Language Fluency and Speaking in a Foreign Language
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I’m going to talk about speaking. How do we get to speak? How do we get to speak well? I often get this question because many of you have heard me repeatedly talk about the importance of input, of listening and reading, of building up your vocabulary, building up your comprehension, if you can understand well you’ll have an easier time in conversations, we need to understand before we can speak, all this stuff and you say yeah, fine, fine, fine, but how do we get to where we can speak and speak well.
Well, there is a secret to speaking well and it’s very simple — you have to speak a lot. You have to speak a lot. If I look at my own languages, those languages that I speak the best are the ones that I have spoken the most, starting with English and then, of course, French because I studied there for three years as a student. I lived there. I studied. I listened to lectures. I had to give my oral presentations in French and so forth. Japanese because I lived there for nine years, did business in Japanese and Chinese because I studied it for a long time and I’ve often had interaction with Chinese people here in Vancouver. Spanish is next. Thereafter, I have really not spoken those languages very much and the ones that I’m weakest in, the Russian, the Czech and so forth, the Portuguese, I’ve rarely spoken those languages.
So if you want to speak well, you have to speak a lot. It’s that simple. Now, how do you get to where you can speak a lot? Well, for one thing, my advice is to have an artificial conversation via Skype where you’re talking about the weather to my mind is less powerful than talking about things that are meaningful and so I, personally, because I have a limited amount of time that I can spend in language learning, if I have an hour or two a day I’m far more likely to spend that time on easy-to-arrange, pleasurable, interesting input activities like listening and reading.
I tend to put off the speaking until I’m in a situation where I have to speak a lot. Now, sometimes you can’t do that. I wanted to prepare for going to Prague, so I stepped up my online speaking, I wanted to prepare for my visit to Romania, I stepped up my online speaking of Romanian, but ultimately with a specific goal in mind and that was to go to the country where the language is spoken and to speak a lot.
You know it’s fine and dandy to say that speaking through Skype is great and it is. It’s amazing. I have wonderful conversations with my LingQ tutors in Italian and Portuguese, I’ve had them in Russian, Czech, Romanian and so forth, but it’s not the same as being face to face with people and, particularly, being with a group of people. So, you have to put yourself in that situation. Yes, you can also find groups wherever you live and you want to be with native speakers. Personally, I am not a fan of non-native speakers speaking to each other showing off their language skills. If you are in a business situation where you are speaking for a purpose fine, but setting up role playing in classrooms or meeting with people to talk in these languages that we’re learning I, personally, find those less natural.
I guess what I’m saying is that I believe that in language learning, as much as possible, I want to do things that are meaningful and natural. I want to have a conversation that’s of interest to me. I want to be with a group of people. Even if I don’t understand, it’s meaningful, it’s real. So, I like to put myself in those real and meaningful situations. If the person replies to me in English, say if I’m in Germany and the person replies to me in English, fine. That’s what they want to do. The level of communication that we’re going to have is going to be based on his desires or hers. It’s going to be in English, fine. I’ll find another person who’ll speak to me in German and I always do. So get yourself meaningful interaction with native speakers. Normally that means, to me, delaying when you start speaking.
Now, when you’re in a conversation you say I understand, I can read, but the words…I can’t say what I want to say. Well, of course that’s going to be the case and it’s going to be the case for a long, long time. I have a Russian barber; I go to him so I can get my hair cut and speak Russian. I struggle, especially if I’ve been working on Czech or something else. I can’t get the words out the way I would like; however, a big secret. However badly you think you’re doing, you’re probably not doing as badly as you think you are. In other words, the person who hears you speak probably thinks you’re doing very well.
Very often we tend to be very critical of ourselves. We’re extremely aware of our shortcomings, of our inability to find a word, of our inability to get the grammar correct. We sense all those things as we’re speaking, but the other person says wow! This guy is a native speaker of some other language and he’s doing quite well in my language. By enlarge, that’s the reaction. So one bit of advice is, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re probably doing better than you think you are. As long as you are communicating, you’re doing fine. That’s number one.
Another question that comes up, how do I speak like a native speaker? My answer is forget it, you’re not going to speak like a native speaker. You can try to imitate the accent of the native speaker and get as close as you can and that will be good enough. The person who I think is the superstar of the Internet polyglots, Luca, the only language that I am a native speaker of – English – he does not sound like a native speaker. He sounds like a native speaker to me in other languages, but I don’t know if he sounds like a native speaker to speakers of those languages. It doesn’t matter, he communicates wonderfully in all those languages. So sounding like a native speaker is not a condition.
I had a banker, Swiss, he used to come in with his British assistant and come and visit us at the office. He had a very stiff Swiss accent up and down, but he spoke English much better than his British assistant. His British assistant from London couldn’t use words properly; spoke as a far less intelligent user of the English language than my Swiss banker. I marveled at how well he used words, how well he expressed himself and so sounding like a native speaker should not be a goal. It’s far more important that you can use words effectively.
Another tip – If you’re in a conversation, especially if it’s not business but it’s a social event, and lots of words are flying by you and you don’t understand a lot of it, it doesn’t matter. Pick on those things that you do understand and then respond to those things. It’s a great experience for you. You’re picking up. You’re listening. You’re trying to interact. You’re interacting partially. If you do this more and more often you will eventually get better, but it’s a long road. It is a long road.
If fluency means being comfortable on a variety of subjects, expressing yourself, understanding what people are saying, this is not a three-month project. It is a longer project. Unless you are moving from say Spanish to Portuguese or vice-versa and you’re very dedicated. It might move a little faster, but by enlarge in most cases we’re talking, I don’t know, 500 hours, for the more difficult languages 1,000, 1,500 hours. You figure out how many hours a day can you spend. That’s the kind of time investment you have to make.
Do things that are natural. Do things that are meaningful. Give yourself credit for what you have achieved. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Chances are you’re doing a lot better and I’ve had this experience many times. Oh, the other things about it is when you’re in a situation where you’re speaking a lot it’s tiring. It’s tiring if you go to the country and you’re speaking French or Chinese from morning ‘til night and listening to it. You’re throat is more hoarse than if you were speaking your own language because everything is more tense.
You’re tired. You’ve been searching for words and you feel you’ve done poorly. On top of it all, you’ve done extremely well. You’ve spoken in this language all day long and you come back to your hotel room or wherever you’re staying and you feel gees, I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. Forget it, you’re doing well. Plus, that is exactly the process whereby you’re going to improve, massive, intense exposure to the language, but in order to be able to pull it off you have to not only first invest in the comprehension skills, but you have to continue to invest in the comprehension skills.
When you speak, you discover where your gaps are. You discover those things you weren’t able to say. If you have a conversation with a tutor at LingQ, you actually get a report with all the words and phrases that you didn’t use correctly. Now you’ve got to start noticing those when you’re listening and reading. You continue doing your input activities so that you can then do better gradually. There’s no sudden improvement. You’ll be corrected and make the same mistake again, corrected and make the same mistake again. It doesn’t matter.
To some extent, the correction is kind of a minor part of it. What’s more important is that you are actually speaking and the more you speak, the better you get and the more positive you are, the less you say I’m no good. I can’t speak. I couldn’t find my words. I always get this wrong and that wrong. Sure you’re going to get it wrong and you’ll continue to get it wrong, but try to notice. Try to notice where you have trouble, where you have doubts about the grammar. Look the grammar up. It’s not so difficult today on the Internet. Look up the conjugation of some word. Did I get the ending right, third person singular of the past tense in Spanish or something? Look it up. You’ll forget it again and look it up again. Forget it again and keep trying to use. This is a gradual and slow process.
Now, I made a couple of little notes here. With regard to endings, declensions and conjugations, we’re concerned about them when we’re speaking because we want to get them right. I find looking at the tables doesn’t help me a lot. It’s a very short-term memory kind of thing. I find if I’m reading and I notice these phrases with the correct ending, certain phrases will start to seem natural after awhile. As you use them and use them wrong and then you’re aware that’s a weakness and you’re noticing them while you’re reading and listening, slowly you start to use them more accurately and you want to continue input activities.
A couple of things just to end off here. I made my previous video about the importance of input and passive vocabulary and someone said well, you shouldn’t start by reading because then you’ll be pronouncing it all wrong. When you start into a new language listen and read. Don’t just read. Whatever you read you’ve got to listen to, but whatever you listen to you should read. One of the problems I have with pimsleur is if I hear it, I don’t quite get it. If I can hear it and read it, even though the words are spelled differently or the sounds are represented differently by the writing system, if I can work the two together. When you’re starting in a language you’re dealing with very short snippets. Listen and read, always the same, until you’re very well along in the language.
I’ll do another one on pronunciation because I think the main discussion here today is how do to you get speaking well, so I want to emphasize this. You’ve got to speak a lot and you don’t have to start speaking at the beginning. You start speaking when you either want to or you have an opportunity or you need to and so forth. One other thing, if I remember my Japanese, it helps to find a native speaker who is very patient, where you are having meaningful conversations, but the person is patient, maybe speaks a little more slowly, maybe humors you where it would be easier to speak in English. If you find that person, that friend can be a tremendous benefit. But, ultimately, to speak well you have to speak a lot.
Oh, I was going to say one thing more. There are other people on the Internet who offer advice on how to get speaking. Luca, to my mind, he’s just phenomenal. His Russian now, his Chinese, is just phenomenal. He translates from the target language into his own language and then from his own language back. You know I have a limited number of hours in the day, I’m not going to do that because I like to do things that I find interesting like reading about Czech history, for example, which I’m doing today, but it’s something you might want to look at.
There was a fellow I’ve mentioned before, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, who listened to the same limited content a thousand times. I could never do that, but he did that. I mean there is any number of things. There are people who read out loud. There’s Alex Arguelles who is very much a proponent of shadowing. Look these things up if you can do them. I can’t. I just don’t find them meaningful things to do. I like meaningful communication, meaningful listening and reading, meaningful talking when the opportunity presents itself and just going for it without worrying about how I sound.
Okay, then, thank you for listening, bye for now.