Why can’t I speak English?
“I spent so many years studying. Why can’t I speak English well?”
The problem is that you studied English.
Mathematics, sciences, history, political science; these are all things that need to be studied. Great progress can be made from memorizing, lecturing, and reading. A textbook, a good teacher, and hours of studying can yield great results, good test scores, and sufficient knowledge for application & work. But what about English? Why not study English the way we study everything else? Textbooks, exercises, listening to lectures, taking notes, reviewing our notes, studying for tests, and so on. It works for everything else, so why not English too?
English is alive. And that’s the problem. An English conversation is an animal that is constantly moving, changing its approach, adjusting its goals, and feeling hunger for different things. An English conversation is dynamic and spontaneous. There isn’t time to open your book, ask your professor, or analyse your answer. It is automatic, relying on reflexes and skill. English is more like a sport, and less like an academic subject. It is like tennis in that when your partner sends the ball to you, you have to reply in that moment. If you think too much, you miss the ball completely. If you don’t return often enough, the game is essentially over. Here is where your notes, your textbooks, and your tests fail you.
Your teacher was a student
You probably had an English teacher that was not a native speaker of English. That’s part of the problem too. Your teacher learned English as an academic exercise, so of course they’re teaching it to you as an academic exercise. Remember that English is like tennis. How can someone that only studied the theory of tennis play a game? Your teacher may not be fluent in English or might not feel comfortable speaking English, making it impossible for them to create a dynamic English environment.
Too many students
If you studied English in school, you were probably in a class with more than 20 or 30 students. In that environment, it is almost impossible to get any direct interaction with the teacher. You can only speak a few words each class, which is not enough practise.
Not enough talking time
You spent more time reading and writing than speaking and listening. If you think back on your education, you probably remember the endless written exercises, or those lists of vocabulary that you had to memorise. How many conversations do you remember? The conversations are where you get the real practise. The tennis practise. You need hundreds of hours of this to really learn to speak English, but you probably spent 5% of your class time having conversations.
Too much grammar
You spent all your time learning the rules. Grammar is important, but it’s not everything. Schools teach grammar because it is easy to evaluate. It fits perfectly into the school’s need to classify and challenge their students, but too much of a grammar focus can hurt your ability to communicate in English. Grammar can confuse, complicate, and stop you. Your teacher probably never explained to you which rules can be broken. That’s right. Not all rules are equally important. Breaking the rules and making mistakes are important parts of learning English. They can give you the freedom to express yourself and go further to make yourself understood.
English is about communication. English is useless unless it expresses an idea or an emotion. It is alive and helps you and your conversation partner work together. If we put the focus on grammar and vocabulary, we forget about the conversation partner. But in school you probably had most of your conversations while staring at your book. Cold, impersonal, robotic.