Speak From Day When?

The Eternal Debate.This is a topic that really gets language learners riled up.  I mean REALLY riled up.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many flamewars I’ve seen on various language forums start up over this exact topic.  Normally the language learning community is a very tolerant and level-headed bunch, but typically that tends to change when this topic is discussed.  Therefore, I shall tread very lightly and preface this all with the following disclosure:

“The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, Bill Price and do not necessarily reflect the views of everyone in the language learning community(hereby referred to as “the Community”.  The information set forth herein has not been proven or disproven by any scientific methods.  The author does not make any representation or warranty, express or implied, as to the information’s applicability to all individuals .  Individual opinions may vary.”

Ok, basically I’m just going to talk about my experiences and what works for me when it comes to speaking.  We’re all friends here.

So, what exactly are we talking about here that incites such riots among the community?  It’s a simple question that almost all language learners ask at some point or another…  When should I start speaking?  The answer to this question depends on which camp you talk to and there are several of them.  I’ll start with the two extremes:

  1.  Speak right away!  Start speaking as soon as you know a couple of introductory phrases like:  “Hello, my name is Bill” , “How are you?”,  “Where do you live?”, etc…  One of the major figure-heads of this camp is Benny Lewis from http://www.fluentin3months.com .  He has had tremendous success with his short-term (2-3 Month) missions by getting out there and speaking with natives from day one.  He has quite a large group of supporters and they can be very adamant about the “speak right away” philosophy.  Their reasons are rational:  It’s ok (or even encouraged) to make mistakes, learn phrases and vocabulary from context, the sooner you speak the sooner you will achieve fluidity and prosody in the language, etc…  Personally, I have much more in common with this group than with the other extreme:
  2. Don’t speak until after a long “silent period”.  Surprisingly (to me anyway) this is a fairly large camp within the community.  It’s level of extremism is varied from a couple of months up to over a year of silent period before attempting to speak to a native speaker.  I can understand why people would fall into this camp:  perfectionist tendencies, fear of looking stupid in front of a native speaker, not wanting to inconvenience a native until they have the vocabulary to hold a legit 2-way conversation, etc.  All totally valid.  Additionally, you will see some people who learn languages exclusively for reading, which is a fantastic reason to not practice speaking (at all).

My own philosophy is somewhat in between these two extremes (surprise!).  Personally, I think that truly speaking right away is a mistake.  If someone only knew a handful of stock phrases in English (or any of my other B1+ languages) and they wanted to practice “speaking” with me, I would probably find a way to politely decline.  Why?  Because they won’t get much (if anything) out the conversation.  At this stage, the only thing they can do is dump the handful of phrases on me and be totally unable to progress from there.  Sure I could try to give them more phrases, but at that point I’m a tutor and not a language exchange partner.  You don’t need a practice partner to recite stock phrases.  You really only need a mirror and/or a voice recorder.  Sure, you could ask for vocabulary that you would like to use, but at this stage, with no real grammar to speak of, you wouldn’t even be able to make a coherent sentence out of it anyway.

At the super beginner stage (first few weeks) of a language, you would be much better served (in my opinion) by getting some introductory grammar study and some basic (100-200 words or so) vocabulary under your belt.  You don’t need to be an expert (or even close) to have your first conversation, but you SHOULD be able to at least say more than few stock phrases.

On the other hand, if you refrain from any kind of speaking practice for 6 months or a year, you risk being seriously behind in your active speech production skills.  Speaking fluidly and with correct prosody takes an exceptional amount of time.  I have been speaking German for 2 years and I still will occasionally stumble over some word/sound combinations.  If I had waited any significant period of time to practice speaking, I would be terribly far behind in my speaking “fluency”.

Now, of course there are plenty of places in the middle to meet.  Let’s look at a couple:

  1. An online or real-life tutor.  If you’re looking to speak from day 1, this is your golden ticket.  A tutor will be compensated for the inconvenience of conversing with someone who has nothing (or very little) to actually say.  A tutor can give you the vocabulary and the grammar patterns to start really conversing, at which point you can move on to non-paid native speakers for practice.
  2. Self-talk type exercises.  I will talk more in depth about this technique in a future post, but there are many ways that you can use self-talk to improve your speaking skills at a very early stages in a language.   Recording a video or an audio recording of your speaking can be a great way to compare your pronunciation to other native audio and/or provide a way for you to practice speaking without worrying about making mistakes in front of other people.  The one disadvantage to this is the lack of correction.  This can be worked around by posting your video on Youtube or on a language forum if you have a learning log for feedback.
  3. Writing.  Yes, writing CAN be a way of improving your speaking if done correctly.  The key is to get your writing corrected by a native speaker.  You can do this on Lang-8, Italki, or a number of other language websites and/or forums.  Once you have corrected writing, you can use the writing in your self-talk sessions or memorize chunks of them for use in your real conversations.  Both writing and speaking are active skills and can have very positive synergistic affects on each other when practiced correctly.

My ideal scenario would be engage speaking practice with a native about 4-6 weeks into beginning studying a language.  At the point where I feel that I could benefit from this type of speaking practice, I will have about a 250-400 word vocabulary of basic words (including at least 20 verbs and their conjugations), a decent entry-level grasp of basic grammar (something like a Michel Thomas course is great for this), and a solid grasp of 20-30 stock phrases (phrase book type stuff, like: introductions, pleasantries, etc).  At this point, speaking practice really feels to me like progress.  Any vocabulary I pick up becomes more useable because of my grammar skills and I am in a better position to not only take constructive feedback, but also to understand it.

How do you feel about this topic?  Let me know in the comments below.  Thanks for reading!