Years ago, after I had finished my first round of Arabic studies, I had to take proficiency tests. My highest scores were 3 reading/3 listening/2 speaking on the IIR scale, which correlates to something like a C1/C1/B1 on the European scale.
The lower speaking score might be a little bit of a surprise to some people. But speaking is a much harder skill to develop than reading or listening, for reasons I’ve covered in depth before.
Out of the thousands of talented native English students I’ve met who have gone through the same Arabic language course I did, dozens of them have scored a 3/3 in reading in listening. However, I have personally met only two people who have scored a 3 in speaking.The bottom line is that it’s perfectly natural for speaking skills to lag behind reading and listening skills. There’s nothing to feel bad about if you can understand a movie completely but can’t speak like the actors on screen, or if you can read a newspaper but can’t speak like a journalist.
In fact, since it’s so common, I’m pretty sure that it’s a natural part of language development. I’m reasonably certain that you develop the ability to recognize language before you develop the ability to produce it.
So what do you do when your speaking skills lag behind and you want to bring them up? Well here are five things you can try.
1. Speak more.
This is a no-brainer. But you’d be surprised at how many people try to avoid talking. Ironically, foreign language study is supposed to be about communication and social interaction, yet it often attracts introverts or shy people. I have shy tendencies myself, so I totally understand. I also know, though, that having my nose in a book won’t make me a great conversationalist, so I force myself to get out there and chat.
Additionally, some people read theories in linguistics textbooks and then come to the conclusion that if they consume enough of a language, they’ll eventually be able to start speaking it, almost as if by magic. That’s probably true–to a degree. But consuming a language isn’t enough to get you where you want to be.
If you want to ride a bike, you can’t just pedal your legs in the air and do balance drills and visualize steering. At some point, you actually have to put all the different parts together and just ride. Similarly, if you want to speak a language, you actually have to speak it. You have to figure out what message you want to send, what words to use, how to arrange those words, and how to form the muscles of your mouth and diaphragm around foreign sounds–all while somebody is looking right at you. It’s practically performance art.
At some point, you have to take the training wheels off and get out there and start speaking–with a teacher, a tutor, native speakers, or whomever you can find.
2. Read Aloud.
Read text in your target language out loud. Start out by reading a news article, and then add more articles until you’re reading for about fifteen minutes a day.
Reading aloud is something that’s surprisingly controversial in language learning circles, but I think it has its place in training the muscles of your mouth and diaphragm to produce unfamiliar words and sounds. And I don’t have proof of this, but I feel like it gives you a better subconscious sense of the way those words and sounds run together, which helps you identify patterns better, which helps you acquire the language better.
Try your best to pronounce the words correctly, but don’t obsess about it. Read swiftly, emote, and put some inflection on the sentences.
When I started doing this with Spanish, I saw an immediate improvement in my speaking comfort. I didn’t become nearly so tongue tied.
3. Write More.
Reading and listening are activities in which you consume language. Speaking and writing are activities in which you produce language. So when it comes to language skills, speaking and writing are like close cousins.
As with speaking, writing requires you to come up with something to communicate and to use vocabulary and grammar correctly. But unlike with speaking, there’s no time limit and no one is looking over your shoulder (hopefully).
You can check your work, get help from reference books or Google Translate, and revise as much as you want. You’ll be able to produce sentences more or less correctly, and in turn will see some of that carry over to your speaking.
Something that bridges the gap between writing and speaking? Online chatting/instant messaging. These are more real time, but you can still slow down and get a little help from the dictionary when you get stuck. Skype chatting in Spanish was really helpful for improving my speaking abilities.
This is a tried and tested exercise that’s common in language classrooms. Think of a topic. Then talk about it.
Sample topics you might talk about include:
- Your personal history
- Your family
- What you did over the weekend
- A sport you like to watch
- Your favorite animal
This is a good thing to do when you’re talking to yourself. With this drill, you can quickly and identify what you’re having trouble saying, and then learn the vocab or sentence structures.
Examples of people doing this are in the videos at the University of Texas’ Spanish Proficiency Exercises collection.
5. Drill short phrases.
When it comes to global language learning, I don’t really have a problem with learning vocabulary words by themselves. But if you’re trying to improve your speaking, I think it’s better to learn short phrases or chunks of words, and then drill them using flashcards. (My favorite flashcard drill is described in a note on my Facebook page.)
So let’s say I’m learning how to talk about myself. Instead of learning the individual words name, man, writer, languages, learning, married, and son, I’d learn the following phrases and chunks:
- “My name is Ron.”
- “I’m a writer by profession.”
- “learning languages”
- “I’m married.”
- “My son is six years old.”
With this, not only do I learn how to say the words, but I learn how to say the words in context. And the flashcard drilling helps me recall the usage automatically, so I’ll be able to spit these phrases out quickly in conversation.
6. Do grammar drills.
I know, I know. Everyone hates grammar. But I’ve found that not having a basic understanding of grammar is what prevents many people from being able to improve their speaking. They might know the words, but get tied up trying to put those words together.
I recommend two approaches to this:
- Learn grammar from a book or course and then drill the usage with sample phrases and sentences.
- Identify patterns on your own and then drill the usage with sample phrases and sentences.
Cracking open a grammar book, learning a concept, and then internalizing that concept with drills is a great shortcut to language acquisition. The key is the drills, though. You can’t just learn something and forget it. Learn it, then practice it, then practice it some more until the rule is ingrained in you like the numbers on a multiplication table.
If you hate learning grammatical rules, then become your own grammar teacher. Identify patterns and common sentence constructions yourself and then practice producing your own sentences using those same patterns.
Remember, you don’t have to be perfect at speaking to enjoy a language. But it is fun feeling your speaking come up to speed, and following the tips above should help you get there.