How to Improve Your Speaking Skills in a Foreign Language

Article by Darren Kenny

Speaking Skills

There are many different reasons for learning a language, but at the most basic level, we all want the same thing – to be able to use that language for communication. This means that being able to speak the language to express our ideas is one of the most basic skills for us to learn.

Unfortunately, this key ability to use spoken words to convey our meaning can be a major stumbling block for many people, and some learners never manage to progress beyond being able to produce simple and halting sentences.

However, like everything in language learning, the ability to speak well – or lack thereof – is not down to some kind of innate ability but rather is all about knowing the right techniques that can help us improve.

So for anyone who needs help in this area, here are my top 16 tips for improving your speaking ability in a foreign language.

Fluency vs pronunciation

Speaking is one of the four traditional language skills – along with listening, reading and writing. However, in this post, I want to break speaking down further into fluency and pronunciation.

The key to improving both aspects of your speaking is lots of practice – and for the best results, you need to know how to practice and you need to do it often. You won’t notice much improvement if you only work on your fluency and pronunciation infrequently.

Like any skill you spend time practicing, the more you do it, the better you will become.

Now let’s look at the kind of things you can do to improve in these two areas.


By fluency, I mean being able to produce words and sentences at a normal speed without hesitation. Here are some ideas for how you can work on this aspect of your speaking.

1 - Speak to yourself – or a pet or a plant

When you begin a new language, it can be difficult to jump right in and start having conversations with native speakers. At first, you won’t have enough vocabulary to say very much, and you’ll probably have trouble understanding anything they say back to you.

This means you need to find a way to practice speaking the words and sentences you have learned in a way that is more suited to beginners. If you are taking a class, your teacher will help you do this with your classmates, but if you are learning alone, you can still practice – by speaking to yourself – or even a pet or a plant!

In fact, this is a great way to run through the language you have studied, and you’ll probably find it quite enjoyable to start playing around the constructions you have already seen.

It doesn’t matter if your dog can’t answer you, the most important thing is practicing making the sounds of the new language while trying to organize the words into sentences. It’s also no problem if you make mistakes – the important thing is just to speak.

It won’t help much if you just do it once or twice, but if you make a habit of it, your speaking skills will improve rapidly – and even if you are taking classes, it’s still a good idea to practice like this when you’re not in class.

2 - Use a language exchange app

Another way to practice is to use a language exchange app like Tandem or HelloTalk. With both of these apps, you can start by typing messages. This is perfect for beginners because it gives you time to think about what you want to say, and you can also read what your partner writes, looking up any words in a dictionary if you need to.

Then, when you feel more confident, you can start sending audio messages. At this stage, you need to start reproducing the sounds in the other language, but you can practice each sentence a couple of times before recording it.

Finally, when your language skills have progressed enough, you can try doing voice or video calls. In this way, you can use typing and voice messages like stabilizers on a bike to build up your confidence before you start talking for real.

3 - Always speak in full sentences

When practicing a language, it is important to use full sentences. If you always give the shortest answer you can get away with, you won’t improve. Instead, push yourself to always speak in complete sentences.

A simple example is something like this: in your native language, when you are asking your friend if they want a coffee, you might simply say “coffee?” with a rising intonation.

This is fine in your own language because you don’t need to practice it, but in your new language, force yourself to make a full sentence like, “would you like a cup of coffee?”

It might not feel completely natural to speak like this, but in a new language, you need the practice – so don’t allow yourself to be lazy!

4 - Do speaking exercises

Another way to improve fluency – as well as to help fix new vocab in your mind – is to create speaking exercises to practice manipulating language. For example, you can write out a list of prompts, like this:

  • I
  • He/she
  • Negative
  • Question
  • Yesterday
  • Next week
  • Like

Then if you learn a new expression, for example, “go to the zoo”, you can then go through your list, making new sentences, like this:

  • I go to the zoo once a year
  • He never goes to the zoo
  • I don’t go to the zoo during the week
  • Do you often go to the zoo?
  • She went to the zoo yesterday
  • I’m going to the zoo next week
  • I like going to the zoo because I enjoy seeing the lions and the elephants

Again, always push yourself to make the longest and most challenging sentences you can manage to gain the maximum benefit from this kind of exercise.

Another great way to practice is to use FSI drills. In the FSI courses, there is a huge range of ready-made drill exercises that allow you to practice this kind of manipulation of language, so make use of them.

Also, keep in mind why you are doing these exercises. You are trying to improve fluency, so don’t just go through once and think you’ve finished. Rather, repeat them over and over until you can say the different sentences fluently and without hesitation.

5 - Write

Another way to improve your speaking is…to practice writing!

By sitting down and writing out your thoughts or ideas, you are forcing yourself to think of words to express your meaning, and this will help the process of dragging words that have been stored passively in your brain into your active vocabulary.

Then, when you come to speaking out loud, those words will be more readily available when you need them.

6 - Practice thinking in the target language

Another way to help with your fluency is to spend time simply thinking in your new language. One of the reasons people end up stuttering and hesitating in their new language is that they are thinking in their own language and then translating.

When we speak a second language, we don’t have time to think of everything in our own language and then translate, we need to learn how to think directly in the new language.

Whenever you have downtime, you can practice this, and then you will be more ready when you need to do it “for real”.

7 - Learn words in chunks

When you learn new words, learn them in sentences – and practice saying them in sentences.

For anyone who studied French at school, they will be familiar with the expression je voudrais un… meaning “I would like a…” Most people will remember this expression, even if they can’t remember much else and will be able to repeat it fluently while adding the item they want.

If you learn expressions like this and practice saying them, you will be able to rattle them off easily and without hesitation much better than if you just learn individual vocabulary items and then try to construct sentences word by word.

8 - Learn filling words

Every language has filling words like “well”, “I mean”, “so”, “that’s to say” and so on. Native speakers use these words instinctively all the time, and if you, as a language learner, can pick up words like this, it will make your speaking much more fluent.

This is because instead of pausing or hesitating, you will be able to fill the gaps with the words that native speakers use, giving you a few extra moments to think about what you want to say next.

At the same time, you will still be thinking in the other language rather than reverting to English to search for the missing word.

9 - Take time to practice speaking

Above all, take time to practice speaking. It’s natural that every time you sit down to study, you want to learn new words and new grammar to make you feel like you’re progressing, but that’s not how language learning works.

You need to spend time practicing at least as much as you do learning, so set aside time for the techniques I’ve given you.

You might not feel that half an hour speaking to your dog in Chinese is time well spent – but doing this, or spending time doing drills or any other kind of speaking work is essential practice. You don’t need to learn something new for a study session to be valuable.


Pronunciation means being able to say words and sentences accurately so they can be understood without any difficulty. Now let’s look at some ways to improve in this area.

10 - Listen and repeat

One of the best exercises you can do to work on your pronunciation is to listen to a recording of a native speaker and then repeat the sentences.

This can also be good practice for fluency, but while you are doing it, you should pay attention to the pronunciation, the intonation, the rhythm, the melody and the music of the language.

One of the keys to improving your pronunciation is learning to hear the language as it is spoken and then repeating the sounds. Remember, too, that pronunciation is not just about the way you say individual words but also how they go together in a sentence.

One of the most common mistakes people make is imposing the rhythm of their own language on the new one, but if you want to sound like a native, you need to learn to hear how they speak.

Repeat each sentence out loud several times until you can reproduce it accurately. It is extremely important to speak at a normal volume, so don’t whisper, don’t mutter and don’t just think the words in your head because this won’t do anything for your pronunciation.

If you study with the Assimil language courses, for example, these are an excellent source of dialogs to copy and repeat – as are the FSI materials, which can be used in the same way.

11 - Read out loud

Another good exercise for pronunciation – as well as fluency – is reading out loud. This is similar to listening and repeating, and as you do it, focus on reproducing the pronunciation, intonation and rhythm of a native speaker.

12 - Listen to the sound of words as they are really pronounced

I mentioned above that people often tend to impose the rhythm of their own language on the one they are learning, and another problem is that they allow the writing to interfere with their pronunciation.

This is a vital point to understand if you want to learn to pronounce a foreign language properly.

European languages mostly share the same alphabet, but the letters are used to represent different sounds, so don’t try to pronounce them like in English because they rarely correspond exactly. Instead, listen to the sounds of the words and try to repeat them.

Alternatively, if you are studying a language that has its own writing system, don’t fall into the trap of allowing the transliteration to affect your pronunciation in the same way.

Even people who manage to learn a language to a relatively high level can be guilty of this, meaning they speak the language quite fluently but still have a strong foreign accent.

For example, listen carefully to the way a Spanish speaker pronounces the “d” sounds in “Madrid”. They’re completely different from an English “d”, but many English speakers continue to pronounce it like in English because they haven’t learned to hear the difference.

Similarly, people often replace a sound in other languages with the closest English equivalent.

For example, recently I listened to a Spanish podcast where a native English speaker – who otherwise speaks good Spanish – kept pronouncing the word qué just like the English letter “k”. If you know any Spanish, you can imagine how grating this was every time he said it!

In sum, always listen carefully to the sounds of the words as they are spoken by native speakers and copy them. Don’t be misled by the writing or similar sounds in English.

13 - Work on where the language comes from in your mouth

Something that not so many people realize is that different languages are spoken in different parts of the mouth.

We use different parts of the mouth to produce the various sounds of any language, but at the same time, the sounds of certain languages come predominantly from specific places in the mouth or throat.

For example, English is spoken quite far forward in the mouth, whereas French comes from a little further back – and Spanish is further back again.

This might be difficult to grasp at first, but if you want to speak more like a native, you have to work out where in your mouth or throat the language should come from.

Until you can do this, you will always sound like a foreigner – but once you understand this concept, your pronunciation will improve immeasurably.

14 - Do sentence building exercises

When I was talking about improving fluency earlier, I mentioned the use of exercises to help, and you can also do something similar for pronunciation.

Practice building sentences word by word, especially ones that you find hard to pronounce. Start by repeating one word, then add another and another until you can say the whole sentence.

As always, focus on the pronunciation of the sounds but also on the intonation and the rhythm of the sentence. If you can do it with a recording, so much the better. Your goal is to be able to repeat the whole sentence fluently and without pauses.

This is a particularly useful pronunciation exercise if you are learning a tonal language like Chinese, but your pronunciation will benefit greatly if you practice regularly like this with any other language too.

15 - Record yourself

A tried and tested method of working on your pronunciation is to record yourself and listen back. Sometimes, there can be quite a difference between the way we think we sound and the way other people hear us.

By recording yourself, you will be able to hear much more clearly what other people hear when you speak, and this will allow you to correct your pronunciation further.

16 - Don’t worry too much

Finally, when working on your pronunciation, it is also important not to get too hung up on it.

It is almost impossible for an adult learner to truly sound like a native in another language, and even if you live in a foreign country and speak the language every day for 20 years, you will still retain a hint of your original accent.

However, speaking perfectly should never be your goal because it’s practically impossible. Instead, you should aim for pronunciation that is clear and intelligible. You can always strive to improve, but you should realize that it is completely normal to keep your foreign accent.

Like learning a musical instrument

When studying a new language, it is important to make time for practice as well as for learning. You might feel like you should learn something new every time you study, but that isn’t how learning a language works.

In a way, you can think of it as being like learning to play a musical instrument. The idea isn’t to learn one piece of music and then move on to the next one as quickly as possible. Instead, you play the same piece over and over until you master it completely and can play it without thinking.

This means time just spent talking – to a language partner (see my post on italki), alone or even with your cat – is just as valuable as time spent learning new vocabulary or studying grammar rules. Or perhaps even more so.

Speaking is something that you will improve through constant practice, and the techniques I have given you in this post are some of the most effective ways of doing it.