Speaking in a foreign language for me, is everything.
Speaking and communicating with people from other countries and different cultures is what got me into learning all my languages in the first place.
First, it was so I could chat to that lovely Italian girl in the café where I worked in London.
Second, it was so I could learn Spanish quickly, travel to Spain, and not have to go back home to the UK!
Later, it was so I could communicate with all those amazing people I kept meeting in Brazil and try to figure out why they were so happy, and how I could be that happy too!
Later still, it was so I could escape that foreigner bubble in Tokyo and actually meet some real Japanese people.
Speaking, for me, is, basically, what it's all about.
And for most people, it's what they want to be able to do, too.
Which is precisely why it sucks that speaking is the hardest part of learning a foreign language! If you find yourself asking “How can I start speaking?”, this post is for you.
By the way, if you want to learn to speak a foreign language with a fun and effective method that teaches you through stories, not rules, check out my StoryLearning® courses and claim your free 7-day trial.
Why You Find Speaking So Hard
Speaking is tough because it happens in real time.
You need to have all the language you need at your fingertips, use it in a way that makes sense to the person you're talking to, and do it fluently and coherently enough that the conversation isn't hideously painful for them.
To make matters worse, 50% or more of the speaking game is actually… listening! Having got your words out in a good-enough order and hopefully made some kind of sense to the other person, you then have to understand what they say back to you.
If you can't understand what's being said, it doesn't matter how good your speaking skills are.
I've found over the years that, as a beginner in a new language, focusing a lot on speaking (using activities like this) can get you talking quickly, but can leave you woefully unable to understand enough of what the other person says in a conversation.
On the flip side, working a lot on your listening ability will always help your speaking, because you're learning new words and phrases all the time, which you can deploy in your speaking right away.
So, if you're just starting out, and you're not in any mad hurry to start speaking, my best advice for getting mad speaking skills in the long-run is… you guessed it… work on your listening!
But that's not why you're reading this post. 🙂
You want to speak, you're ready, you know a decent amount of vocabulary already and you just want to get out there and start talking! No problem, I'll tell you how to do it.
What Stops Us Speaking In The First Place?
Typically, I find that five things prevent me from speaking when I'm learning a new language:
- I don't know what to say
- I don't know how to say it
- I'm worried about not understanding the reply
- Impostor syndrome – i.e. “Who am I to be talking to that person? I'm just a stupid foreigner who can't speak their language properly! Why are they going to want to talk to me? I'm going to embarrass the hell out of myself!”
- Procrastination masquerading as common sense – i.e. “I'll just practice a bit more, so I can get that opening line just right, and then I'll go and talk to her!”
Do you recognise any of these feelings?
#1 and #2 we can do something about right now. #3, #4 and #5 are very real, but they're all in your head and created by the fear villain, who loves to make us feel bad about our language learning.
I've found that by consistently working on #1 and #2 – getting into a habit of speaking regularly in safe and non-threatening ways, your confidence grows and the inhibitions that seem like such a big deal at the moment start to gradually fade away.
Here are 13 ways to get started, build confidence and start speaking the language right away. Some of them you can do from home, others are more relevant to those living abroad. Either way, there's something here for you.
13 Ways To Start Speaking
- Join a language community. Head to a site like italki.com or lang-8.com and write a full, thorough and honest profile. You don't have to do anything right away, but as you start browsing the website, maybe leaving a comment or two, you'll start to connect with people and get friend requests. Why is this important? When the time comes for you look for a language partner to practise speaking, you'll have a ready-made pool of people right there, and it's a lot easier to do that with someone you have a connection with.
- Write a monologue about anything under the sun in your target language. Head to lang-8.com and ask someone to correct it. Take the text to rhinospike.com and have someone do an audio recording of it. In the meantime, record yourself reading it aloud. Compare your version with the recording you get back. Practise and refine.
- Use the audio from your textbook. You know all those recorded dialogues you've been listening to? Don't just listen! Record yourself reading them aloud and compare it with the audio recording – play them in sync. Practise and refine.
- Use your SRS flashcard app to prompt your speaking. Copy a dialogue you like from your textbook into SRS flashcards – one full sentence per card, with the English translation on the back. Set app to display the English side of the card first. When it comes up, speak the translation aloud (don't mutter it under your breath – belt it out!). This is powerful because it uses a stimulus in English to get you producing full sentences in your target language.
- Get a language partner. Remember those connections you've been forming on italki.com or lang-8.com? Reach out to someone you like and ask them if they'd like to do a language exchange on Skype. You'll never be short of volunteers. To make faster progress, I suggest finding a tutor on a service like Verbling. Make sure you set up the language exchange well – read this post for advice on doing that.
- Learn the lyrics to a song. It might take a few weeks, but it's one of the best things you can do to start speaking, as you'll be really focused on pronouncing the words clearly. When you've learnt the lyrics, vary it. Try “speaking” the song rather than singing it. Try reciting the song with the sentences in reverse order. Challenge yourself, mix it up, have fun with it!
- Become a child again. As you walk around the house, say what you see! “There's a cup on the table.” Yes, it's trite, but it's better than not speaking at all!
- Get WeChat for your smartphone. This app allows you to send and receive bite-sized audio messages. Remember those people who you connected with earlier? (Them again!) Swap WeChat IDs and start sending random message over the airwaves. It's a lot of fun, kind of silly, but it's just another thing to get you speaking. This one's also good for people who might feel too shy to jump on Skype – you can always prepare what you say before you hit record.
- Try Mr & Mrs Smith. Learning Japanese and feeling brave? This crazy app connects you to some random person in Japan for a live chat! Is this app available for other languages? Tell me if you know of one!
- Invoke the 3-second rule. I remember this from reading that high-brow work of fiction, The Game (by Neil Strauss) back in the day! The concept is this: Want to talk to someone? Give yourself 3 seconds to make the approach and start the conversation. Any more than 3 seconds and your self-defence instinct kicks in. You overthink, worry about what might go wrong, and bottle out.
- Ask for directions. Yes, I know you know where you're going, but ask anyway! Asking for directions is the most universally valid excuse to stop and talk to a stranger – they'll never question your motives!
- Learn to develop an interest in anything! When I lived in Japan, keen to start connecting with people, I'd see something that caught my eye in a shop, restaurant or gallery etc. and think to myself: “If I was back home, it'd be totally normal for me to just ask someone what that is.” So I'd invoke the 3-second rule and just ask someone: “Hey, do you know what this is?” Conversation ensues. I get nervous too, just like everyone else, but when you remember that you always have permission to talk to people if you have a genuine interest in something, then you have nothing to fear. Even if you fall flat on your face, it's genuine and the other person won't mind.
- Learn stock phrases for everyday situations. This is the “phrasebook approach”. You know what it's like – once you actually get a conversation started it's easy, right? Like summing up the courage to approach that girl across the room, it's the conversation opener that's the hardest part. Think about situations you often find yourself in, and intentionally learn phrases you can use in those situations. If you can start off the conversation with ease, the rest is a piece of cake. Think: specific, everyday situations where there's a chance of striking up a conversation: “Do you mind if I take this chair?”; “Are you waiting in line?”; “Can you help me understand this label/sign/thing?”; “What time do you close tonight?” Learn them, practice them, use them at every opportunity, then follow up and start the conversation proper.
Just Get Started
Do you remember reasons #3, #4 and #5 above that typically prevent people from speaking?
Conquering those fears and becoming confident with speaking is a matter of starting small, and integrating speaking into your daily life in a small way, and gradually working up from there, until it becomes so normal that all those doubts and fears you're having start to become less real.
So, let's make this happen!
There are 13 ideas up there, all of which I've used myself over the years to get started on the road to speaking a new language.
Hopefully at least one of them piqued your interest!
Do it again tomorrow, a little better.
Then again the day after, better still. In the words of David Storey…”Self-confidence is the memory of success.”