomenon that when you go down the stairs, if you start to think about the stairs and all the little steps your body is doing automatically you may actually fall down the stairs!

The idea being that sometimes you have to let your body, your instinct, your training, your knowledge do the work they are capable of and ‘you’ shouldn’t interfere!

Get out of the way!

The idea here is that while Form and Function are both important, you are concentrating too much on Form, while instead the Function, the communication, is suffering.

And the solution?

The solution is obviously to start not worrying. But that is easier said than done.

So, perhaps, we can stop worrying through 3 ways.

1 Banally, you can keep studying in general, basically waiting until you feel that there is nothing to worry about because you are better at English! Fine, but that is not helpful today!

2 You can do some activities that could reduce this ‘habit’ from being automatic. I will talk about these type of exercises in the next section.

3 And to actually reduce the worry (rather than wait for it to disappear) you should start to consider changing your mindset, think about these ways of viewing the situation

  • You are trying to create a good impression but...actually hesitating/repeating creates a bad impression.
  • You want to communicate more precisely, hence the doubts and questions, but talking with such hesitations etc only produces more confusion.
  • You would like to impress people with your English, but really they are now thinking more about your errors than your skill.
  • You may be correcting or analyzing two valid options, there is often more than one way to skin a cat, there is not a single correct option each time, it depends.
  • You may be correcting an error with another error, “is it ‘go in’ or ‘go on’ I never remember” “It’s ‘go out’ actually”.
  • Consider your brain like a computer, every time you keep asking your brain what is correct, your brain is not able to think about getting other ideas, or words, or phrases. You are stopping yourself.
  • Talking like this is very stressful, and not very relaxing at all, that is because you are not viewing the conversation as a fleeting moment in your life – but rather part of some big objective in your life – your level of English! This is stressful. While the next person is relaxed with their ‘ok’ English and enjoying the conversation – you are having an existential crisis – this does not make for a good conversationalist!
  • By talking like this you are possibly being a very tedious conversationalist, the conversation is now about you and your errors and not about the topic – the other people will quickly realise you are only thinking about YOUR English and not them or the topic of conversation!

NOTE on Speaking to Natives:

As a native speaker I find this happens very often that people start talking to me at parties because I am English – not for who I am personally, they are ‘objectifying’ me. And invariably their style of conversation is like this. Because they are only communicating ‘for their English’ that is all they think about – warts and all – just their errors. They may even ask me what is correct etc… but I am just standing there trying to relax. It is rude.

So to summarize why a change in mindset is going to be advantageous – it is that all the reasons why you might want to be filtering your output in terms of ‘correctness’ are counter-productive.

They are counter-productive because doing it doesn’t create the impression you want to create, and not doing it is probably the best way to achieve the impression you want to achieve!!

So, what about some exercises to help you reduce this tendency….?

“Watching the stairs” EXERCISES and ACTIVITIES:

Exercise 1

The A to Z of Nonsense

This exercise is about building trust in yourself and your language, and also to stop being so critical of your output.

Write a list of words that you know (calm down, now is not the time to start learning new words) – one great way is to just write down a word that starts with each letter of the alphabet.

So perhaps: Apple But Cat Dog Even Fast etc etc

Now you are going to tell a story – that makes NO SENSE! - and move through the story using these letters.

For example;

“Yesterday I ate an apple but when I got home there was a cat who was with a dog and even then I realised that the cat was very fast...”

This exercise is about moving through ideas that you have, but that you are not really filtering or even care about.

Notice how well your language is for the most part. You are able to do this strange exercise and it kind of made sense in the moment. Great. This shows you, you can trust yourself.

What if this exercise was too difficult? If there was a difficulty here, was it about ‘watching the stairs’ or about something more practical, like vocabulary or how to conjugate certain verbs. Basically, your actual knowledge.

If that is the case, address those issues as required. This is also interesting for you to discover.

‘Watching the stairs’ is about doubting the choices you have, not really about not having choices. So have a look at the areas of the language that you are not able to express or have any choices about.

Exercise 2

No Hesitation Story

This is very similar to the Nonsense Story but requires a bit more control over the story and can be done with people listening (either class partners or a teacher) but it can also be done on your own – no problem!

Simply it works like this, you think of an episode, event or story in your life – it doesn’t have to be amazing, just something that ideally you might want to tell someone in a normal conversation.

Then think about this story and the main details and events in the story. And write them down as a list. (Generally keep verbs in the infinitive, and the notes very brief)

So, for example:

Yesterday / forget umbrella / go to shops / finished / go outside/ start walking / rain / nowhere to shelter / walk home / get inside / see umbrella in my bag!

Obviously an amazing story! Now tell the story, using or changing the vocabulary you listed – but what is important is that the story must keep moving forwards. If you back track, or repeat yourself more than a couple of times, then you have to start again!

Note on how Natives and Fluent Speakers actually speak:

Even native speakers in a language will backtrack and restart sentences, or go back and change a word – this is normal and of course students can do it too! A key difference here is the difference between backtracking to continue in a different way (change order of information, rephrase with different subjects or emphasis etc) compared to backtracking to say the same information and structure but just to change some grammar.

Again, if there are parts of the monologue which are difficult for grammatical or technical reasons then that is a great opportunity to note down that problematic language and study it later!

Scenario 6: “Calling Your Lawyer”

Calm Output exercises, or, “Talking with a delay”

“Calling Your Lawyer” PROBLEM:

This problem is similar to ‘watching the stairs’ in that you are filtering what you want to say, but whereas ‘watching the stairs’ is filtering the language, ‘calling your lawyer’ is filtering the message itself.

And in fact, this is probably much less to do with English, than to do with personality, culture and situation.

It is not wrong to hesitate, or to think about what you want to say.

In fact, I am loath to ‘fix’ this problem. I am not a psychologist. I do not believe we should just say everything that comes into our brains.

Some people think you should just ‘say it’. In fact, the Cambridge Exams and other exams seem to place a lot of value on being able to speak without filtering, to answer strange questions in 1 minute with no preparation etc.

I oppose this cultural imposition. I think it has little to do with language, and is about the individual and general culture.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers don’t answer questions immediately – this immediate answer culture is from television, where even 2 seconds of silence is too long.

On the other hand, it is possibly good manners to give some indication that you have heard the question and you are thinking about it. A stone faced silence would be discomforting to many people.

In fact, a problem here for students is not whether or not they should ‘call their lawyer’ but that other speakers don’t really let them. If you are taking your time to answer, many other people will jump in and you have ‘lost’ your chance. Here is where language can help you!

“Calling Your Lawyer” SOLUTION:

So, what is the solution here? Well, you decide.

If you feel that you would like to express yourself more honestly, then you might need to investigate the underlying reasons for how you feel.

If you are happy with ‘calling your lawyer’ but you would like your English to help you do this then there are two main language functions to consider.

  • 1 Language which acknowledges that you have heard the question, and would like to think about it for a couple of seconds – so that you keep your ‘turn’ and no one interrupts you!

And then a particular, second type of group of phrases, because you have ‘called your lawyer’ he or she has said “Be careful” and you would still like to express your thoughts carefully...

  • 2 Language that you feel allows you to say something that someone else might be offended by. This is being diplomatic. It is the ability to couch sentences in non-offensive ways.

“Calling Your Lawyer” EXERCISES and ACTIVITIES:

If you would like to express yourself and express that you are ‘calling a lawyer’ then you will need to learn some appropriate phrases.

Phrases to Get you some thinking time.

But as a start for this particular situation here are some useful phrases:

  • Let me think about that for a minute
    • “That’s an interesting question, let me think about how I could answer...”

  • I have a few ideas about this...
    • “Oh that film, I have a few things to say about that film, ummmm….”

  • Give me a moment to gather my thoughts...
    • “Right, hold on, give me a second to gather my thoughts… I guess… maybe...”

  • Hold on, let me think about this
    • “Tomorrow? Wait a second, hold on – let me try to remember if I have another thing organized...”

Phrases to Be Diplomatic

Here you have chosen to say something that the other person, or people, may not like.

There are a few ways to try and soften the blow of a possibly unwelcome comment.

1 You start by acknowledging that your opinion could be offensive, you are showing a degree of self-awareness, this will not stop your phrase from being offensive – but you can try!

  • “Please don’t take this the wrong way but….”
  • “What I am about to say could be misconstrued...”
  • “Don’t get angry with what I am about to say, hear me out, ...”

2 Another important aspect is to stress that it is just a personal opinion

  • “Remember this is just my personal take on this.”
  • “This is just my opinion.”
  • “I can only speak for myself.”

3 An extension of this is reminding the other(s) that you are fallible/limited. It is possible to start with this openness towards being wrong.

  • “It’s just my 2 cents, that’s all.”
  • “I could be completely wrong about this.”
  • “Maybe I have got the wrong end of the stick but...”

4 Saying that a different opinion could be valid.

  • “You might think differently and that is fine by me...”
  • “I am not saying I have the only valid opinion here.”
  • “You might not agree with me, and that is ok.”

5 Stating your opinion as part of a dialogue and not as the final answer.

  • “You know this is just an opinion, we need to talk more about this.”
  • “It’s just a starting point, I could be wrong, we need more information really.”
  • “I am not saying I have the answer, I want to hear what other people think.”

Scenario 7: “Learning to Juggle with 5 Knives”

Confidence Building Practice exercises: Specific conversation exercises

“Learning to Juggle with 5 Knives” PROBLEM:

This is a problem about the management of your speaking skills.

This occurs when students are fairly competent at all the aspects of speaking (grammar, vocabulary, structure, etc) and the problems that I have listed here are fairly in-hand and under control.

But then, in speaking, the student just doesn’t perform very well.

What is happening? The student is trying to do lots of ‘ok’ skills all at the same time.

You can juggle a bit, sometimes with knives, sometimes more than 3 balls – but now you are trying to juggle five knives while sitting on a unicycle and singing “Jingle Bells”. The final performance might not be as good as you hoped for!

“Learning to Juggle with 5 Knives” SOLUTION:

If I wanted to juggle 5 knives. First I would get great at 3 balls, then 4 balls, then 5 balls, then 3 knives, then 4 knives, then 5 knives. Or 3 balls, then 3 knives, 4 balls then 4 knives etc….

The idea here is to make sure you are doing exercises which strengthen the individual aspects of speaking, one or two skills at a time.

Another fantastic analogy here is sports.

Sports professionals don’t practice, or train, just playing matches. Just doing all the skills at once.

No. A tennis player might do an hour of just volleys or serves. A football player practices free kicks or marking. A golfer spends a whole day on the putting green or the driving range.

Match day is a serious event. It is the culmination of all the separate practice sessions.

Think of conversations as ‘match day’ - it is the moment when you are putting together all the different skills. But it is not the main way to be best at conversation! Your conversation and speaking skills are built on separate skills.

So I have to do grammar exercises for my speaking? No, not really! Unless your grammar really is atrocious and is causing lots of problems!

You should learn speaking by speaking, like learning tennis with a tennis ball, but what I mean is that you should be aiming to do exercises that focus on the different aspects of speaking individually. Not to keep doing all of the different skills at once.

What different skills are there in speaking? So there are general English skills, for example:

  • - Grammar
  • - Vocabulary
  • - Sounds : Pronunciation/intonation.

And then there are skills that are more about speaking, including the problems we looked at in this article:

  • Getting started: “Fishing with no hook”
  • Linking ideas : “Jumping not Dancing”
  • Just talking: “Teaching yourself Surgery”
  • Structuring: “Biting a watermelon”
  • Focus on communicating: “Watching the stairs”
  • Giving yourself time: “Calling Your Lawyer”

These are all areas that you could be fine with, but sometimes it can be very beneficial to focus on one area at a time. In a lesson there could be 10 minutes for your pronunciation, then some errors, then some talking practice… short answers, then long answers, difficult answers etc etc.

An interesting thing to observe with many students is that they are able to do some speaking exercises very well – but maybe other activities (eg long speaking turns) not very well because they are not practiced enough. They happen “by chance” {because with a match day approach specific practice is never planned}.

“Learning to Juggle with 5 Knives” EXERCISES and ACTIVITIES:

So really here I cannot tell what exercises to do because they could be any exercise!!

Also think about what are the problems you have in any conversation and look to do some exercises to attack those problems specifically – don’t just leave it up to chance!!

Problems that I DO NOT COVER in this article:

“I can’t speak English because I am a beginner.” (insufficient vocabulary)

This article is for people who have the basic vocabulary needed to communicate. If this is your problem, I recommend googling and learning the “Most Common 500 words in English”.

“I can’t speak English clearly.” (pronunciation / intonation problem)

This article is not about the physical sounds made while you talk. THIS is a fundamental speaking skill however, and may stop a student talking – THIS IS IMPORTANT: If you feel that your pronunciation is stopping you from talking, then this should be a first priority. It is NOT a problem to make pronunciation mistakes, but if people have a lot of problems in understanding your spoken output you should deal with this FIRST:

“I can’t speak English perfectly.” (grammar/word choice, problems)

Again, this is a different problem. You are able to speak, it is just that you would like to eliminate your errors. Your error types could be many so I cannot recommend a specific link – but this article here is not about becoming perfect sorry!

“I can’t speak English in an [interesting / effective / expressive etc] way” (range of vocabulary problems)

This is a different problem, and a very common problem too. However, it is a vocabulary problem NOT a speaking problem. Consider using a flashcard system to boost your vocabulary. Or, better still, reading is a great option. I am writing a course on exactly this topic very soon!

A note on Active/Passive, or Controlled/Uncontrolled Memory

Sometimes students are told about the concept of passive vocabulary and active vocabulary as being key to understanding why you can’t speak – but I see this as part of a different problem and not relevant here.

To give you an example of passive vocabulary: Imagine when you visit a lawyer, a tech guy or a doctor. They start talking with some of their specialized vocabulary and you understand them, sometimes perfectly, sometimes not. The words that you understand, but you would probably not use, are passive vocabulary words. They are words that you understand when you hear them but are unlikely to produce yourself.

How is this related? Well, the idea that some people say is that speaking is only difficult because your passive vocabulary is good but your active vocabulary is not ‘active’ enough. So you need to concentrate on making those words more active. While this could be true for some low level students many students who have a problem in physically speaking are fine when they write. And often the things they want to say are easily in their active vocabulary range. It is more likely that when they feel they are always using the ‘same words over and over again’ or that they ‘never use the best words’ that they need to be moving their passive vocabulary knowledge into active vocabulary knowledge. And as I said above – this makes it a vocabulary problem!

Great ‘speaking’ with you

Keep up the great work!


Here are some links that could be of interest!