I felt lost.
I’d finished school, where I’d fallen in love with languages. And I wanted to keep learning.
But I had no teacher to tell me how to learn.
I tried a few different things, but nothing seemed to be working. So I turned to my trusty friend, Google. “How to learn a language”, I typed in the search bar.
And there was one bit of advice that I kept seeing. It seemed like everything I read was encouraging me to get out there and speak my new language.
As you’re reading Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M), there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with this advice.
Back then, as a self identified introvert and shy person, the idea of speaking my new languages wasn’t for me.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t good advice (it’s really good advice). It was just that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do.
(In a beautiful twist of fate, these days I’m the Community Manager for the Add1Challenge, which helps people start speaking their target language as quickly as possible).
I rebelled, trying to do a bunch of other different things such as buying every coursebook my local bookstore had to offer and spending way too much time on LiveMocha, but again, none of those things worked.
Now, if I wanted to watch TV in my target language, or read an author I adored in his or her original language, I might have been alright.
The truth was, I was afraid of speaking. But I also felt drawn to speaking. I really wanted to have real conversations and meet interesting people from other countries. I wanted to see the world, and be more independent when I travelled.
With dreams like that, there was no way for me to get around it: I had to start speaking.
But that didn’t mean I had to play by the rules.
Instead, I decided to find a way that I could start speaking on my terms. I was determined to find ways to speak that would feel right, work with my personality and make me a little more comfortable.
I’ll get to what I found in a moment, but first, a quick detour…
What’s All the Fuss About Speaking?
Let’s just get something clear. You don’t actually need to speak your target language to learn it. Speaking is a really effective way to learn a language, but it’s not the only way.
You can actually learn a language without speaking. It all depends on your goals.
Speaking is only important if you want to connect with other people.
So if you just want to watch TV in your target language, read a newspaper, or listen to podcasts, then focus on developing your reading and listening skills.
But here’s the deal… many language learners I meet want to connect with others. They just don’t know where to start, and they feel scared of speaking. So they settle, and set lower goals.
If that’s you, it’s time to stop settling — and I want to show you the first steps out of that mindset.
As an aside, this is why I love the Add1Challenge — because we’ve seen hundreds of language learners get out of that “settling” mindset and push themselves to have real conversations (at the end of the Add1Challenge, participants have a 15 -minute conversation in their target language — we guarantee it).
Why is Speaking so Scary?
When you start speaking a new language, everything feels awkward.
New sounds. New words. Weird grammar. And you know you’re making a ton of mistakes.
The idea of speaking a new language feels fun… but fear and uncertainty push back and leave you feeling anxious.
Add into the mix meeting new people (italki tutors or language exchange partners)… and it’s no wonder so many language learners end up running away terrified!
But when you push through that fear (and I know you can, I’ve seen so many others do it), you’ll find a whole new world on the other side. And you’ll discover that you can connect with people from other countries and cultures faster than you ever thought possible.
So how can you do this?
A Plunge into the Deep End — Or Small Steps
The only way to beat the fear is to stand up to it. Ultimately, you have to push through it. For some people, plunging in at the deep-end and arranging a Skype call with a conversation partner is the best way to do it.
For others, it’s easier to take small steps.
Here are the first two steps I’d recommend you take:
- Find ways to practise speaking that you can do on your own. I’ll explain why this matters in a moment.
- Remind yourself often (daily is best) of the reasons you want to speak your new language. These could be:
- Meeting People: When you speak another language, you have the opportunity to get to know people you’d otherwise never be able to communicate with. Each language that you speak can open up an entirely new world to you.
- Travel: When you can speak the local language in your travels, you’ll find you get on much better. You’re able to communicate better, order food, purchase train tickets, and more confidently navigate your way around. Plus, it makes your travel safer because you can understand what’s going on around you.
- Overall understanding of your target language: Because speaking is a form of language production, it takes your understanding of the language to the next level. It's one thing to understand. It's entirely another to produce.
- Confidence: Speaking another language is a HUGE confidence boost.
- Job opportunities: Speaking a foreign language can mean you have more job opportunities or even get you a raise at your current job.
- Authentic cultural experiences: When you speak another language, you’re not stuck hanging out in the tourist zones or English bubble when you travel. You can go off the beaten track.
Of course, these are just a few of the benefits of being able to speak another language. Others might be that you can communicate with family that speaks another language, improve your memory, or even become more articulate in your own language. And I’m sure that you can think of a few more.
Speaking to Yourself — Not as Crazy as It Sounds
Here are a few good reasons to practise speaking your target language — and you’ll get all these benefits even if you in your own company before you go out there and have real conversations:
- Muscle memory: When you speak, you train your brain, mouth and tongue to coordinate with one another. You teach them to produce the correct sounds and shapes at the correct time. To speak a new language, you physically need to train your muscles. Not practising speaking the language before diving into your first conversation would be like picking up a musical instrument you’ve never played before, and trying to perform in front of an expert player. The world’s not going to end, but you probably won’t walk away from the experience feeling amazing.
- Production improves understanding: When you actually produce language, you’re further developing your insight in the language in a way that just consuming it doesn’t allow.
- The spoken language is often different from the written language and the only way that you’re going to master that part of the language is by being exposed to it. You could argue that films and movies do this to some degree, but even that medium is fixed. You’ll never get the spontaneity and improvisation that come with real life speaking.
- Verbal communication is about more than words and grammar: And again, this is where things like tone, speed, and so on come into play.
How to Get Speaking Practice Without a Conversation Partner
Speaking with a conversation partner is an important part of learning a language — especially if connecting with others is your goal.
But you don’t have to jump straight into a conversation without a bit of practice first. Here are just a few of the ways that I’ve snuck in some extra speaking practice so that I felt more confident when it was time to meet up with a conversation partner.
1. Siri, Alexa or “Hey Google”
Change Siri, Alexa or your Android’s settings so you can talk to your device in your target language. Then start doing it!
This is an excellent challenge because it demands good pronunciation. It’s a good (and entertaining) challenge if you feel you’re ready for it.
2. Voice to Text
Many mobile devices and computers have a voice to text feature that lets you dictate notes and messages instead of typing. By changing the language of your device, you can talk to your device in your target language, and see how much it understands. Another good way to test your pronunciation!
3. Talk to Yourself (When No-One’s Listening)
If you aren’t ready to talk to other people, you can always talk to yourself. It may feel uncomfortable, but it’s really effective and it not only helps you train your speaking muscles, but it also helps you to discover any gaps that exist in your vocabulary.
Not sure what to talk to yourself about? Narrate what you’re doing or tell yourself a story about your day so far. I like to do this to practise what I’m going to say when I meet up with a language exchange partner.
4. Talk at a Friend
Don’t want to talk to yourself? Talk at a family member, friend or even a pet!
This is a bit different than actually conversing in your target language because you don’t have the pressure of needing to understand what’s being said to you and you don’t have to worry about mistakes because it’s likely the other person won’t understand you.
This method works for two reasons:
- Even if someone doesn’t understand the language, they’ll likely still be able to tell where you’re hesitant
- You’re “performing” in your target language (which slightly ups the pressure compared to talking to yourself), but you’ve taken out the stress of meeting someone new
5. Voice-Record Yourself Speaking
This is a good way to take the conversations you have with yourself to the next level. When you record yourself speaking, you can play it back and hear mistakes you might not otherwise have noticed.
6. Video Yourself Speaking
This is similar to recording your voice, but it also allows you to check your body language and expressions when you watch the video back.
To take this to another level, you can even post all or a portion of your video online. That way, you get speaking practice on your own terms and then you can get feedback on your speaking from other learners or native speakers I love sharing my videos on Instagram, but other learners use Snapchat, Youtube, and Facebook Live.
7. Read Aloud
You can do this with any resource — a book, a comic, an online article, the exercises in your textbook, it really doesn’t matter.
It’s all about training those mouth muscles and getting used to speaking your new language.
It’s one of my favorite things to do, but you have to be careful when you’re doing it. Sometimes, when reading aloud, you don’t actually take in what you’re reading. Be sure that if you choose to do this, you aren’t just going through the motions. Pay attention to not just the words you’re reading, but what they’re telling you.
Call-and-response programs are audio lessons along the lines of Pimsleur or Michel Thomas.
These are courses that provide you with audio in your target language, and also the opportunity to either repeat, emulate, or answer prompts.
To put it simply, the course “calls”, and you respond.
I’ve had great success with these courses, and they help immensely with accent and pronunciation.
9. Sing Along!
Find music you enjoy in your target language and learn the lyrics. It’s a fun way to use the language and you get to learn about the music of that culture, too.
10. Google Translate
I love using Google Translate to check my pronunciation, especially for Chinese and Korean.
Wondering how to do this? Set the source language to your target language and the translation to English. Record yourself saying a word or a phrase and then check to see if the translation is correct. If it’s not, switch directions and translate from English to your target language, and click the speaker icon to hear a computer pronunciation of the translation.
My French family and English family use this tool to communicate with one another (learning a bit of each other’s language in the process).
Shadowing is a technique for when you’re watching a movie or TV show in your target language. Listen to a line or two, pause the movie and repeat the line. Imitate the character as closely as possible.
You can also use shadowing with podcasts, talk radio and YouTube videos.
12. “Voice Journalling”
You can use journaling to work on your speaking. Write your journal in your target language, and read aloud as you write. Doing both at once will help you memorise the words and phrases that you’re writing down.
13. Voice Messages
Tools like HelloTalk or even WeChat, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger all let you leave voice messages.
This means you can send and receive voice notes to your exchange partners or friends in your target language. That way, you can practise speaking and listening without the pressure of a real-time conversation.
14. The Mimic Method
Idahosa Ness of the Mimic Method believes the best way to learn a language is by mimicking sounds — just like babies learn.
Following a sound-based course such as the Mimic Method is a really good way to get speaking practice. If you dive deep with this course, your accent and pronunciation will strongly resemble that of a native speaker. It’s then up to you to work on vocabulary and grammar.
You can read my review of the Mimic Method here.
Glossika is known for its mass sentences method, and most learners associate it with improving listening comprehension. The web version, however, allows you to turn on your microphone and repeat the phrases so that you can get speaking practice, too.
Speaking is a Lot Easier than You Thought!
If you’re not ready to have real conversations, but you know you need to start speaking, there are a lot of things that you can do to practise and prepare.
But remember… you are probably ready to start chatting with real people sooner than you think. It can be a little scary, but the reward is worth facing that fear.
If you’re ready to take your speaking and conversing to the next level, the Add1Challenge is the perfect place to do it. You’ll be working towards a 15-minute conversation in your target language with the support of that community and the Fi3M Add1Challenge team.
What About You?
What are some of the ways you’ve worked on speaking? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.