Best Practices for Speaking Different Languages
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. How do we get to speak in a language? I’m sure those of you who have been following my YouTube channel and who have read my blog and are on LingQ realize that I believe input-based learning is very important. I believe in developing a large passive vocabulary, focusing on comprehension, a lot of listening and reading. I believe that a large passive vocabulary is your key sort of foundation for becoming fluent in a language. But ‘fluent’ means speaking, so how do you convert that passive knowledge into the ability to speak well? I regularly hear from people who say they can read well and understand, but they can’t speak. Well, I want to get into that subject today.
First of all, very often when people say they read well that doesn’t necessarily mean they read enough. I think we should all get to the stage where we can actually read novels in another language. I mean that’s ideal. Now, not everyone has the luxury to spend the time to get to where they can read novels. But let’s to this central issue of how do we start speaking, how do we become good at speaking and what can we do to speed up the process.
The first thing is you have to sort of be willing to break through what I call ‘the stupidity barrier’. It’s like a sound barrier, but it’s the barrier of sounding stupid. You have to be willing to sound stupid. You sound stupid more to yourself than to the person listening to you because you’re aware of the fact that you’re mumbling and mangling the language and not speaking it as well as you would like. Your thoughts and feelings aren’t coming out the way you would like and it’s kind of discouraging. At times it seems you’ve made a bit of progress and the next time you go to speak you feel as if you’ve slipped and become worse again.
All I can say is everyone experiences this. I experience it. We have that first exhilarating feeling as we’re able to say a few things in the language and then to get from there to where we are genuinely fluent and able to express ourselves is just a long, long road. We have to be willing to put ourselves in a situation where we stumble and say the wrong thing and, in many cases, we have to trust our instincts and trust our intuition and just go for it and say it and if it sounds stupid it doesn’t matter. If we get too hung about about trying to speak perfectly that often inhibits us.
So, basically, to review what I’ve said, I still believe in a major emphasis on input, lots of reading and getting to the point, if possible, where you can read novels. Make sure you can understand because that’s your basic defensive position. If you’re speaking to someone and you don’t understand what they’re saying that’s very unsettling. If you can get to where you can at least understand what they’re saying, now you’re into the stage where you’re stumbling and mumbling and trying to say something in the language yourself and so there you have to be prepared to go for it with whatever you have. Don’t worry if it’s right or wrong, just go for it. Generally, it sounds a lot better than you think. You tend to feel that you’re bad, but the person listening to you – I’ve seen this time and time again – actually has no trouble, communicates, understands and recognizes, of course, that you’re not a native speaker, but thinks you’re doing a lot better than, mostly, you think you’re doing.
Okay, so you have to be willing to go through that stage. Now, what are the things we can do to help us along? Some people say talk to yourself and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve always found it difficult to maintain that. I might say five phrases to myself during the day, but I’m not going to do that as an ongoing thing. Some people stand in front of a mirror and talk. I’m sure that’s a good thing to do, but it’s not something I could sustain.
Writing is an excellent thing to do. Since I’m not enrolled in a language program and I don’t have assignments to hand in, I don’t write. Quite frankly, I’m too lazy to write, but if you can, if you have the discipline, I think it’s an excellent thing to do. There are many sites, including LingQ, where you can put up some writing and people are quite happy to come and correct it. The thing to remember is that the major benefit of writing is the exercise of writing itself, but the corrections are also useful. You could be stuck in a certain pattern which is not sort of normal usage and it’s pointed out to you that, no, this is not normal usage. The easiest thing to do is to talk.
Oh, yeah, Russian. It turns out I’ve been listening to Ekho Moskvy for six years. One of the people who appears regularly on Ekho Moskvy is _____. He is in Vancouver. He’s giving a talk on Thursday to a group of Russian people. I have bought a ticket. I’m going to be there. I’m going to meet one of the guys that I’ve been listening to for six years, so I’ve been working on improving my Russian and I’ve been doing a lot of talking. I mean to speak well you have to speak a lot, so I’ve been signing up for discussions with our tutors at LingQ — _____ in St. Petersburg, _____ near Kiev in the Ukraine and then there’s Vladimir who is a Russian who lives in Winnipeg. He is also a tutor at LingQ and he’s a great guy.
So I’ve been talking a lot. Talking is good, you discover your faults. I get feedback in the form of reports or even during my discussion and that’s very good. As an example, I was used to saying ‘potomu chto’, ‘because’, in situations. In fact, in Russian it’s not ‘because’, it’s _____ or _____, etc. It’s more like ‘since’ rather than ‘because’ and in different circumstances some of these connecting words are used differently, which Vladimir pointed out to me which was very useful.
Now, one way of getting instant feedback, which I’ve started doing and I just mentioned it to you, is that in the past I had experimented with using Google Translate to get sort of an instant translation of what I am trying to say. I can struggle and try and say it myself, but it takes a while and I’m too lazy to write. Now I have this tremendous thing, on my Mac there is dictation. It’s tremendous. I’ve got dictation in English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Korean. First of all, I don’t even have to change my keyboard to write in these languages. I just dictate it and it prints out for me. I’ve got the text in front of me, which is tremendous.
The way I’m now starting to use it is I go to Google Translate and I dictate English into the English side. I’ve set it up to go from English to Russian and then the Russian shows up, so I just deliberately try to say things that I would like to say. Of course the Russian is a bit clumsy. It’s not all natural, but a lot of the key phrases, in fact, are very accurate because all of these machine translation systems get better and better at translating things based on context. I’m sure it’s better for some languages than for others, but for Russian it’s really quite good.
So whatever I have said, which has been converted into Russian, I take it, import it into LingQ and save some of the key phrases. I can still remember what it was that I had wanted to say. In a way, it’s a way of speaking or at least picking up on some of these key phrases that you need to speak; in other words, turning something you wanted to say in English into Russian. That’s just a minor thing, but the main thing is just to do a lot of talking.
To summarize on this whole issue of how we get to speaking, some people say you should speak from the beginning, which is fine if you have lots of time. I have an hour or so a day, most of it while driving my car or exercising. I can’t surround myself with people with whom I can speak Russian, so I prefer to focus on a lot of input activity to build up my familiarity with the language. As I’ve said many times, read, save words on LingQ and stuff like that.
But now that I want to speak Russian better, ultimately, I have to speak more and when I speak I just let it all hang out and go for it. When I go to listen to _____ on Thursday there will be lots of Russians in the room and I expect to engage in discussions on politics or life in Canada. I will just let it all hang out and I’ll get my cases wrong and my verbs wrong and it won’t matter. The more I can expose myself to that kind of situation, the sooner I will improve.
So there you have it, just a bit of a take on getting to speaking. Thank you for listening, bye for now.