How To Improve Your Speaking Skills
In learning languages, I focus my energy, especially at the beginning, on input, on listening and reading. I enjoy these activities, and I know they will lead me to fluency, as long as I continue long enough. However, just as is the case with most learners, I also want to be able to speak, and to speak well. What are my speaking goals, and how do I get there?
I know that I am not going to learn to speak a new language perfectly. Perfection is not my goal. My goal is effective communication.
I am far from perfect in any of the 20 languages that I speak. In most of them I can communicate, in some very well (Chinese and Spanish), and in some less well (Polish). In some languages I have allowed myself to lapse to the point that I can no longer communicate, but I know that with a little effort I can regain what I lost and start communicating again.
I know that whenever I communicate in another language I am improving in that language. But regardless of my level in a language, I’m satisfied with whatever I am able to do, since at one point I was unable to understand anything in the language. I also know from experience that my ability to speak and to pronounce well will only improve with time, as long as I remain alert to what I hear and read, and how I use the language.
Here are the steps I take when trying to improve my oral skills.
Listen a lot
I mean as much as an hour a day or more, just about every day. I do this when I start out learning a new language. I also do this when refreshing in a language that has slipped. I listen in my car and while doing chores around the house. I listen while exercising or running. I rarely just sit down and focus on listening. I just listen “on the fly”, taking advantage of “dead time” during the day.
Listening creates a body of experience for the brain. If the content is interesting, and the voice pleasing, listening creates an emotional connection with another language. Listening creates neural connections. Perhaps it is like the function known as mirror neurons, in that listening activates neurons in a way similar to speaking, or perhaps not, but there is no doubt that high resonance listening prepares me for speaking. It gives me phrases, improves my comprehension, lets me hear the pronunciation ever more clearly, and gives me momentum for eventually speaking.
I put a fair amount of effort into searching out content that is high resonance, interesting, sufficiently challenging without being too difficult, and above all enjoyable. Typically I start with short, easier content and graduate to longer more interesting content.
I also make sure that I have access to a transcript of what I am listening to so I can understand it. This leads to the second important activity needed to develop the ability to speak well.
Read a lot
Reading is the best way to increase your vocabulary. Stephen Krashen and others have done considerable research on the power of reading.
So reading gives you words, individual words, and phrases, words in combination with other words. To express yourself you need words. To communicate you need to understand what the other person is saying, and this requires a large vocabulary, a large passive vocabulary. To have meaningful conversations with people, you need to understand what they are saying. This means that your passive vocabulary needs to be larger than your active vocabulary.
Of course you want to activate as much of your passive vocabulary as possible. But you will likely always have trouble using all the words that you know passively. You may be annoyed that you can’t find words that you feel you know. But it doesn’t matter. If you have the vocabulary and comprehension level to engage in lots of conversation, your speaking skills will gradually catch up and more and more of your passive vocabulary will be activated.
Most of my reading is at first limited to reading the transcripts or texts of whatever I am listening to. A lot of this is done on my iPad using LingQ. However, as I progress in the language, I develop the ability to read anything I want, albeit with a small percentage of as yet unknown words. At that point the listening and reading diverge. I engage in both activities independently. This just builds up my familiarity with the language, preparing me for effective communication.
Listening when combined with reading will fill your brain with phrases you recognize and will eventually be able to use.
You may want to imitate out loud the odd word or phrase, while you are listening and reading. This is a form of this activity that is sometimes referred to as shadowing. I don’t do this systematically, but I do find myself practicing certain words and phrases that I come across, in the hope that they will become a part of my usable vocabulary. Of course, they don’t necessarily stick, but by deliberately noticing them, repeating them, wanting to be able to use them, at some point some of them stick.
When imitating what we hear, it is often more useful to focus on the rhythm, the intonation of the language, rather than on the pronunciation of individual words. I found that particularly the case when learning Mandarin with its tones. However, all languages have their own intonation, their own music. We need to acquire this through imitation. Doing so helps our pronunciation, and even makes our use of words more natural.
Writing is a great way to start producing the language.
I have to confess to being too lazy to write much in the languages I am learning. About the only writing I do is with the dictation task that LingQ offers as one of the five review activities in each lesson. However, if I did take the time to write, I would improve my speaking faster. When we write, we have the time to look up words, to look up grammar rules, or word endings. We have more time to think things through. This no doubt prepares us for speaking. The difficulty is finding something meaningful to write about. If we do write, it is the activity of writing, rather than any correction of that writing, that is of greatest benefit, in my experience. So if you want to start speaking, maybe you should try to start by writing.
To speak well, you eventually have to speak a lot. If you can find someone near you to speak to in the language you are learning, take advantage. If you have achieved a certain level in the language, you may have to go to the country where the language is spoken to get a lot of speaking experience.
Failing that you can look for online language exchange partners of website where you can find online language tutors. I have used tutors at iTalki and at LingQ for this purpose.
When I speak I don’t worry about my mistakes, I even encourage my partner not to correct me while I speak. I just want to communicate. I immediately forget any corrections made during our discussions anyway. I do, however, appreciate getting a list of those words and phrases that caused me difficulty, for review after our conversation. I import these into LingQ as lessons. Sometimes the tutor records these lists for me, which is really great.
I am thus able to review words and phrases that I want to use, and struggled to use, in the context of a meaningful conversation. This is all high resonance material, and it brings listening, reading and speaking together, and ever so slightly moves me along towards my goal of speaking effectively in the language I am learning.
Effective communication, of course, doesn’t mean perfect communication, nor error free communication. It just means communicating in a way that leaves both speaking partners feeling comfortable about the experience.