How important is spoken English?
Well, this might not be what you’ve expected from this talk, in that your attendance today already shows your interest in spoken English. However, as a university lecturer, it is my HABIT to talk about the theories or background knowledge before shifting to the more practical side of the issue. So, bear with me please, and you’ll find such introduction helpful.
In what follows, I will first explain why English is the only global language and why it is so powerful. Then, I shall convince you that mastering English speaking skills is a must, even if your job focuses more on reading and translation skills. Lastly, I’d like to draw your attention to the practical value of spoken English in terms of the speakers’ social status and career prospects.
1.1 English as a global/powerful language
English becomes a global language because of the power of the people who speak it. It’s nothing to do with the English grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation or spelling that makes English an appealing language at a global level. In fact, English spelling would put most people off, if you think about it. So it’s nothing to do with the structure of the language, it’s all to do with power.
But power means different things at different times. English first became international because of political power and military power -- the power of the British Empire, really. But it isn’t just political power that takes a language around. There are other factors too.
A century later, around 16th to 17th century, the power of industrial revolution also established English as the language of science. Starting from then, about two thirds of people who invented all the things that make modern life what it is today did so through the medium of the English language.
And then in 19th century, the economic power. Money talks; and the language used to do businesses was English. Because America and Britain back then had the lion’s share of international market.
Again in 20th century till today, we have the cultural power, with English being the language of communication between different nations.
So, in retrospect, English happens to be at the right place at the right time during the last
400 years or so, which has produced the enormous global status that it currently has.
1.2 Reading and Translation vs. Speaking skills
Alright, you might think that, ‘OK, I understand that English is powerful now, but I don’t really need to speak good English. If I want to communicate with foreigners, I can do so through reading and translation.’
Well, I’m going to convince you that spoken English is equally important as, if not more important than, reading and translation skills.
From the point of view of English learning itself, being able to speak is a sign of truly mastering the language. It is easy to understand, isn’t it? If you only read something without saying it, chances are that you will soon forget what you’ve read. Take myself for example, I learned Japanese for one term a few years back, and I can still say ‘Hello’ in Japanese. But besides ‘Hello’, which I learned to speak, I can’t use anything else that I had only read about but couldn’t speak out. Likewise, I can say a few French sentences which I learned to speak, not to read or translate.
Professor Ji Xianlin once observed：‘学习外语，在漫长的学习过程中，到了一定的时期， 一定的程度，眼前就有一条界线，一个关口，一条鸿沟，一个龙门。至于是哪一个时期，这 就因语言而异，因人而异。语言的难易不同，而且差别很大；个人的勤惰不同，差别也很 大。这两个条件决定了这一个龙门的远近，有的三四年，有的五六年，一般人学习外语，走 到了这个龙门前面，并不难，只要泡上几年，总能走到。可是要跳过这个龙门，就决非易 事。跳不跳过有什么差别呢？差别有如天渊。跳不过，你对这种语言就算是没有登堂入室。 只要你稍一放松，就会前功尽弃，把以前学的全忘掉。你勉强使用这种语言，这个工具你也 掌握不了，必然会出很多笑话，贻笑大方。总之你这一条鲤鱼终归还是一条鲤鱼，说不定还 会退化，你决变不成龙。跳过了龙门呢？则你已经不再是一条鲤鱼，而是一条龙。’ The ‘gate’ in his observation represents a higher level of language. We can sort of ‘borrow’ Professor Ji’s metaphor here. What pushes us to go through the gate in language learning is to speak the language. If you can express your thoughts by speaking, it is guaranteed that the language cannot be forgotten easily. [什么能够帮助我们“鲤鱼跳龙门”？口语！]
1.3 Speaking skills, social status and career prospects If I ask you ‘What do world leaders have in common?’ Yeah, you know the answer, don’t you?
The film ‘King’ Speech’ is a great example of how critical speaking skills are to a leader. In fact, every world leader need to be articulate and fluent. JFK and Clinton, for example, are both famous for their exhilarating speeches, which helped spread their influence internationally. Our very own Premier Wen Jiabao is also well-known for his sparkling remarks in various press conferences.
Not only world leaders, look around you -- your head-teacher, manager, supervisor or team leader are all good speakers, aren’t they?
So, wanna be a leader and make a difference the big way? You’ve got to speak well! Truth be told, when you’ve learned how to speak English, the opportunities are limitless! [Now I hope that you are even more motivated to speak English well. And also, I hope that you are not tired of my speaking English all the time, because we’ve just getting warmed-up.]