Monday, 4 June 2018

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Speaking

Speaking is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

For many people speaking is the ultimate language skill that they are trying to develop when learning a foreign language. Isn’t it cool to just open your mouth and start speaking a foreign tongue smoothly and effortlessly?

Speaking is arguably the most difficult foreign language skill. It requires quick and spontaneous verbal action in various situations. So, how do you develop your speaking to be able to do so? Let’s look at developing this skill at elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

At the very start of elementary level, when you are just beginning to learn your foreign language, there is actually not much that you would be able to say. What you could do though is start preparing for speaking later. For example, you could practise your pronunciation.

When practising your pronunciation, you could follow a structured approach and train separate sounds, sounds in context and intonation. Or, if you don’t have time to work on your pronunciation separately and closely, you could just repeat words and phrases that you are learning after a speaker and read aloud in addition to reading in your head. Thus, you will be preparing yourself for speaking by reducing the physical barrier that each language learner faces.

By physical barrier I mean the inability of your organs of speech to move easily to produce the sounds of the foreign language you are studying. These sounds are different from those of your native language, so your organs of speech are not used to moving in a way they demand. When you try to pronounce words and phrases in your target language properly, your tongue, lips and soft palate refuse to move in the right way, it’s awkward, annoying and even painful. So, you feel like a clumsy toddler who is about to kick up a tantrum because she cannot articulate words properly and blooming adults don’t understand that she demands a bug and not a mug.

Whether you work on your pronunciation in a structured way or just repeat after a speaker and read aloud, you work out your facial muscles and train your organs of speech to deal with the new sounds and intonation. Later when you speak, you will be able to articulate in your target language without battling with your body over each and every sound or combination of sounds that are not typical of your mother tongue.

Once you have acquired some 400 words and phrases, you could already start speaking. However, as an adult language learner, who is used to having complex conversations in your native language seasoned with sophisticated vocabulary, mumbling some separate words or simple phrases seems like an embarrassing and pointless activity. So, you could think that it’s better to keep it quiet till you are able to give a lecture on your favourite quantum physics in your target language.

While there is certainly some truth in it and not everybody is happy to listen to you slaughtering their mother tongue trying to tell them some banalities, it misses a couple of points. First, Rome was not built in a day and the earlier you start with your speaking, the sooner and better your speaking develops. And, second, speaking doesn’t always mean communication (i.e. information exchange), well, at least not real communication when you speak with someone with a primary task of exchanging some information with them.

Other kinds of speaking, that are not real communication, include doing some speaking tasks or exercises and speaking with yourself. With these kinds of speaking, you eliminate the stress of real communication and focus primarily on the form (the language) and not on the content (what you are saying). Of course, what you are saying is still important and you cannot just talk absolute nonsense but in these artificial settings how you convey your message (making sure your pronunciation is comprehensible, using the right words and grammar structures) is more important than what you actually say.

While you are likely to struggle with a free flow speaking at elementary level, speaking tasks or exercises are more manageable as they are limited to a certain topic or situation. For example, when you speak based on a certain topic, you could introduce your family, describe your house, talk about the weather outside, etc.; when you act out a certain situation, you could improvise a dialogue in a restaurant, at the airport, at a grocery store, etc. using some typical phrases you have learnt.

If you use a course book for your language study, you have probably come across speaking exercises. And have probably skipped them. Indeed, when the task reads “Discuss with your partner...” or “Speak in groups of four...” etc. your instinct is to dismiss the task if you study alone. The problem is you are not just skipping a task that doesn’t seem suitable, you are skipping a chance to work on your speaking.

You don’t actually need a partner or a group of people to do this kind of exercises. This is especially true if you have a collection of false mustaches and a flair for acting :𝄽) And if you need other people’s input, you could hit a record button on your phone camera while you are speaking and upload this video in some language learning community to initiate a discussion.

Another kind of non-communication speaking is speaking with yourself. Unlike speaking exercises, this kind of speaking is free flow and can happen any time you feel like it, you don’t have to sit down, open books or switch on your computer and give a talk on a specific topic or act out a specific situation. You could just talk about whatever you want when you go about your other tasks like cooking dinner. For example, you could talk about your feelings or what is going on in your life.

If you prefer dialogues to monologues, you could pretend to have a conversation with a German or French friend. If your kids catch you muttering to yourself “Entschuldigung, ich bin Ausländer und spreche nicht gut Deutsch” or “Ca va tres bien, merci. Et toi?”, just explain that their mum hasn’t gone crazy and is just speaking to Hans or Marie. After all, who says that only kids can have imaginary friends?

Speaking to yourself will also help you get used to the sound of your own voice in this language and make you used to speaking it, so that you could actually open your mouth and speak this language in a real situation and not just smile, nod and say “Ja” and “Nein” (or “Qui” and “Non”), freaking out when you hear yourself, too.

As you progress to intermediate level, you will be able to have free flow spontaneous conversations more easily, so you could try real communication, for example, with a language partner online. Yep, time to make it real!

With speaking exercises, especially if you prepare for them rather than speak spontaneously, you think more about your vocabulary and grammar and keep a closer eye on using them correctly. With real communication, unlike with speaking tasks, you need to focus on both what you say and how you say it, and, consequently, you are prone to making more vocabulary and grammar mistakes and noticing them less.

Similarly, when speaking with yourself or your imaginary friends, you are more relaxed as obviously there is no one else who listens and can reply. Well, at least, if you don’t believe that Hans and Marie are real and you don’t actually hear them talking to you (time for a doctor appointment if this is the case lol). In contrast to it, when you speak to a real person you don’t know if they are going to understand what you are saying, if they are going to understand it the way you intended, what they are going to say in reply, etc.

So, with real communication, for example, with a language partner, you have less relaxed settings with more uncertainty and a higher probability that you will be making language mistakes. No wonder that learners, especially at the start when they are still new to communication in their target language, are not comfortable with speaking and sometimes are simply afraid to open their mouth.

There are a couple of things though, that could help you overcome this psychological barrier. First is dropping your ego and accepting that you will be making mistakes and your language partner might think you are less intelligent than you actually are because of how you speak in their native language. And this is ok, as mistakes are an inevitable part of learning and your language partner is not an examiner or a job interviewer whom you need to convince that you are smart.

For example, even if you are a CEO of a big successful company, you need to accept that you are just a foreigner when it comes to your target language, a foreigner who is bound to make silly toddler level mistakes. Just relax, breathe and keep speaking. If you are determined to improve your speaking, you won’t be this clumsy toddler forever, you will learn.

So, embracing your clumsiness and silliness when it comes to speaking this language, curbing your perfectionism and giving yourself permission to make mistakes so that you could learn from them, is one of the ways to deal with the psychological barrier when speaking.

Second thing you can do to reduce this psychological barrier is not comparing yourself to other learners or native speakers and focusing on carving your own way of developing your speaking. It doesn’t mean that you need to completely ignore what others are doing and dismiss their experience altogether. It means that you need to accept that different people have different circumstances and preferences which impacts the end result.

For example, if you are an introvert and speaking is not something you prefer doing when learning your target language, your speaking might be not as developed as that of someone who keeps chatting away in their target language with their three hundred and thirty-three friends slash language partners on Skype.

So, turning down the competitive jealous notes, so that they don’t blare out loud and drown you in negative emotions, you need to turn up the inquisitive notes that make you notice what others do, adapt some of it for your own study and learn by the mistakes they make.

Once you have made it to advanced level, it is important not to stop improving your speaking. Some of the challenges you could set for yourself are, for example, audio only and group conversations.

Audio only conversations could be either phone conversations or Skype ones without video. Such conversations can be quite challenging as you don’t see the person you are talking to, the movement of their lips, their gestures, facial expression, etc., so it’s more difficult for you to understand what they are saying.

For example, you could have audio only conversations with your language partners via Skype. Just explain to them that the purpose of this inconvenience is practising your target language in a variety of settings. After you have practised in this way, you will be able to have more successful interactions over the phone, should you need to make a phone call in this language.

Another challenge you could set for yourself to improve your speaking is group conversations. Having a group talk is very different from having a dialogue. With a group conversation, you have to deal with individual accents, manners of speech, vocabulary preferences of more than one person. On top of it, if you are discussing something, you have to deal with multiple ideas, opinions and perspectives, and of course, express your own, too.

Group conversations can be either online or face to face. It’s easy to have an online group conversation: you can initiate a group call with some of your language partners, provided that you have more than one of those. Alternatively, you can post in your language learning community asking if anyone wants to have a group call with you.

If you struggle to engage your conversation partners at the start of such a call, you could draw and send out some sort of agenda or plan for this meeting to avoid awkward silence at the beginning or stalled conversation throughout. It is also helpful in the case when your partners have different language abilities so that those who need it could get prepared for the call beforehand.

Face to face group conversations are more difficult to organise but there is nothing like meeting up in person with people you share your language learning passion with. Also, if you don’t have too much time for your language practice, you could both work on your language skills and have a night out. Just find people in your area who speak the language you are learning and meet up with them for a beer and a chat. There is actually an app that can help you with your quest Meetup

Face to face interaction with a group of people is really beneficial for developing your speaking. It can be quite challenging not only because you are talking to more than one person. In addition to it, when you meet somewhere, there is a lot going on around: music playing, other people chatting, a waiter interrupting, people turn and move about while talking and not just sit facing you all the time as on Skype.

Even when you are speaking your target language in less challenging settings, for example, with your usual language partners on Skype, you can sometimes find yourself not really fluent even with your advanced level. And that’s absolutely normal. Sometimes the gods of smooth effortless conversation are not on your side and you feel you cannot find the right words, are screwing your grammar and on the whole feel like you are far from being advanced at the language you are learning. Just remember that this can happen even when you speak your native language, so relax and keep talking.

Growing your Vocabulary with Speaking

When it comes to growing your vocabulary, speaking and writing are two activities that help you make the vocabulary, that you have picked up while reading and listening, your own. It means once you have used a new word or phrase while speaking or writing, it becomes personally meaningful to you and you are more likely to remember it and use it again and again.

Very often, however, language learners struggle to recall words that they need while speaking. Unlike with writing, you cannot just look it up, you cannot put a conversation on hold and start looking for this word. It is especially frustrating when you cannot recall a word or phrase you have literally just come across the other day while reading or listening. You feel this word would be just right for what you are trying to say, would be a perfect match for the situation, would just nail your idea. But no, it’s gone and you have missed a chance to add it to your vocabulary.

Of course, if you cannot recall a word or phrase, there is a workaround and you can often paraphrase (i.e. use other words) to keep the conversation going. Very often though, a substitute phrase or a lengthy description instead of one word that you cannot recall or vigorous gesticulating and saying “Well, you know that thingie”, leaves you deeply unsatisfied and wondering if you do all this reading and listening for nothing.

There will be fewer instances like this and your chances of solidifying your new vocabulary with speaking will increase if you do not just read and listen but actually learn the new words and phrases you come across. When you use My vocBlocks and practise with Memoriser’s spaced repetition schedule, you learn new words more effectively, spend less time on it and, consequently, have more time for speaking and other creative language activities that give you a chance to use your new vocabulary and make these words your own.

If a word “repetition” makes you yawn, I get it. Some people might think that repetition equals rote learning. With vocBlocks it is not the case. You do different exercises to practise your new vocabulary, you play the sound and you can liven up your new words with your own images. Isn’t it cool to have a picture of your husband next to the new Spanish word “gruñón” you are learning?

In addition to your own pictures, in My vocBlocks you can record the context in which you have come across this word as a reminder. And when you use vocBlocks LookUp for reading online, the context is recorded automatically for the words you have looked up. With the familiar context to refer to, you are not learning “cold” words: you recall the text this word came from together with emotions and thoughts you had when you were reading it.

Working on your new words and phrases with vocBlocks helps you plant them in your brain so firmly and deeply, that they just roll off your tongue when you speak. All you need to do is spend about five minutes per day doing exercises with Memoriser when you get notifications in your inbox.

The result: you will be using these new words when you speak, will be using more and more of your new words when you speak, will be growing your vocabulary with speaking.

Happy speaking!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

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