Speak! Or stop pretending you want to

If you read different sources to see what language ‘experts’ have to say about mastering a language, you’ll get such vastly different advice that sometimes it’s hard to know which one to apply.

Listen a lot even when you sleep, read all day, study thousands of words of vocabulary before you are ready to speak, use a very particular course or book, use software, rely only on immersion…

They can’t all be right?

I’d be biased if I said my preference for the communicative approach was “better” than anyone else’s advice. However, I want to suggest a very simple and overlooked reason why the speak from day one advice I so often discuss may well be more preferable than alternatives: it depends on whether you really want to speak the language or not.

An honest look at priorities

Like asking people if they are open minded, asking people if they want to speak a language will pretty much always result in an affirmative reply. Everyone wants to speak – sure!

Because everyone would be happy to speak a foreign language for no work, this answer is meaningless. When people tell me they’d like to speak a language, most of the time it’s background noise to me. They might as well cough in terms of presenting any actual information.

In many cases, even when they are working really hard, speaking is not the actual priority. I say this because even successful language learners have told me that they want to speak their language, but this is simply not true by my stricter definition. When I see the investment they make in speaking and their actual concern for it, I see that their focus is actually elsewhere.

They actually want to read well, understand conversations they are not contributing to well, have a vast amount of vocabulary or some other advantage you get from exposure to a language.

There is of course nothing wrong with that. I still say they are successful language learners because they achieve what they aim for and can read books, watch foreign films etc. without breaking a sweat. They get so much out of a language in this way, and I miss out a little bit of this aspect myself since I tend to skip a lot of literature in the local language. However, my reading/writing skills slowly improve anyway; it’s not like I’m avoiding it.

Just like if you were to focus mostly on reading with some occasional speaking, your speaking skills will indeed improve with time, getting reinforced by what you learn in auxiliary activities. However, this focus will decide which aspect of language learning will get better quicker.

So which is your real priority?

Be clear about your target and aim for it properly

Being devoted to your target is so obvious a way to achieve it, that I’m amazed so many people overlook not having done this for the real reason they are failing.

I don’t get it! I’ve studied thousands of words of vocabulary, listened to hundreds of hours of streamed radio, read several natively written books in the target language and spent hundreds of dollars on course material – why don’t I speak it yet??

Am I really the only one that thinks the answer to this question is blatantly obvious?

This is so simple that it applies to anything. If you want to play the piano well, play it (practise) a lot. Attending piano concerts will be enjoyable and you’ll appreciate the music even more, but any improvement to your own piano playing skills is an infinitesimal amount smaller than what you would get from actual practise.

If you want to run a marathon in a few months then start running today (reading running magazines won’t help).

If you want to read a language well, then read a lot. If you want to understand spoken language well, then listen to a lot of natively spoken content attentively and seek to improve how you understand it constantly.

When these are your priorities, speaking can almost get in the way. It does put the language in a much more interesting context, but it is not working directly on what you want to improve. It’s just an added bonus.

Do you really want to speak? Then stop being so oblique about it!

However, if your priority truly is to speak, then speak already!!

Do other things too, as these are all part of the language learning experience and necessary to live a full life through the language, but speak! Speak NOW. Meet a native in person or online and show them what you’re made of, make mistakes and get through it – this is the best way to speak better quickly.

If your goal is to turn yourself into a walking (non-speaking) dictionary, then by all means devote most of your time to learning obscure unimportant vocabulary.

If your goal is to never ever make mistakes, then by all means don’t speak until you are “ready”. Perfection is impossible (even natives make mistakes), and you will never achieve this. Getting comfortable with making mistakes will help you improve your spoken level quickly as you get used to the language and how it feels in spontaneous conversations.

However, if your goal is truly to never make mistakes, by not speaking, you are actually being fully successful in realising your target – no speaking equals no mistakes. Congrats!

If you think you want to master all aspects of a language (spoken, written, reading, listening and whatnot), then stop for a second and think is it really true. Maybe you are genuinely more passionate about reading Jules Verne in its original French, or were inspired to learn Italian so you could follow what they were singing at the opera – speaking to natives would just be an added bonus, but may not be that big a deal for you.

In that case, don’t feel bad about not speaking well yet. Appreciate where your interest lies and allow it to blossom. If you genuinely wish to speak though, realise that your passion may not be in the right place. Try to reframe it if you are serious about conversing with natives.

Speaking isn’t going to magically happen overnight by doing oblique activities. These all help in many ways of course, but knowing a language inside out won’t help you if you are simply not used to it coming out of your mouth.

No more excuses, if you genuinely want to speak then do it already!

Everything else helps, but nothing beats practice

Of course, studying vocabulary and using the right learning tools will augment your capacity to express yourself when speaking, but focusing entirely on this is skipping the actual goal!

This post is a precursor to some discussion on actual learning materials I want to talk about, and how effective they can be. With that in mind, don’t forget to add your thoughts to the questionnaire I’ve made about effective language learning materials, if you haven’t already.

But hopefully this reminder that they can only improve your spoken ability if you are actually speaking will kick enough people up the arse to get them to stop going off on so many tangents to their goal to speak a language.

What are your thoughts? Am I just too obsessed with speaking a language, or am I on to something? Let us know what you are thinking in the comments below!



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  • http://www.fluenteveryyear.com/ Randy (@Yearlyglot)

    Absolutely agree. Desire is evident in results, and that’s true in all aspects of life. You hit on an issue that has always perplexed me: if you want to lose weight, get strong, get rich, whatever… why sit and read about that thing when you could be out working toward that thing!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Why? Because people are lazy, that’s why :P It takes way less energy to sit at home and research how to do something than to actually get out of your comfort zone and do it ;)

  • http://twitter.com/wyromaster 병욱

    The only time I tell people I want to speak Korean is when they’re speaking to me in English and I want them to stop!

    When I first arrived here, I fell into the trap of saying things like, “I’ll start my goal of speaking only in Korean first thing tomorrow.” I kept telling myself this every day while still speaking mainly in English. English has been a tough habit to break, and I still find myself accidentally slipping back into English sometimes when talking to friends, but I’m still slowly but surely transitioning to all-Korean mode. It may not be the most efficient way to go about doing things (as opposed to speaking the language entirely from the first day), but I’ll be here for 2 years, so I’ll have plenty of practice!

    Good luck on your language mission!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      You have to get out of that rhythm as soon as possible! It’s tempting to keep putting it off to tomorrow, but don’t think having 2 years changes much. I know plenty of expats who have lived somewhere for several years making no progress.
      Good luck on YOUR mission. Speak a majority of Korean as soon as you finish reading this reply, NOT tomorrow ;)

  • http://twitter.com/diarmuidh Diarmuid Hayes

    I want to translate this article int0 Spanish and give it to my colleagues here! they dont want to speak in English they just want to read…this would be a good intellectual kick in the a*se to get them speaking!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I love the irony of getting people to read an article telling them to stop bloody reading so much :P

      • http://twitter.com/diarmuidh Diarmuid Hayes

        The irony for me is hearing my colleagues complaining to me (en castellano) that they are embarrassed to speak in English even though they listen to my pronunciation and mistakes in their language every day..

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Interesting substitution, but I’m sure you could find at least other learners online to get some practise ;) Just need a bit of detective work to find them, but they are definitely there!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Yes, I realise the title of the site involves a short-cut, but I want to show people in posts like this why it’s totally logical. If I spread myself thin and tried to become a vocabulary expert during these 3 months, I’d be less successful in speaking.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, in talking to Steve for the interview on his site I was confused about the disagreement until later reflection showed me that he really is focused on reading. When he lived abroad in Japan he said that he spent most of his time studying the language rather than out speaking with people. This shows how speaking is much less of a priority for him than it is for me. Then of course he knows way more than I do about effective listening/reading strategies because that’s what he enjoys.
    I hope other people understand the message behind this post as one reason “experts” have such dramatically different approaches to learning languages. Different end goals require different paths. I’m not saying speaking is the only end-goal, it just happens to be my priority.

  • Quokka

    nothing to disagree with here so let’s keep it short ;-)
    One thing I recognize over and over and over again is that get learners get sandwiched between blogs & communities. They feel like they need more tipps, they have the impression that they should select their sources carefully.

    I think most tips are unnecessary & even counterproductive.
    Reading just ONE of Bennies posts would give you a mindset you could actually work with for months and thus learn a lot & gain valuable own experiences.

  • Stujay

    Amen Benny!

    I was just reading through a forum thread where people were talking about me and making every excuse under the sun for why I could learn a language and why they can’t. I suspect people who say they want to learn a language are just paying lip service to a nice notion. If they really want to, they’d find a way to do it.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yeah, I have those forums rattling on about me too. I’m young and single so I have it easier than the rest of the world etc.

      I’d be happy to present people with ten thousand reasons why *I* can’t learn languages, but I choose to simply ignore them and focus on why I can ;)

      Lip service is exactly what they are doing when they say they “want” to.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Yep – many people aren’t willing to make such a sacrifice, so they simply don’t want it enough :) Of course they’ll invent excuses like they aren’t smart enough…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Dankon Goŝka – glad to see my writing is helping ;)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I agree, and I think a lot of the avoidance people have towards speaking has to do with their shyness, their reluctance to make mistakes and their fear of ‘looking stupid’ in front of someone else. You have to get over it and just go for it, it’s not just language learning but life in general: you must, must, MUST be willing to make mistakes and fail, and fail spectacularly…over and over again :)

    Because that’s how you get to success: you fail your way there.


  • WC

    I’m one of the few people I’ve heard of that started out with a goal that wasn’t stated as ‘I want to speak X’. My goal from the start was to understand Japanese, both written and spoken.

    But after a couple years of studying (I admit I’m not serious about it, and I’m just having fun) I realized that understanding spoken Japanese is easier if you speak and practice it. Learning to speak Japanese is a waypoint for me and not the end.

    As I said, I’m not ‘serious’ about learning languages. I’m doing it in my sparetime and I don’t let it run my life. I don’t set aside a certain amount of time daily or even weekly. I only study when I feel like it. But that hasn’t stopped me from getting to the point that I understand basic speech and manga. I’m pretty happy with my progress, especially considering how little work I actually put into it.

    I think the point of your post is that you should have a goal, and your actions should further that goal. If you’re doing things that don’t directly further that goal, they should be re-examined. And I fully agree with that.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Well summarised. If people’s goal isn’t to speak then they don’t have to feel guilty about focusing on something else. With a goal of understanding written and spoken Japanese – as much reading and listening as possible will get you there – this is separate to a speaking goal ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I love that anecdote! They criticise you for trying, but they are actually helping. :) I see some countries that seem to have a perfectionist and shyness mentality are the last ones to speak… I wasn’t aware of that quotation from Tim Ferriss but I’m behind it 100%!
    Great comment! Thanks :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    As mentioned in this post, your priority would be comprehension, and that’s quite alright. Focus on that and soon the “noise” will make sense. When your priority is not to speak then this post isn’t meant to push you to do something else.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad you liked it Mike :)
    This post isn’t really about “without the work” though – it’s about working on the wrong thing and the right thing. People put in craploads of work to get nowhere simply because they are “aiming” wrong. ;)

  • Demian

    I agree with so much in this post and the comments. I ya wanna speak — speak! So many people upon hearing that I speak several languages give me the usual refrain that I know you get, Benny. (And you, Stu Jay, as well.) It usually goes like this:
    I’d love to learn another language, but I have no:
    — time/ gift /language intuition/confidence /resources /money/ chance to travel
    …well, as you know, you can’t REALLY learn another language after you’re 13, so I’m too old.
    …the ONLY way you can learn a language is to spend three years in the country, and I can’t afford the time or money.
    …I’d love to learn a language if I only had the discipline/ motivation/ audacity.
    …I spent years in high school studying French. I aced all the tests, but I can’t order a glass of water in French. I must be “linguistically challenged.”
    …I can’t go back to school. And, as you know, you can ONLY learn a language in a classroom.
    …well, if you’re making any mistakes, then you’re not REALLY speaking a language.
    …You’re studying Turkish?!! Isn’t that a HARD language?
    Or my favorite:
    “Yeah, but its easy for you…you’re a genius.” (Whatever that means.)
    I often think that that “genius” tag is just a great excuse for being lazyand not wanting to put in the work. Sort of like that old racist canard about black athletes being just “naturally gifted.” As if to imply that somehow a lot of hard work, passion, dedication, goal setting and focus had no part in the equation.
    My favorite reply, when someone says that they have absolutely no gift nor ability for languages, is to say: “Well, if that were true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now, would we?!” That usually stumps them.
    I read and listening extensively to the languages I know. Still, nothing beats jumping into the water and speaking. Are you going to make mistakes? Sure. Are you going to be frustrated at times that you can’t find the right word or turn of phrase? Sure. But just like swimming, all the theory studied on dry land isn’t a substitute for jumping in the water. Then, the only “theory” that matters is that which keeps your head above water. And so it is with boxing, riding a bike…and speaking languages.

  • Ron

    Great post, Benny! I’m lucky in that I have a couple of latino neighbors with whom I converse. However I also utilize Skype. The resources available today to anyone with a reasonably fast internet connection are incredible. I have been doing so many “tandem language” sessions with Spaniards, Dominicans, Chileans, etc. over the web that it has inspired me (along with your previous post about TEFL) to do a TEFL program! So many people all over the world want to learn the language that I was born with, English, that they are willing to sit through my mistakes and help me whilst I help them through their mistakes- and we both learn. You have to set rules so that the exchange is fair and stick by them but it is definitely worth it!

  • Ron

    Great post, Benny! I’m lucky in that I have a couple of latino neighbors with whom I converse. However I also utilize Skype. The resources available today to anyone with a reasonably fast internet connection are incredible. I have been doing so many “tandem language” sessions with Spaniards, Dominicans, Chileans, etc. over the web that it has inspired me (along with your previous post about TEFL) to do a TEFL program! So many people all over the world want to learn the language that I was born with, English, that they are willing to sit through my mistakes and help me whilst I help them through their mistakes- and we both learn. You have to set rules so that the exchange is fair and stick by them but it is definitely worth it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Please read the title of this post. This is not about “learning” languages, it’s about speaking them ;)
    You don’t need to know precisely what to do to lose weight; eat less and work out. Anything you read is just specifying how to do something that you should start anyway and read more about to improve on. It’s the same with speaking. You can waste years finding the perfect method, while millions of opportunities to speak flow by.

    • CharlotteMatou

      This is quite a bad analogy. Losing weight can be much more complicated than “eating less”, as many obese people painfully experience it. This kind of comments contribute to shame obese people for being ‘lazy’, and therefore a lot of people think it’s ok to make offensive comments about them.

      I realized there is not much point in answering this 3 years later, but I thought it is important as people keep on reading these pots and comments.

  • Demian

    Thanks, Benny, for you response to hnedka, who’s point is well taken. This isn’t a diatribe against due diligence, scholarship, research and learning. Nor is it an anti-intellectual rant against being methodical and prepared. The whole point of the article — and my response — was, simply, that paralysis by analysis is rampant in the language learning world. Sure, do the research, read the blogs, examine the techniques — then…get in the water and swim. All too often people spend their lives tiptoeing around the water. Spending literally years “reading about” and thinking about it, and never actually jumping in and swimming. I know people who’ve read just about every book there is about diet and exercise, somehow waiting for an epiphany before they actually get off the couch and, well, diet and exercise. And then spend their time whining about how miserable they are to be fat and out of shape.
    So, yes, hnedka, this is not a negation of your point. By all means, one should do the research, refine one’s methods, get the ducks in a row…then let ‘er rip.

  • http://changememe.com/ Louise McGregor


    I find I need a certain amount of what might technically be called grammar but I like to think of as sentence patterns to structure how I speak. And then start. If you try, genuinely try, people will teach you.

    (This does work better in countries were there aren’t a lot of English speakers – the hardest thing about learning Dutch was that the Dutch would switch to English to “help” me)

  • http://tonguetales.com Tyeisha

    This is a valid point, but just walking up to everyone on the train who looks like they speak Spanish may not be the key.

    So, I just go to a Spanish church on Sunday to practice speaking. Maybe I’ll make a friend who I can speak to more regularly during the week.

  • http://twitter.com/language101_com Brent

    This is really amazing! I’m very impressed by your story, especially since after 4 years in Spain, I still can’t properly conjugate. Like I always say: I speak Spanish fluently, but ugly.

  • kl

    Technically, correct. When you want to speak a language, you must, well, speak it in order to learn it. I myself do not like classes and like to learn the language in the country it’s spoken in – that means total immersion.

    I think, however, that you ignore the fact that reading books is a great source of learning and (when not done in isolation but combined with speaking) actually helps you tremendously. It obviously depends also on the person and the learning habits but I myself get a huge deal out of books. Basically, there is a vague grasp of “how things are done” that you get from the books without ever having to memorize a grammar rule. There is the improved vocabulary. There is the fact that you catch new phrases to use. And then there is the immersion part – you just get sucked to the language as much as to the world of the novel. And boy does that break some mental barriers!

    So, at least for this language learner, reading is essential part of learning to speak well.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Your argument makes no sense. It’s like arguing “What’s the point in swimming if there is no water?” When you are a part of a conversation, it’s two way. Speaking here implies that – it’s not about going around with a megaphone and not listening to people.

  • Sarah Warren

    Heheheh I’ve done that, too!

  • CharlotteMatou

    Thank you so much for writing this post. I have been browsing your blog for a few days because I was (and still am) completely fascinated by your speaking skills (congrats on your French by the way, I’ve seldom heard an English-speaker speaking with such ‘comfort’, and with hardly any gender mistakes!). I am a translator student and ‘speak’ 5 languages, but keep on forgetting them in such a frustrating way that I was actually thinking to start some of them from the beginning again…

    So I was reading your blog and started thinking that I should find Russian natives if I actually wanted to speak Russian, which was not a particularly appealing to me as I am not a very sociable person, and am really awkward on Skype (^_^), but as you put it, I thought I should « me botter le cul » as we say in France. But I felt uncomfortable somehow, and was not sure why.

    And reading this post I realized: I don’t actually care much about speaking Russian, even though it sounds beautiful, what I really want is read and translate it! Which is something I haven’t made progress at recently because Russian articles looks so discouraging.

    Even though I won’t focus on reading, your advice will be useful to me as:
    1. I realized that if I want to read Russian, I had to read it. A lot. It seems obvious and all my teachers kept on saying it, but now I have a more specific goal than I used to.
    2. I was stupid enough to decline when a Russian person I knew offered me to chat on Skype for language purposes. I’ll make sure I won’t make this mistak again, as I see how talking with natives on Skype contributed to make you a polyglot!

    I ended on telling you my whole life story, sorry about this, I just wanted to stress how important this one blog post can be for some people, maybe you should highlight it somewhere.

    In a nutshell: Thank you so much! Et bonne continuation pour ton apprentissage du japonais.

    • CharlotteMatou

      A few weeks later:

      God, every Russian text I approach seems either damn hard or terribly boring. Or both.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    If people read our blogs out of pure interest, that’s fine. I have a few readers who actually are not learning any languages and just like reading my stories and advice (or writing style etc.)
    However, I think people should genuinely put in the work and not read so much about it. At best I want these posts to act as reminders to get out there and do something. If I lose some readers because they were inspired by a post to stop reading English entirely and actually speak their language, it may hurt my site’s statistics but ultimately I’ve achieved the inspiration I was aiming for originally ;)
    So don’t read too much :D (But come back and comment to let me know how much progress you are making instead ;)