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Speaking English is not to be afraid of with 5W1H! Secrets for non-English speaking international students!

Updated on November 16, 2015

Knowing history will better prepare you for the future

Since I was an international student 20 years ago studying in college in the U.S., being able to speak English to better communicate with others has been a lifelong journey for me. Along the way, I have gained enough tips and tricks in "English" that other international students and non-English speaking people may take advantage of. With these tricks, I have stayed in the U.S. for the last 20 years without many problems, and I do hope things listed in this article would help others.

A while back (actually almost 6 years ago), my kids asked for a movie. We ended up going to see "Night at the Museum" in IMAX (Remember this movie?!??). A larger screen, 3D, sharper contents, etc... though we sat in all the way back in the theater, my eyes kept turning around, feeling dizzy in the beginning, but the movie was just great!!

There was one phrase that became a good memory inside my head. It was "Knowing history will better prepare you for the future". By knowing my history, I hope you can benefit.

If you fully understand 5W1H, English conversation becomes much easier than ever!!

This is a pen. Is this a pen?

My English learning officially started when I was a 6th grader (1st year in middle school in Japan). I had studied some conversational English when I was in 4th grade, and I remember liking it... Anyhow, the first few pages of my English textbook went like this (Not sure if this is somewhat similar in other non-English speaking countries, but this seems lame... We obviously don't talk like this in daily conversational English... A feedback welcome in the comments section on this please!):

This is a pen. Is this a pen? Yes, it is.

That is a building. Is that a building? No, it isn't.

Then, the first problem I encountered while practicing to respond on the following sentence.

I have a pen.

I responded in the following way. Without knowing much English, I basically took the above examples, and reversed the subject and verb. Easy, right??

My response: Have you a pen? No, I haven't.

My English teacher came over and asked me this:

"Have you been to England?" In England, people say "Have you a pen?" in general.

Huh?? What in the world?

I later found that "Have you ...?" was a "perfect tense" in English most of the time. Instead of "actually having something", it would rather mean "have you done something...". I just didn't know much about Do verb and Have verb and their differences of usage. It turns out this is NOT that much important.

Nobody likes detailed English grammars, right?!? I was pretty bad at Japanese grammar (I was always a C student in Japanese language... ^^); ), so I can't complain, but the point is that these English phrases above are pretty USELESS, YES, POINTLESS!! in improving your English conversation skills! Yet, every single English book I looked in Japan started with these sentences. EVERY SINGLE BOOK. It's been a long time since I looked at the English textbook. Things may be way different now after 20 years. (and I certainly hope that is the case.)

Why do I say these sentences are useless?

Think for a few minutes as to why, specifically, think of what's common in the above sentences. Got it?

Yes, No and then what?!?

I am sure you got what I asked, but in case you didn't... These phrases discussed above require the response to be "Yes" and "No". I have found these types of phrases become critical hurdles for people want to improve English conversations, especially learning these types of phrases in the beginning is vastly disadvantageous!!

The reason is rather simple. When the response comes back "Yes" or "No". It is just plain simple harder to go on to the next conversation.

Again, I don't know if the current middle school English text book is still the same as 20 years ago in Japan, but if that's still the case, that would become obstacles for English conversation learning.

Now let's discuss 5W1H. If you fully utilize 5W1H, your English conversation skills will improve dramatically.

How much can you speak English?

Usually when people start learning English conversation, people ask like this "How long does it take for you to be able to speak English?".

This is rather NOT to the point. The important part is NOT "How long it takes to speak English", but rather "How long it takes for you to communicate with others."

English is just like the Japanese and other languages where it is just a tool to communicate with others. No matter how good you can speak English, if you can't communicate with others, then that is a total epic fail, pointless!

What in the world is 5W1H?

I call it as "5W1H English conversation method". I really don't think the idea is anything new, but many English teachers in Japan don't seem to teach it well (at least I didn't learn well in the English classes I took...)

5W1H is pretty easy as long as you know what to say, and it will help you on your English conversation.

The basic is this. 5W stands for What, When, Where, Who and Which. 1H is obviously How. When in English conversation, if you start with these 5W1H style questions, things go rather smoothly. Why, you ask??

There are advantages of using 5W1H.

1. You start by asking questions, and as such, the other person responds to you. You rarely have to speak in the first place!

2. A good listening practice. English listening is sometimes hard, especially the respondent has strong accents.

3. If you respond from time to time while the other person is talking, say like "u-huh, ok, etc", you never know what others think. Your friend might think "Oh, you can speak English!" This may sound funny, but better than nothing, right?!?

Doing this goes a loooooooong way. In the end, you will learn how to respond when others start asking YOU questions by first listening to how others respond to you.

Another example...

Let's say your friends are getting together, and somebody doesn't yet come. In Japanese, we usually say " **** ??", but **** is just somebody's name who still hasn't showed up. Though grammatically, this is not correct, people would understand you.

In English, however, people may say "Where is **** ?". Again, **** is the name of the person who hasn't showed up. You are actually asking somebody where this missing person is. Naturally, the other person would have to respond where the missing person is. The response could be "I have no clue.". We don't pay much attention to it in usual conversation, but you are basically forcing others to respond.

When you are starting to learn English conversation, you have no clue as to what to say initially, so make sure to utilize others first!!

Take home items

Let me repeat again. The ultimate goal is to communicate. To achieve this, do whatever you can.

Here's a summary:

1. You start by asking questions, and as such, the other person responds to you. You rarely have to speak in the first place!

This speaking style of questioning is different from asking just Yes or No. It will force others to respond. You, on the other hand, just listen, much easier than you start talking! I also tell people not think too much about how to talk. That will stress you more. Relax and it will be just fine!!

2. A good listening practice. English listening is sometimes hard, especially the respondent has strong accents.

If you listen and understand that the other tells you, congratulations! You have passed the first communication test!! Before you know it, you will be speaking just as others. It is important to have an attitude to listen, but not just hear (you know the difference between listen and hear, right?!?). See, you are a non-English speaker. Others know it is not your native tongue. If you behave like you don't understand, or you ask by "Pardon?" or "Sorry?", then the other will say it in a different way you may understand or speak slowly.

3. If you say respond from time to time while the other person is talking, say like "u-huh, ok, etc", you never know what others think. Your friend might think "Oh, you can speak English!" This may sound funny, but better than nothing, right?!?

Let me tell you another of my past experience. I and friends went to see a motorcycle race at Suzuka circuit. This was 8hr endurance race. This was back in 1992 or something. (This past summer in 2013, I noticed Kevin Schwantz (famous racer from 90's) was again competing!!!! I was very glad to see him come back.) Anyhow, I had some English conversation skills at that time, and we saw a racer who got injured in the morning practice. Other Japanese fans' were just gathering around the racer hoping he would provide an autograph. I went up to the racer, and asked "Are you going to parti...." I had NOT finished my sentence! but the racer already knew what I was asking. I was going to ask "Are you going to participate in tomorrow's race?" He then told me he wouldn't attend tomorrow's race since his fist was too swollen due to the previous accident. He also kept talking. I then asked "Can I have your autograph?", and he signed two of my brochures. Needless to say other Japanese fans around looked at me enviously like "This guy can speak English! I also want his autograph!", but if you look at what I said above, I didn't ask anything complex, some easy sentence. I didn't even use 5W1H question style!

Japanese has a proverb "Kill two birds with one stone." 5W1H English conversation method helps you like "kill 3 or 4 birds with one stone".

Take a full advantage of this method!!

Think of it as English is just a method of communication, it is NOT to be afraid of.

If you know this secret, you will survive. ^^):

Sakura Japanese Blossom

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