Is speaking practice indispensable?

Having stepped into independent language studies for a while now, I’m starting to rethink this question. Nowadays with the rise of the online polyglot community, click into any language learning blog and they’ll tell you to turn your back on ‘traditional’ learning methods and learn by speaking, a lot. This sets up some sort of dichohtomy and tells you that if you failed using ‘traditional’ methods, then you gotta go the other way and speak. Probably because language studies in school worked perfectly for me (I gotta say, I still cannot comprehend how bad it could be in foreign school systems, even after reading so much about it), I never felt strongly about this dichotomy nor a necessity to choose. As a relatively introverted person, I even feel naturally a bit inclined against the latter: socalising and interacting people drains my energy. That led me to contemplate on the issue: how does speaking to people help me, particularly in an early stage? They say speaking is one of the basic skills in a language, but I always like to break things down even further.

They say you learn to speak by speaking. That sounds intuitive, but doesn’t actually say anything concrete.

What is needed in order to speak fluidly?

I’m sure there is more, but these are several conditions or abilities off the top of my head that are necessary to speak a new language fluidly.

  • getting used to the language structure: word order, grammatical declensions, etc, must be well-established in the mind, so that the brain puts words together quickly;
  • pronunciation: the phonology of a foreign language almost always includes new sounds or combinations of sounds. The mouth must be trained to produce them in succession successfully, or you risk being literally tongue-tied;
  • (active) vocabulary recall: you need to find the right words and phrases to express your meaning instantaneously, before you even decline them or put them together, and
  • confidence.

How does speaking practice benefit you?

Now how exactly does having conversations help you, particularly considering from a beginner’s point of view?

Sentence formation and pronunciation: self-explanatory.

Listening comprehension: by conversing with live human beings, you train yourself to understand what he/she says and come up with a response, preferably

Stress to respond: they say we make progress under stress, and I don’t deny that. Indeed, while under the stress to minimise dead-air, you force yourself to spit out some words, even though they might not fit together perfectly, not to mention grammar. This helps train vocabulary recall, or more specifically, paraphrasing, because you have to express your idea in another way if you can’t recall a particular word in time. Besides, when you eventually go ‘out there’ and talk to people who aren’t expecting to help you learn, it’ll be a lot of stress, so this is a way to get used to it.

Cultural information (maybe): when you talk to a real person you get to observe how he talks and behaves, especially if you talk in person, as well as getting the opportunity to talk about his/her own culture. But as I mentioned, this is greatly limited by your level in the language: if your vocabulary is too shallow, you won’t be able to get too much of this from a conversation.

Motivation and confidence: what talking to other people provides is exactly an opportunity to talk to other people. For some learners, the human connection is extremely important in the gruelling process of learning a language, and this contact, this chat greatly motivates them. That’s why this is the determining factor when it comes to how much you get out of speaking practice, or whether you require it at an early stage. Through holding successful conversations with native speakers, you become more confident in your ability to do so. However, if you personally consider a particular conversation as a failure (e.g. the other person is harsh on your ability, switches to another language constantly, or you’re just expecting too much from yourself, etc), it might actually end up being demoralising. So depending on your personality, the effects can vary a lot. Personally, I draw my motivation from other sources like the language itself or enjoying media rather than having extremely simple conversations, and I naturally become confident (or maybe just daring) when my language reaches a certain level. If you’re like me, this might be a food for thought.

Now there are certain arguments against speaking early that I’ve heard. Speaking ‘like Tarzan’ is a lot of pressure, which not everyone may be able to take; and, as Steve Kaufmann often says, talking to people while having a very limited speaking ability doesn’t allow for ‘meaningful’ conversations, which, seen from that very perspective, is a waste of time. In some cases, when voluntary language partners are not available, speaking practice with a tutor might actually cost you a fortune, as seen from my Swedish learning (these Scandinavian prices man). If this reasoning strikes a chord with you,

is it possible to replicate these effects with other methods?

Sentence formation and pronunciation: one of the way I practise is talking to myself. It’s effective and efficient: I can do it anytime I want (as long as there isn’t anyone listening), and it works for this specific goal. Usually I either do transformation and substitution drills on my own, think out loud in a foreign language, or straight up talk to myself. (I try to make sure I’m not turning insane.) Whenever my tongue gets stuck saying a certain word or combination of words, I can practise it 10 times until I say it all in one go fluently, just like when I practise on an instrument. And without anyone to worry about annoying (which is a common psychological barrier even though it’s usually not true), without anyone to witness your ’embarrassing’ mistakes, you can relax and just let it flow, as long as you are very aware and capable of noticing your own mistakes. One more tip: speak loudly!!! Don’t get used to murmuring, which is what I always did.

Cultural information: there are tons of videos out there about the culture behind many major languages. And if you watch videos and films carefully, you can discover how people in that culture behave themselves differently to yours. One infamous example would be Italian hand gestures: you can get them from any media, particularly with repeated viewings.

Listening comprehension and response: obviously, we can train ourselves in listening by listening. The easy thing about listening is that you can repeat small chunks again and again, unlike conversations with actual people where you’d feel bad to tell them to repeat twice or more. You can also grab a transcript to assist you when it comes to harder materials. Another idea that I sometimes employ is watching a conversation (a video or TV, etc), and while I follow what they say, I imagine what the other one would reply, or even pause the video and say it aloud. A technique that I learnt from a composition teacher, surprisingly.

Fluent speech: if what you need is to deliver a complete short speech, an idea is to do just that: write or improvise a speech on a particular topic. As mentioned, you can practise the pronunciation of individual words intentionally so as to train your mouth; and by rehearsing in front of a mirror, you can adjust how natural you look and sound while speaking. You can also train your vocabulary recall by intentionally applying particular words that you wish to learn, either in a script or in improvisation; as the saying goes, ‘use it or lose it.’

The more I think about it, the more I realised that what cannot be replaced when it comes to talking to native speakers consists mostly of psychological factors: you get the human contact to motivate and courage you, and you get to train and increase your confidence. And as you can see in all of these analyses, confidence is always an essential element in every facet, and it is the one factor that makes or breaks the case. If you feel naturally confident (from your own experience), you can advance your speaking abilities by certain other methods that are more flexible, but if your confidence needs training, OR if you are not sure, it is necessary that you do that.

Note that I’m not arguing against speaking practice – I take two hours of skype lessons every week – but merely discussing its effects in my own perspective. I take it as one of many ways to advance your language abiltiies (definitely not comprehensively listed here), which you can mix and match with others; therefore I recommend you analyse what you personally need in order to progress, and then find the best combination of methods accordingly. Good luck!