How to Communicate in English with Confidence

Mauritians have an idea of how good, correct and proper English is supposed to sound like… However, ‘good’ speakers do not have to feel judged, but be focused on the person they are speaking to without any self-awareness

Over the number of years that I have been teaching English to secondary level and university students to speak better English, I have discovered a very surprising truth. I have found that how well somebody communicates in spoken English actually has very little to do with their level of English. It has instead a lot to do with their attitude towards English. There are people in Mauritius who have a very low level of ‘academic’ English (e.g. beach hawkers, taxi drivers, etc), but who communicate very well. To be able to speak English with calm and clear confidence is very important for the future of Mauritians. Success in speaking English in Mauritius is very often measured by how few mistakes we make. There is a feeling of dread among students to communicate in English, a kind of feeling that they are going to be judged by the number of mistakes they are going to make. Speaking English in Mauritius has to do a lot with self image and self esteem. Mauritians have an idea of how good, correct and proper English is supposed to sound like, and what their English sounds like, and how far they have to go to get there.

However, ‘good’ speakers do not have to feel judged, but be focused on the person they are speaking to without any self-awareness. There are indeed two different kinds of communicators: one who has got a high level of English but totally focused on him/herself, trying to get it right, and therefore being ineffective. Another one has a low level of English, but is totally focused on the person he/she is talking to, and getting good results. For every native speaker of English, there are five non-native speakers. If we listen to conversation in English on our planet, we notice that 96% of those conversations involve non-native English speakers; only 4% of those conversations are native speaker to native speaker.

English is no more the language of native speakers. It belongs to the world. English is NOT an art to be mastered, but a tool to use to get a result.

The challenge is that in schools all around the world English is still being taught like an art to be mastered, whereby students are judged more on correctness than on clarity. People take the attitude they have developed in schools and bring it into adult life and into their work. And if someone is in a stressful situation and is having a conversation and trying to give a result to someone else, and say it correctly, his brain multi-tasks and cannot do two things at once. Consequently, the brain shuts down.

The first symptom of the brain shutting down is that listening goes. When a person is talking to us, and we are busy thinking about how we are going to respond and express ourselves correctly, we do not actually hear what the other person said. Secondly, our speaking goes. Our mind shuts down, and the vocabulary we do know disappears. Words do not come out. The third symptom of the brain shutting down is that our confidence goes. We lose confidence because we cannot express ourselves clearly. So if we want to speak English with confidence, my advice is not to focus on ourselves but on our interlocutors and on the results we want to achieve.

Young men and women who graduate are expected to go in a higher level of cognition. They are expected to analyse, synthesise and evaluate, and have to do it in a language which is not their native language. We have to move away from grammar because form is secondary to content. The focus should be on CONTENT, not on FORM. Teachers should instead teach students to develop critical thinking skills. Whenever they read anything, or listen to a talk, debate or conversation, they should ask themselves a number of questions, for example: Is the speaker being very specific? People who know what they are talking about are usually very specific, and can say who/what/when/how many/how often. People who are not in this category run away from specificities because specificity entails responsibility.

When people are not specific, either they do not know what they are talking about or they don’t want us to know what they are talking about. There is an ethical element to it – betrayal and concealment. So the first thing they need to learn is to ask specific questions. Is the speaker being comprehensive? Is he/she looking at all the available evidence? Is the speaker looking at the burden of proof? When we speak, we have to be responsible for providing evidence for our claim.

Secondly, students should be able to detect logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are mistakes that people make in their reasoning process. One example of a logical fallacy which is widespread – especially among politicians – is ‘ad hominem(s)’ which are really nasty because the individual gets personal, and instead of attacking an argument of the speaker, we start attacking the person. We start attacking his/her integrity. Unfortunately, political debate in our country and elsewhere is polluted by such attacks. When somebody is losing an argument, instead of sticking to the merits or demerits of the argument, we back off and start getting nasty and offensive. ‘Ad hominem(s)’ are terrible but very useful in the hands of those who lack scruples. ‘Ad hominem(s)’ are not allowed under any circumstances. We are free to question ideas because ideas are not people. Ideas have no rights as such. Indeed, bad ideas (or ideologies) left unchecked can do lot of harm to us, but we have no right to offend or attack another person’s integrity.

Thirdly, most people think it’s wrong to change their opinion. This is not true. If we want to grow as a person and as a society, we need to be open to change our minds – and change our minds constantly because as the world changes, we must change with the world. Here is how George Bernard Shaw defines progress: “Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

I stated earlier that content is more important than form. Most students who are aware of what is going on in terms of content (e.g. the Syrian crisis, or the populism of Donald Trump or the economic crisis) are not really aware that they are acquiring the language. A good teacher of English has to remove from the minds of students that making mistakes is somehow bad. No, it is not. It even has a name – developmental errors. If we want to learn a language, we must be willing to make mistakes – lots of mistakes because that is how we know the boundaries of linguistic rules. A good teacher of English tries to create an atmosphere in class where students feel completely comfortable to say whatever they want to say, however they want to say. In this process, peer tutoring is important when it happens spontaneously. If students want to use ‘franglais’, for instance, they should be allowed to use it. They must realise that they can make mistakes, and nobody is going to judge them. Nobody is going to grade them. This is part of the language acquisition process. There is no way to learn a language simply by memorising rules or concentrating on grammar. Once students are comfortable with making mistakes, the exchange in the classroom becomes dynamic.

When we get to the writing process, again form is secondary to content. I would advise students to get their ideas and feelings on paper, and once they do that, they go into stage 2 – which consists in correcting the paper or essay. So at first we focus on content, not form, and then we focus on form, not content. This is where we correct all the grammatical mistakes and look at the mechanics of the language. Remember that many great writers of the world concentrate on the business of writing their novels or poetry, and leave it in the hands of editors to correct the linguistic inaccuracies. I know that many teachers of English and parents may find my ideas on learning and teaching English in Mauritius somewhat unconventional and even shocking as my ideas go against age old norms and practices, but these ideas are based on my experience as a teacher of English and years of research in the field of Second Language Acquisition.


 Published in print edition on 14 June 2018

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