Speaking well is a combination of accurate pronunciation and good knowledge of words and forms. To become good at speaking it helps to develop good listening as well, since it is difficult to produce sounds you cannot distinguish. This section covers a series of topics to help you begin speaking, with the final part giving you an overview of pronunciation.
Beginning to speak
The best way to practise speaking is by speaking; however, there are some barriers to beginning. The following sections aim to help you overcome any initial hurdles to starting and improve your speech as you are learning.
When to start speaking
Some people emphasise speaking as early as possible, even on the first day. The first time speaking a language can be a powerful experience, as well as great way to solidify knowledge recently gained. Keep in mind that speaking can be very hard for beginners without a tutor or highly accommodating language partner. In addition, there is plenty to be gained by doing other activities and leaving speaking for later. For that reason, it is a completely valid and common choice to avoid speaking almost entirely until you are at a lower-intermediate level. Many people find speaking helpful and prefer to start earlier, while others only speak early because they find it fun or motivating. When to begin speaking is your choice—there is no proven best time.
Beginning with output practice
The first hurdle of initially starting to speak is most frequently the hardest. If you are the kind of person who struggles to think of something to say, try starting by first writing down some things you might like to say in a conversation on your own. This removes the initial stress of somebody waiting for you, as well as the combined difficulty of trying to pronounce the language. Focus on writing something in the kind of conversational style you have seen in your input.
Next, to build familiarity with speech, you might like to begin by speaking to yourself. Start with sounds, building to words, then repeating entire sentences. You will find it helpful to do this throughout the beginner stage of your learning.
When first speaking, many learners find themselves struggling to remember the words they need.
There is a difference between your ability to understand words and using them yourself in speech; however, this barrier can be overcome. These two types of knowledge (understanding and producing) link to the same concept; they are different, but not fundamentally so. The simple fact is that producing requires finding the word in your memory without an easy reference, making it harder to do.
The most natural way this gap is bridged is by gradually building greater familiarity with the word over time. Often, learners are only superficially familiar with a word, making it hard to remember. However, with exposure and experience, words eventually gain a certain salience that lets them come to mind when needed. Often, the best course of action is to simply be patient and practise.
If a word is particularly important, it can help to practise that word productively. You can do this by practising speaking aloud, writing sentences, or by simply using your flashcards productively.
The next big barrier to fluent speech is usually a lack of confidence. Having the confidence to just try even if you might be wrong ensures you maximise your opportunity to practise speaking.
If you are feeling nervous or anxious about starting to speak, it is best to ease yourself in. Find a good conversation partner. Most people will be accommodating. A good partner will understand your level and speak at an appropriate level for you. In return, any help they give using your language will be good practice for them. Make sure you are clear about your level and your initial difficulty will not be a problem. If you have the money, hiring a tutor can be a good way to ease yourself into speaking with less pressure.
The initial hurdle of starting to speak is the largest, but there is no way around it. After that, speaking becomes increasingly easier, even when first speaking any future languages you may learn.
Key tip: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Don’t shy away from trying things because you are afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are a natural part of the process of learning and will not necessarily hinder your progress. Conversely, trying to use the language absolutely correctly every time can slow your progress by reducing the amount of practice you get.
Most mistakes simply fix themselves over time without correction. As long as you are getting lots of input and basing your language production off that, you will probably be fine. Listen closely next time you are near a young child. They make mistakes all the time, yet all will learn to a native level given enough time.
Input to use
One of the components of effective speech is being able to use the informal tone, pace, and vocabulary of the conversational language most commonly used when speaking. To help you, it is useful to build experience with conversational language. For that, I recommend conversational input. Find a source that allows you to study the more informal variety of the language. It helps to start with something written so you can pay careful attention to it. Good examples include internet forums, comment sections, or informal street interviews. Make sure you use something at your level or on a topic you are familiar with.
In order to have conversations you will need to get good at listening. This can be quite a difficult aspect of language learning, so you will need to practise a lot. Listening well mostly comprises the ability to hear sounds and distinguish and understand words quickly.
Practise listening throughout your learning using audio resources as input. The best kinds of input for helping you reach the kind of level you need for conversation include:
- Podcasts—Particularly those that involve conversations between two or more participants, the more casual the better
- Interviews—Particularly street interviews, however radio interviews can work well
- Talk shows—Informal is generally better
If you are a beginner, casual conversation can be particularly hard, so it may be necessary to build up by first using beginner audio materials. You can find some exercises and advice in the chapter Mastering Input.
One of the best language exercises you can do is conversation practice with a native speaker.
Conversation is a great exercise because it gets your brain actively utilising the knowledge you already have, greatly improving your understanding and fluency with the language. It also exercises the speaker content, exposes you to new forms and vocabulary, and lets you get help and feedback in real time. Many learners report a burst of insight that can come from beginning to speak as their target language turns from memorised rules and phrases into a living language that they can interact with.
How to get conversation practice
The best way to practise speaking is to find a native speaker and start a language exchange, an activity in which you each spend time speaking each other’s language. You can do this by organising with people in your real life if you have any native speakers around. If you don’t have anybody nearby, the best option is to do an online exchange using Skype or any other internet calling service. You can find people very easily by using a community dedicated to language exchanges. Use the section in the Resources chapter to find a service that works for you.
There are other methods of getting practice. If you live in a big city, there are often meetups for language enthusiasts or more generic meetups that are often attended by expatriates and travellers. Use Facebook groups and meetup.com to help you find them. You might get lucky and find a native speaker there who is willing to let you practise if you ask them. The country associated with your language may have a community of speakers in your city. You can also pay for a tutor to get conversation practice, either online or in real life if available.
If you want to speak well, a key aspect of that is achieving good pronunciation. This can be a difficult process, but done right, can be done with minimal effort. If your goal is to speak, I advise you do not skip the next chapter on pronunciation. If you are not particularly interested in having a good accent, it will still be necessary to pay some attention to ensure people can understand you. Because of this, the pronunciation chapter has a quick-start guide near the beginning to make sure you understand only what you need to know. The second part of the pronunciation chapter contains all the detail those looking to achieve very good pronunciation might be interested in.