learning with steve: how much do we need to speak when learning a language?
I know you always talk about the importance of input in language learning, but how important is it to speak when learning a language?
It is very important to speak and to speak a lot. In order to become genuinely fluent, we need lots of practice speaking the language. I always find that when I am in situations where I have to speak a lot, for a period of several days or longer, my level in the language improves significantly.
I do find, however, that this exposure to intensive speaking is most effective when it is in natural settings, on meaningful subjects, and involves mostly native speakers. I have always found artificial conversations in classrooms, involving mostly learners, to be much less effective.
Some people feel that they need to speak from the beginning, what are your views on this?
I always say that we should start speaking when we feel like doing so. For those people who want to start speaking from the very beginning, they will need to sign up for classes, either group classes or as individuals. In my view, it is not reasonable to expect genuine authentic conversations with native speakers when we have very little knowledge of the language.
Another way in which people can start speaking earlier is to speak to themselves. One interesting way of doing this is to make videos on YouTube and keep them private. When we review our videos, we can see our mistakes and the things we have difficulty with. We can save these videos as a record of our progress. Of course, any video we don’t like can be easily deleted. In other words we only save the best videos at any stage in our learning.
If we start trying to make videos, we will quickly realize that we need quite a bit of vocabulary before we can express any meaningful thoughts in the language. However, just as with so many aspects of learning a language, it is very personal. People should start speaking, either to themselves or with others, as soon as they feel inclined to do so.
What about those people who have done a lot of reading and listening, but still feel inhibited and afraid to speak?
We are always going to feel a little insecure and inhibited when we start speaking in a foreign language. The better our comprehension, and that usually includes a fairly good vocabulary, the better we will do. The better we do, the more confident we feel.
Some people claim to have good comprehension, but often when you speak to them, you find that they have trouble understanding. Comprehension remains the biggest hurdle to effective communication. However, there are those perfectionists who don’t want to speak unless they can be sure that their pronunciation and use of grammar is almost perfect.
I would simply say to them that at whatever stage you start speaking, you were going to have difficulties and you are going to sound clumsy. The only way to overcome this, is to speak more. It’s important to be alert while speaking, and therefore to try to notice where our gaps are, where we have trouble. We then need to work hard on fixing those gaps when we are listening, reading, and studying the language. This should enable us to gradually improve our speaking, as long as we keep putting ourselves in situations where we have to speak.