How soon should you start speaking your foreign language? In this post, two contrasting approaches square up in the ring. In the one corner, “speak from day one” (or pretty soon after that). In the other corner: delay speaking in favour of front-loading input (listening, reading) or study (or a combination of the two).
Speaking from day one: how? The “extreme” approach
There are various models of “speaking from day one”.
Perhaps the purest form is what linguists do in the field when they go and live with a tribe with an “undocumented” language and work it out, notebook and tape recorder in hand.
At the non-specialist level, though, the “far end” of the spectrum is sitting down with somebody who is fluent in your target language partner and just starting to try to communicate.
This could involve leafing through a magazine, using the pictures and your finger. It’s something you could start doing with a teacher or an untrained exchange partner (in person or online).
Specialist teachers sometimes take this approach with their students, maybe using more abstract props such as the small coloured rods (Cuisenaire rods). They might use these to teach propositions, illustrate other relationships or to represent objects, for example.
You could just start to communicate on a Skype call or sitting together in a café using Google translate.
Alternatively, you may get out into the field in a more active sense, by going to an event put on near where you live by a migrant community of people who speak the language or taking a trip to a place where the language is spoken. Your “speaking” may initially only amount to repeating pleasantries you’ve learned by heart or things you have just found out. You may well find yourself waving your arms around more than speaking, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of arm waving among friends 🙂 .
A milder form of “speaking early, speaking often”
A more common approach among “early speakers” is to do some limited initial preparation.
This could be work on pronunciation. It could also include working through a few chapters of an introductory text book or reading through a practical phrasebook.
It could involve collecting some basic relevant phrases, maybe working with a tutor to hone some bites of language that are relevant to your needs and situations. I always like to include “toolkit phrases” (such as “how do you say x in Japanese/Spanish/whatever?” or “please repeat that”). You can then use these to learn more of the language such as asking people to repeat, write something down or speak more slowly.
At this point, you can start the speaking in the contexts we’ve already mentioned.
You could, though, delay further and try to learn, say, the first six hundred to one-thousand words (which make up between 50% to 70% of the average general conversation.
The advantages of starting to speak a foreign language early
Whether in its pure or more moderate form, there’s a lot to be said for “speaking early, speaking often”.
First, you feel you’re underway.
That’s great for motivation, at least if your expectations are realistic. Your communication is going to be very basic and limited for quite a long time. It will involve a lot of frustration but, hey, you’re still speaking! It needs saying, too that frustration is inevitable whichever approach you take.
You’ll probably also be forming personal relationships which, if thing go well, could develop and reinforce the need for the language and the pleasure of it.
Speaking with a real live person in a language you’re not far into is also a very intense experience. On the “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” principle, it means you’ve got over any inhibitions about speaking before you make a big deal out of it.
Such intensity brings you straight up against the absolute communication essentials that you need to express yourself. This could help sear what you’re experiencing into your memory, especially if you’re using the language out and about to satisfy real needs…just like a child does when learning. In this sense, this approach goes with nature.
Even in a more controlled, exchange situation, there’s no chance that you’ll be just learning “about” the language (as you could easily end up doing if you take a purely book-bound initial approach).
Speaking early: a question of personality
If you’re an extrovert who seeks out contact, loves striking up conversations and gets bored easily with studying, speaking from day one makes a lot of sense.
There’s no use in you postponing “the action” and giving up.
Confident introvert too may fancy some early action just to get an initial taster before doing some more structured and controlled preparatory study.
For many, though it can be a challenge to speak early, speak often. This specially true if you’re a newbie language learner.
You may feel self-conscious and humiliated.
In “real life” you may find that people are impatient or simply don’t understand you. So, you’ll have to develop a thicker skin and keep a smile on your face. That comes with practice.
If you’re trying to speak in a structured situation with a tutor, you can expect more patience and understanding. Some people still find it an ordeal, though. You will still need to be determined and not put off by mistakes and misunderstanding.
Further tips for starting to speak early
If you’re less socially sure, work on building up your confidence or seek ways to speak that are less intimidating. The internet can help here. Try live online lessons but turn off the camera, for example.
Out and about, you may also need to take action to stop people switching to English. It’s so demotivating when that happens.
Be ready to guess and be at ease with ambiguity.
The approach will work particularly well for a language that is close to the language to one you know already.
You’ll probably cope better both in understanding and speaking yourself. You can draw on your experience of the syntax and vocab of the related language and be able to make educated guesses (as you’ll often need to).
If you do go mainly for speaking it doesn’t mean you can’t do more formal study as and when you feel that some extra polishing is needed.
This may involve some extra work on pronunciation with a teacher or having a teacher audit your speaking for big repeated mistakes to avoid them getting “fossilised”. Remember that to get good at writing in your native language, you had to practise a lot and get lots of feedback. You’ll need that too in your target language. Then you can do lots of listening and reading: essential to progress beyond lower intermediate in an optimal way.
Delaying speaking: how?
As with speaking early, there are various spins on the approach.
One is to dive in and work it out as you go, much as the early speakers do, except that you dive not into conversations but into text (audio/audio visual or written).
This might be simple reading, perhaps with the aid of pictures or listening to audio or watching videos (maybe initially with sub-titles in a language you understand) and later with sub-titles in the target language (“captions”). Combining listening/watching with work with a transcript can be highly effective.
This is the “comprehensible input” approach made well-known by Professor Stephen Krashen.
Some successful language learners build up huge reserves of passive experience of the language this way. They delay getting stuck in and activating it when they arrive.
As with speaking early, you may go for a more moderate version of this: learn some high frequency vocab and structures first.
Another approach is to delay attempting any of the core skills (speaking, reading, listening, writing).
Instead, start first by blitzing the core vocab and structures.
The aim is to learn the first, say, three thousand words (ideally in or accompanied by examples of their usage in short phrases – “chunks” of language), plus your toolkit phrases (of course!).
You’ll want to do some work on the sound of the language too, to make sure that you’re able to pronounce what you’re leaning correctly.
You may read about the language to get a mental “map” in your head, just so that you know what’s coming up and what to look out for but still keeping the grammar explanations relatively light.
You could get all this by working through a conventional textbook or online course (though you would probably want to do initial vocabulary work as a typical beginners’ course will not contain so many words).
Once you got “the basics” in way, you could then launch into the speaking, using some of the strategies for the “speaking early” approach.
On the other hand, you could delay speaking further.
Instead you use the vocab to start getting a lot of reading and listening input (as above), except with more advanced written or audio than those who begin with these from day one.
What are the arguments for delaying starting to speak your foreign language?
Children go through a long period of listening before their speaking erupts and two and a half to three years old. Notwithstanding other differences between the position of a child learning its first language and an adult language learner, this does rather suggest that delaying speech may be nature’s way.
As a complete or near beginner who tries to speak from day one, you’ll be limited to very basic, inane conversations of the “me Tarzan, you Jane” type.
This could start to feel like an inefficient use of time and – if you are paying for a tutor – money.
The frustration will be all the greater if your reason for learning is not simply to do basic survival transactions, but because you want to have more meaningful conversations about topics that interest you.
If you start to speak before you have enough vocab and have had enough listening practice, you’re attempts will be pretty one-way because you won’t be able to understand the answers.
The more you’ve listened, you have a deeper feel for the language and a fund of experience better chance of understanding what people are saying to you and throwing together some more-or-less accurate response.
Caveat 1 to speaking delay: the displacement activity trap
If you delay real live conversation, make sure what you’re doing instead does actually facilitate learning the language and is not just feel good procrastination. Use the comprehensible input approach or conscious vocab building and study or a blend of the two. Don’t “study” the language in the abstract (for example by simply reading a grammar book). Don’t just try and listen and watch to native-level material that will just go right over your head (“incomprehensible input”).
Caveat 2 to speaking delay: the perfectionist trap
Introverts, remember: it’s very easy to delay speaking for too long.
Don’t let worries about your pronunciation and grammatical accuracy hold you back when you should loosen up a bit.
Don’t let embarrassment about not understanding all the answers put you off speaking.
There’s actually nothing wrong with “me Tarzan – you Jane”-type telegraphic speech at the beginning and once you get stuck in, you should become less hung up about the inevitable mistakes you’re going to make.
Don’t deprive yourself too long of “learning by doing wins”, the wider cultural knowledge and maybe social relationships that can come from actually using the language, however badly.
As a rule of thumb, we introvert perfectionists should all probably speak before we feel ready. Expect it to be frustrating. It’s a necessary stage.
Caveat 3 to speaking delay: the “expat trap”
So far in this post, I’ve assumed that you’re not living in the country already. If you are, though, then, it really is imperative to get stuck in with the speaking sooner rather than later. To an extent this may be forced on you in countries where English is not widely know, at least for basic transactional exchanges like getting served in a shop or buying a bus ticket.
Beyond that, though, the risk if you wait is that you get used to doing without the language and your work/social life settles into an “all English” pattern. Then – whoosh – twenty years have passed and you haven’t made much progress with the language.
It isn’t either or….of course!
As we’ve seen, there are stronger and weaker forms of each approach the “speak early” and the “delay speaking” approahes. Another variable is how much conscious “study” you want to have in your personal blend.
Be aware of the pros and cons of speaking early and delaying speaking and go for what seems to work for your personality and circumstances.
There’s nothing to say you can’t dive early and often some basic conversation with speakers you know, with strangers in a café or sports ground and do a bit of study to clarify points, some reading and lots of listening as well.
There’s nothing to say you can’t do a lot of “input” based “graded” reading and “listening” but also, when you feel ready, start scheduling intense conversation lessons with a tutor or exchange partner on line (or – horror of horrors – in person).
You can also combine a more conscious “study” approach (textbook exercises and flashcards, translations dictations) with both input and output practice.
No, we don’t have to “speak from day one” if we don’t want to.
Yet if we want to become fluent speakers then sooner…or later…we do actually have to, erm, you know, speak.
We have to speak a lot.