Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated and I’m going to explain why. I meet a lot of people who tell me they are frustrated because they can’t speak the language as well as they would like to, so that there is frustration at not being able to speak well. I meet people who tell me that they can understand well, but they can’t speak well. Normally, in my experience, that is not the case.
English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.
There are people who read well and who can’t speak, but I don’t really recollect having met many people who understand the spoken language well and are totally comfortable listening and understanding, but who have trouble speaking. I have met a lot of people who seem to be able to speak the language but don’t understand when you speak to them at a normal speed.
I believe that listening comprehension is an important skill in language learning. That is what you should drive for first of all. If you develop good listening comprehension, the other skills will come, the speaking will come, even your grammar, your accuracy. All of these things will come if you have had so much exposure to the language that you understand it when it is spoken by a native speaker.
Listening has a number of other advantages: it’s very easy to organize. I just finished doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. I have two different mp3 players and I have different content in each one of them. I have a variety of earphones. I have Bluetooth earphones so that I don’t snare the wires on anything. I’ve got other ones for when I go jogging or exercise. I listen a lot. I can do it all the time.
When I’m listening it’s not just that I’m listening to the language, I’m either enjoying a novel or I’m learning about history and this is true in all languages. There are so many resources available now; podcasts in German, Czech, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, any of the languages that I’ve been dealing with. The only language I haven’t found anything I wanted really was in Korean, but there’s lots of stuff out there to listen to. I could not have hired a tutor to sit beside me in the car driving to speak to me in Italian. I can’t have someone standing by to speak to me in Italian while I’m doing the dishes.
So it’s not that I don’t speak, I do speak. I’ve been speaking probably three or four hours a week, three hours a week with our tutors at LingQ. It’s great to do that. I’m not saying one shouldn’t speak. I speak a lot better this week than I did last week. The speaking and the listening reinforce each other because when I speak I’m made aware of my problems, where my hesitations and doubts are, where I don’t know if I’m speaking Spanish or Italian. I get my corrections back from my tutor and it’s amazing how that makes me more observant of things when I’m listening and reading, especially reading.
I should say reading, in a way, is a form of listening because when we read in a foreign language we tend to subvocalize to start with. Second of all, reading, in other words the written language, is just another form of recording the spoken language. We originally had no way of recording the spoken language so everything was from memory, then we had writing to record the spoken language and nowadays we have various ways of recording the audio so that we can listen to it. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I think, to some extent, the brain is processing the language the same way and getting used to the language by this exposure to it.
I think there’s too much emphasis on speaking at the beginning, too much emphasis on speaking correctly. There’s too much pressure on people to produce the language correctly at a stage in their learning where they’re unlikely to do so because they haven’t had enough exposure. Then they become overly sensitive to the need to produce the language correctly. They second guess themselves. They’re hesitant to speak. I would say that the emphasis should be on comprehension.
In Canada, where kids are taught French for 10 years in the English-speaking school system, not even five percent of those kids are able to speak French when they graduate. That is a colossal failure, even though those same kids pass their tests every year. As in all subjects, a few of them fail, the bulk of them pass. Theoretically, they answer grammar questions and at the end they still can’t speak. They don’t speak grammatically correctly. They have no vocabulary. They don’t understand what people are saying. In the spoken language, they probably are able to read to some extent:a colossal failure.
If, instead, the focus was entirely on helping those kids understand the language, then the emphasis would be on finding things that interest them. They could perhaps work on vocabulary, watch movies, do a lot of things that appear to be passive. Allowing kids to read in the classroom rather than taking turns reading from a book where they all mangle the language has to be more efficient. If those kids graduated with the ability to understand the language, that was the only objective, then any speaking activity is only there in order to make them more aware of certain things in the language, but not to test them on their ability to speak.
By all means, speak, I think speaking is good. It helps to stimulate the brain to notice the language better, but the objective of the speaking is not to be tested on the speaking. The speaking is just an exercise in improving your comprehension ability, and if at the end of this people graduate being able to understand the language well, if they then want to learn to speak they’ll be able to learn to speak very quickly.
If someone graduates from say French in a Canadian school and goes off to Quebec or France and they fully understand what people are saying, they will learn to speak very quickly. They’ll have much more confidence going into that. If, on the other hand, they have some vague notions about gender, have a limited vocabulary and don’t really understand, they will go to France and they will be lost and it will take them a long, long time to improve.
Of course, in language learning you have to get past that initial stage where you’re listening to silly things for beginners. Not, by the way, kiddy stories, which I find are more difficult because they use more strange vocabulary than simple stories designed for the learner. You can’t get away from it for the first month or two, but as soon as possible move into the real stuff. Try to have text available so that you can look up the words and increase your vocabulary, much as we do at LingQ, and then get on to things that are of interest. Then it just becomes so fascinating you’re hardly aware that you’re learning a language.