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.
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
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!