When Should We Start Speaking A Language?
People often ask the question “when” about language learning. “When should I start speaking?” “When should I start reading authentic content?” “When can I say I am fluent?” Or even “When should I really commit to learning another language?”
When should we commit to learning a new language?
One answer to the this question that I sometimes hear is; “I will start when I go to the country”. Or, the version I sometimes hear from immigrants in Canada; “I will start if I get a job where I need to speak English every day.” This really is not good enough.
I am currently in Ukraine, in Lviv to be exact. The other day my wife and I joined an English language walking tour of the city. Our guide spoke English with a slight German accent. It turned out that he was German, had previously lived in the US, and was now living in Lviv. I started talking Ukrainian with his Ukrainian girlfriend. He was surprised at my Ukrainian and said that he was jealous, since he could hardly speak the language.
Of course I immediately gave him a card for LingQ and suggested he follow the same method I had used to learn Ukrainian, in other words lots of listening and reading followed by a short period of intensive conversations and lessons in Lviv. He replied that he was not very good at self-study. He admitted that had lived in Lviv for 3 years and hadn’t yet learned the language. Hearing that made me doubt that he ever would. In my experience, if you are living where the language is spoken and you don’t start learning right away, it is unlikely you ever will learn the language. You have to strike when the iron is hot, when the motivation is greatest. Once you get used to living without needing the local language, you will never push yourself hard enough to learn the language.
So the answer to the first question, “when to really start learning”, is right now. Start before you go to the country, or if that is not possible, as soon as you get there. The fact that I started studying Ukrainian well before I ever came here enabled me to take full advantage of being here. I was able to enjoy intensive conversations and lessons with my teacher, Solomija Buk of the Ukrainian Language and Culture School, while touring the city. More than that, I was able to interact with all kinds of people, in natural and meaningful conversations, in Ukrainian. This was great for my Ukrainian and great for my confidence. This would not have been possible had I waited to get here before starting to learn the language. So start learning now!
When should we start speaking a new language?
I have been speaking a lot of Ukrainian here in Lviv. But I learned a great deal on my own before coming here, through extensive listening and reading, using LingQ. I was tongue-tied in Ukrainian just before coming here, while in Bratislava, where my mind was full of Slovak. But soon after coming here and starting to speak, my accumulated passive knowledge of Ukrainian was quickly activated. Since then I have been going from strength to strength, with the odd time when I am tongue-tied, just to keep me humble.
I have previously had this experience of activating my passive knowledge in a language when I visit the country. I prepared for trips to Russia, Czech Republic, and Romania by doing a lot of listening and reading on LingQ. I was able to hit the ground running and activate my language knowledge quite quickly, once in the country.
When I moved to Japan in 1971, where I was to live for 9 years, things were different. I had had only little exposure to the language, yet I started to speak from the beginning, haltingly but using whatever I had. I was surrounded by the language, and I wanted to get used to living in Japanese as early as possible. I was using the language in meaningful situations, though. These weren’t artificial or forced conversations. I was communicating with shopkeepers, or people I need to exchange information with, people who spoke no English, about things that mattered to me. With a little preparation, a few words and lots of gestures, I was usually able to communicate. After each such event, I went home and looked up the words I was missing. I also engaged in a lot of listening and reading, whenever I had spare moment. Within a year I was doing business in Japanese.
So when should we start to speak? I think we should start to speak when we want to, or when we need to. We shouldn’t leave it too long, though. Speaking is a great way to notice the gaps in our language knowledge, and to trigger meaningful input, input with high resonance which improves our language skills. Speaking also trains us in speaking itself, as long as we have enough vocabulary to say something meaningful, and to understand enough of what others are saying to us.
When should we move to authentic content?
Authentic content means listening and reading content that was not written for learners, but was intended for native speakers of the language. It can also refer to real-life conversations with native speakers who don’t speak our language, rather than conversations with teachers or fellow students. Authentic content can include newspaper articles, podcasts, even ebooks and audiobooks or movies and TV shows. My experience tells me that the decision on when to start should, again, be a personal choice. In other words start when you want to, but don’t leave it too late. I have noticed that learners often stay within the comfort zone of textbooks and classrooms for far too long. After years with textbooks, and artificial content, they find that they still can’t understand movies or the radio, or even normal conversations with native speakers.
It is a good idea, in my view, to move to at least some authentic content as soon as possible. I have found it a good idea to vary more difficult content with easier content. Learning systems like LingQ make it a lot easier to read and listen to content where the number of unknown words is higher than we would otherwise be comfortable with. When I finally access authentic content I have a sense of exhilaration in the realisation that I am finally reading and listening to the real thing, content of interest to me in the target language. The interest level is much higher and I feel stimulated.
When can say we are fluent?
This is difficult to answer. To be fluent should mean to be comfortable in the language, to understand most of what is said, and to be able to converse easily, on a variety of subjects. The problem is that even as fluent non-natives speakers, there are almost always some situations where we are not really comfortable, miss something that was said, or struggle to say something. These occasions occur more often than we like. They can rattle our confidence and make us feel that we are not fluent, even though we are, in most situations. So I am now coming to the view that we can say we are fluent if at least three people say we are fluent. I am approaching that point in my Ukrainian.