27 May 2014

When to Start Speaking a New Language?

One of the liveliest discussions within the language learning community is on the subject of when to start speaking. I am a proponent of letting the learner choose when to start, and my personal preference is to delay speaking. I prefer to invest a fair amount of time in listening and reading, in order to gain some familiarity with the language and acquire a decent level of vocabulary. Then when I start speaking, I have something to say, and I can understand what others are saying.

To me, speaking from day one, in other words forcing people to speak right away, is ┬álike asking people to sing who have never heard a song, play tennis who have never seen a tennis game, or swim who have never seen a person swim. What’s the hurry? It is much easier to start speaking when we are somewhat familiar with the language. Focusing on comprehension is less stressful and more pleasant than forcing oneself to speak.

Here is a discussion on the subject with Martin Weiss, American polyglot, who has a different point of view. What is your personal opinion? Feel free to share in the comments!

3 Comments

  1. Posted May 27, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    The “focus on form” vs “focus on meaning” debate has been going on since Roman times. Mr. Weiss looks like a supporter of the “direct method” (also called “natural method”). Let’s say a person called Jason from New York wants to learn German and he starts from scratch. The direct method would go like this:

    Teacher: Ich heisse Klaus. Wie heisst du?
    Student: Ich heisse Jason.
    Teacher: Ich wohne in Berlin. Wo wohnst du?
    Student: Ich wohne in New York.

    And so on and so forth. However, after a few exchanges it becomes incredibly difficult to teach a language in this way, since not all expressions have such a clear context. In fact, this method declined at the beginning of the 20th century when people started to realize that it overemphasized and distorted the differences between first language learning and foreign language learning as adults. Comparing adult language learning with children learning is like comparing apples to oranges. While children learn a language instinctively, adults need to turn to their intelligence to learn the rules. This is why ultimately all adult language learning is grammar-translation learning (of course, there are always exceptions, like some people who have a special talent for language learning).

    For effective learning to take place it needs to be scaffolded – you need comprehensible input so that you can connect new knowledge with old knowledge in a scaffolded way. Everything else is “practicing with the language”, which is good but gives a false learning sensation. Throwing balls over a net does not mean you’re learning how to play tennis. Real learning takes place when you get out of your comfort zone, but due to the cynical and lazy nature of people, they will always be on the lookout for “instant gratification”, whether it is for hair-restoring or for “easy and fast” language learning. Ultimately it all depends on how much we want to stretch the meaning of “fluent”.

  2. Jaymania
    Posted May 31, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Starting to speak early can be an excellent boost to your learning, but only if you can prevent yourself from learning bad habits. One of the best ways to start speaking early is to have someone fluent correct you as you speak, be it a friend, a colleague or a teacher.

    Of course, somehow you need to learn WHAT to say. If you have no prior knowledge of the language, you would need a teacher who can teach you through speaking, starting with simple sentences and trying to impart the language using only that language itself but combined with gestures, body language and any other wordless communication. It should be emphasized that nearly all, around 99.9%, of the speaking between teacher and student should be in the target language to make learning most efficient.

  3. Sergio
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    By coincidence, I watched yesterday your debate with Martin Weiss. In spite of being a proponent of your approach of learning a language acquiring a lot of input by listening and Reading and only starting speaking when we are confortable to do so, I have to admit that many of his comments gave me food for toughts.
    He said, for example, that unlike you, many people don`t want to learn a language aiming to understand the reasons behind the current situation in Ukraine. They are just interested in talking on a regular basis, about more, say, mundane topics.
    Another question he raised was that with the exception of English, where we find a vaste range of subjects to read, ranging from al levels of knowledge, this is not Always possible in other languages, where we have to rely on the old and boring text books.
    Therefore, I would like very much if you could elaborate a little bit on that.

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