How can I speak English fluently? An answer to this question comes from information processing theory. This theory says that language learning is a skill like any other.

To be successful at that skill, we first need 'declarative knowledge'. Think of declarative knowledge as 'knowledge that': for example, 'I know that the regular past tense in English is made by adding “-ed” to the end of the verb'. To communicate, however, we also need 'procedural knowledge'. Procedural knowledge is 'knowledge how': for example, 'I know how to use the past tense when I'm speaking'. To speak a language fluently, we also need 'automatic knowledge'. For example, to talk easily about what we did last weekend, we need to be able to automatically use the past tense, without stopping to think about it.

Cognitive research shows that students can move quickly from the declarative stage to the procedural stage: you only need to try out the rule about the past tense a few times to understand how to use it. Soon, you have memorised language chunks like 'I played football' and 'He watched TV'. However, it takes a lot more time to reach the automatic stage. The key to automatic knowledge is practice: you need to use the language a large number of times. This partly explains why it takes a long time to become fluent in a language, however there are ways that English lessons can make this process faster and more accurate.

An effective way to gain declarative knowledge is to study language in context, such as a listening or reading text with lots of examples of the past simple. This makes it easier to understand the meaning of the grammar or vocabulary being studied. The teacher should also explain to you the structure and pronunciation of the language, and when to use it (for example, if it is formal or informal). To gain procedural knowledge, you should then practise using the language in focused activities, and the teacher should give you feedback on any errors you have made. Automatic knowledge cannot be acquired in only one lesson: you need many opportunities to practise the language in different lessons, and plenty of input to refine your declarative and procedural knowledge. Over time, this will gradually reduce your conscious effort, processing speed and number of errors, leading to greater fluency.

Another important point to consider is that procedural knowledge is specific and difficult to transfer. For example, students who know how to use the past simple in writing activities won't necessarily know how to use it effectively in conversation until they practise it in speaking activities. But if your teacher gives you lots of reading, listening, speaking and writing practice, it is possible to become competent in the skill of speaking English.