Start Speaking Immediately!
I maintain very strongly that if you want to learn a new language the right way – quickly, effectively with all the grammar bells and slang whistles you need to start speaking and listening as early as possible! It’s a common misconception that you should for some reason wait until you’ve attained a basic proficiency. Don’t wait. I don’t know about you but when I go to learn a new language I do it so that I can talk to people. That’s what language is for right? So why wouldn’t you?
Alright, so I’m being a little harsh. It’s never as easy as all that is it? Talking to new people in your native language is hard enough sometimes, speaking to someone in one in a tongue you haven’t mastered, or perhaps are only beginning to speak is exponentially more nerve wracking. When learning a new language there is no hurdle more difficult for most people to overcome than getting out there and speaking. Hopefully this helps to assuage some of your fears about talking to natives or other learners.
1) Building motivation to continue learning. The idea that some real flesh and blood person is going to be listening to the words you speak can be intimidating. However it can also be extremely exhilarating and puts pressure on you to succeed. Of course we all want to sound good. We want to make no mistakes and impress people. This pressure can be quite positive. Once you’ve had a little taste of speaking your language successfully with a native speaker, and you are both understood by one another, your self confidence swells like nothing else. It can often be the push you needed to continue actively working on your language project, or to seek out more real-life interaction in the future.
2) People tend to be nicer than you expect. The most common fear that most people exhibit when faced with the notion of speaking their new language is that they will be judged or ridiculed. We live in fear of the japes and comments of others regardless of language and it doesn’t really matter where you come from, high school and the internet are ample proof that speaking -anything- incorrectly is a one way ticket to laughter and mockery.
It’s important to remember that while assholes still exist, this isn’t high school. People are far more inclined to be understanding, especially when they see you attempting to speak to them in their own language. People really do appreciate this, even if it’s loaded with mistakes. Sometimes you may manage to make them smile with a silly mistake, but in my experience the vast majority of people will happily correct you in a polite way or attempt to laugh it off with you.
And even if, on some rare occasion, someone is less than understanding with your lack of experience with a language, why should their opinion matter? They have it easy – speaking to you from a high point within the comfort of their own language. Their intolerance should be of no consequence to you. You can’t let what they say hold you back from opening your mouth again.
3) You never know what sorts of opportunities might arise or people you might connect with if you don’t start speaking! Perhaps the person you just ran into is looking to learn your language. Language exchanges are one of the most effective and enjoyable ways to learn a language. Maybe your new connection leads to a new job or even to romance. We have no way of knowing what possibilities might lie in wait for us outside our doors unless we go out and find them. A new language allows you to go places you never could otherwise – not physically so much as socially. The people you meet, befriend, or work with could change your life in ways you never thought imaginable. If you never go out into the world and USE your new language, how do you ever expect to find them?
4) People are more afraid of you than you are of them. I’m not trying to compare people to raccoons, but if you’re about to start a language exchange with someone who wants to learn your language, chances are they’re just as nervous as you are. They may speak less of your language than you do of theirs. The mutual level of expertise (or lack thereof) is a great thing to bond over and often means that frequent mistakes and embarrassment will go both ways. If you approach mistakes made by one another as positive learning experiments you quickly get over the tension of uncertainty and you’re both able to learn from one another rather rapidly. If you’re exchanging language with someone the likelihood is very high that they will be understanding and sympathetic to your mistakes. Remember that they’re feeling the same way that you are, if not worse, and that you also have a responsibility to make their learning experience as positive as you would want your own. Cliche or not – don’t forget the golden rule. It’s especially important here.
5) You’re never really going to learn a language if you don’t. You can read about it, play around with Rosetta Stone’s German until your brain leaks out your ears, finish all 238 levels of Pimsleur’s French, or mess around with Memrise courses for years, all from the comfort of your own home, but you’re really never going to be able to converse in the language properly if you don’t get in some applied experience. Speaking and listening skills are only going to develop from use. It’s the fastest and most accurate way to learn a language and if you can find the opportunity to speak it frequently enough, its the only thing you really need. This is why total immersion in a foreign country is without a doubt the most effective way to learn, but despite this often doesn’t work. People tend to hole up inside their own little bubble and don’t bother to learn the language of the country they’re living in – sometimes for years.
If you’re getting all of your new language from a textbook you’re going to sound like a robot when you use your language. Textbooks can be extremely useful, but they’re designed to teach a very structured, formal version of the language you’re learning. That can be a great place to start but you aren’t going to learn how to swear (or how to swear without sounding like an idiot) from a textbook. It’s hard to make friends, hang out in a social context or really have much of a life if you’re always sounding like you’re about to give a business conference speech.You need real people to teach you the slang, when to use casual conversation or more importantly – when not to.
Bonus Info: Some people advocate using alcohol to facilitate more comfortable speech in a social setting. LATG does not recommend this as a serious strategy for getting out there and communicating, but to each their own. Putting yourself into comfortable social settings can only help, but be careful about how much you drink! Health risks aside, if you drink too much you may find that you’re not actually learning from the conversations you’re having. Even if you are understanding/speaking comfortably in the moment, you may have a harder time remembering your conversations later. All things in moderation.
So what are you waiting for now? Some people think there’s a certain skill level that should be mastered before ever attempting to use a new language. Some people would be horribly, horrendously mistaken. It doesn’t matter if you know 500 words or 5 words – use the words you have, the sooner the better.
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