eXtensions - Sunday 7 May 2017

An iOS App to Help Non-Native Speakers of English Improve Their Output: Speak - Practice Speaking English

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By Graham K. Rogers

Speak - Practice Speaking English

One of the biggest problems my students have with learning English is imposed by the society itself. While successive governments react to every announcement of poor English results from the schools (along with Maths and other important subjects) and all say, "We must DO something. . ." invariably nothing is done and the problems continue. There is help of course and one self-learning app may be a a good start for some.


I say that a large part of the ongoing problem with English ability in Thailand is because of the English teachers. There is an insistence on grammar teaching - yet the students have forgotten what they learned by the next semester - and because of the emphasis on structures, few students ever use English in realistic ways. Most oral output (conversation, role-playing, answering questions) is artificial.

Another problem here is the pressure that society puts on two native speakers using English (or any foreign language). When I learned French in the 1960s, it was not unusual for a couple of use to chat together in that language, and not only in school. That would never happen here, so pressure on students deters them from self-improvement, while their own grammar-oriented teachers insist on correctness in speaking, something which, as a native speaker, I say is impractical. I don't speak correctly all the time, so how can I expect my students to do this?

Some will try and good use is made of video for input - one told me he uses Game of Thrones - but this is only half the job. Output needs to be put to the test too.

Speak - Practice Speaking English Speak - Practice Speaking English

A Solution

I found a free app in the iTunes app store for Thailand that could go a small way to helping students at least. The app, Speak - Practice Speaking English from Speakeasy Labs allows a user to practice English alone (this could also be used in a class if set up right) by recording some guided phrases first, which are then adapted for a conversation with pre-recorded voices.

When first opened, the app asks users to indicate if they are native speakers or second language users. If the second language option is chosen, there are 4 options: English, Spanish, Korean or Chinese. As there was no local option, I first looked at the Spanish and saw headings in that language. I also tried the Korean and Chinese options: these had headings in English. I switched to the English and I do not think student learners here would lose anything by this.

A basic pack of 12 conversations (in three levels) is shown with three difficulty levels. It was not possible to skip to the next level. These could only be unlocked by completing the previous section. 7 other packs were available (e.g. Interviewing for Jobs, Ordering Coffee Eating at Restaurants) and 6 greyed out packs were shown at the bottom of the selection screen as Coming Soon. These included Construction Job, Working from Home (and others).

Speak - Practice Speaking English Speak - Practice Speaking English Speak - Practice Speaking English

The interfacing for pack selections, for the lesson parts, and for each sub-unit of these lessons was nicely designed. If a teacher were showing this to students, a single run through would normally be enough as it is intuitive and clear.

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When entering the lessons access to microphone was needed. A user is offered a sample phrase and speaks the words. The panel indicates recording and there is a pause. There are three responses: green, amber or red smileys; for good, a minor error, or a problem. As I am a native speaker, I introduced errors in pronunciation to see how this worked.

Speak - Practice Speaking English Speak - Practice Speaking English Speak - Practice Speaking English

When the practice unit is complete, a conversation is offered. A recorded voice asks a question or makes a response, and the user is expected to respond in turn. The conversation text may be hidden or if the user needs more help, tapping the speech bubble reveals the words. These responses may also see a red card, so it is in the user's interests not to let the guard down.

Speak - Practice Speaking English Speak - Practice Speaking English

Even if a unit is complete, it may be repeated. This is advisable. Some students may not see this and think that a single pass is all that is needed. I had problems with classes of students in a sound lab years ago who thought the point of the lab was to fill out the sheet, copying from the specimen answers when posted or from their friends. Those seeking assistance from videos or this type of app will be more motivated.


The app has several uses but for me the most important is to provide the first steps towards gaining confidence in speaking a foreign language out loud (and without negative social comment). Whatever the government here says (annually it seems) about the need for students to improve their English skills, the cultural barriers may be doing the most harm.

I do know several Thai families who encourage their children to use English at home, and the more a learner speaks the language being learned - whether making mistakes or not - the greater the confidence. This leads naturally to better skills in the language. Speak - Practice Speaking English is a start towards that confidence and (particularly as it is free) is highly recommended.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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