How Your Photos Can Help You Become Fluent in English

Telling stories about your own photos can help you practise speaking in English and become more fluent. Let’s have a look at what fluency is and how you can increase it through stories and photos.

What’s fluency?

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines fluency as ‘the quality of being able to speak or write a language, especially a foreign language, easily and well’. 

Easily and well. What exactly does this mean? As an English teacher, this is my interpretation:

You speak English easily if you speak:

  • without thinking too much about how you’re expressing your message.
  • with confidence and in a way that sounds natural.

You speak English well if you speak:

  • in a way that people can understand what you’re saying without too much effort.
  • at natural speed, without too much pause and hesitation.

Let’s look at the following two examples. Martin and Yuli are telling a story about their pictures from high school. Who do you think is more fluent?

Martin: I take…erm…no…erm [pauses for 3 seconds]…took this picture when I…erm…[pauses for 5 seconds] go…erm…went….erm…was at [pauses for 3 seconds]…erm…high school. It show…s…it shows my teacher which erm…who….erm…was always very kind.

Yuli: I take this picture when was in high school. It shows…erm…my teacher which he always very kind.

I’m sure you’d agree that Yuli wins the fluency challenge here.

Imagine listening to Martin. He keeps self-correcting and pausing to think about expressions, words and structures at points where you wouldn’t normally expect a pause. He uses correct grammar in the end, but listening to him is probably tiring because his speech keeps breaking, so you have to make a greater mental effort to follow his message.

Yuli, on the other hand, makes more mistakes but her message is clear (assuming she’s got good pronunciation), smooth, understandable and easy to follow.

In other words, Yuli is fluent, Martin is not.

Notice how fluency has little to do with language mistakes. Being fluent is different from being grammatically correct. Being fluent means using the English that you already know easily and well. If you go back to my interpretation of ‘easily and well’, you’ll see that I didn’t use words like mistakes, errors, good grammar or wide vocabulary. You can even be fluent in a language by knowing very few words.

So how can you become more fluent?

How to become more fluent using your own photos

I’m often asked, “What’s the secret to fluency?”. Well, there’s no secret. It all comes down to practice. You get fluent by putting into practice the language (words, structures, grammar, etc.) that you’ve already learned and internalised.

If Martin practices telling his story a few times, in the end he’ll probably say something like this: “I took this picture when I…erm… was at high school. It show my teacher which….erm…was always very kind.”

There are still some mistakes in this sentence, but it doesn’t matter because we’re interested in developing fluency, not accuracy.

So how can photos help you boost your fluency? Here is, in order, what you can do:

  • Prepare a story based on one of your photos.
  • Practice telling your story until you feel fluent and confident.
  • Share your story (tell a friend, record a video and post it, speak to yourself, record it and send it to your teacher, upload it on your YouTube channel, join a forum and share it, tell your pet, start your own podcast, etc.)

Preparing a story and repeating it several times (not reading it aloud!) is a great way to develop fluency. Research into language acquisition has confirmed more than once that task repetition improves fluency.

But just repeating a story over and over again to yourself might be boring, so every time you repeat the task, you could change the time or the listener. Here’s how:

Time: set a timer and try to tell your story within a time limit. Then either increase or decrease the time and tell the story again.

Listener: tell the same story to different people. You can, for example, record your story and send the audio file to a person, then you record it again and send it to another person and so on.

These are just some examples. You’ll find more activities and ideas for fluency development through photos in my free guide ‘Photos as Language and Happiness Generators’. Click here to download it.

Let me know if you need any help with them or if you find them useful or not. I’m always interested in your feedback. Unfortunately, you won’t get fluent just by reading this blog, so what’s your first story going to be about and who are you sharing it with?

Any thoughts? Send them to me. I reply to every comment

Fabio Cerpelloni is a qualified English teacher, photography and storytelling lover who believes that telling personal stories is the most effective, productive, and meaningful language practice activity you could ever do to improve your English. 

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