Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

“Just keep on talking” has to be one of the most worn-out phrases in the world of language learning.

Can’t learn a language? Talk.

Not making enough progress? You’re not talking enough. After all, a road to the mount fluency is paved with endless hours of conversation.

“But my progress has really stalled and … .”  MOOOOOOOOOOOOORE, you moron!

Sounds familiar? I bet it does.

If you are one of those people who at some point got stuck at the “intermediate plateau” this article is for you.

Although speaking is without any doubt very effective language learning tool, it’s not the optimal solution for every language learner.

What’s more, this advice can be actually detrimental to your learning

Let’s deconstruct this piece of advice so you understand where the rub lies!

As always, let’s start with basics.

Number of words and levels of understanding

 

Here is the general overview of the number of words and the level of understanding they warrant (for more information read how many words you should know for every language level)

1000 words (A2)1000 words allow you to understand about 80% of the language which surrounds you, as long as they are not fancy.

 

 

 3000 words (B1/B2)3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996).

 

 

 

5000 words (B2)5000 words allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)). Such a vocabulary size warrants also accurate contextual guessing (Coady et al., 1993; Hirsh & Nation, 1992; Laufer, 1997).

 

 

10000 words (C1 / C2)10000 words allow you to understand about 99% of most texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).

 

 

 

 

 

Depending on a choice of words, you can deduct or add 20% of a given number.

Keep those numbers in mind. We will come back to them soon.
But for now, since nobody like party-poopers. let’s concentrate on positive aspects of speaking.

When is it a good idea to speak?

 

When Speaking is a good Language Learning Strategy

 

Speaking is certainly a GREAT idea, if not the best one, if you start learning a language.

Before I get to “why”, let’s look at other options.

Reading? Useless. Let’s be honest – what can you read at this point that has any deeper meaning or sense and resonates with you? “Judy likes potatoes. She eats potatoes. Potatoes are sweet and tasty”.

Ugh, shoot me in the face already.

Listening? Mostly useless. You don’t know enough words anyway to make head nor tail out of the constant stream of speech. “Dfsdfsdfs “I” ……..(wall of noise) …” says” ………. “hide the body”.

Speaking? Yes, please! In every possible amount.
Not reading, not listening – speaking is one of the best things you can do at the beginning of your learning.

Why?

  • Speaking is the ” Ultimate Integrator”

It’s breath-taking how complicated it is to utter even one correctish sentence. There are so many things to remember! The best thing about speaking is that it helps you integrate ALL of them.

1. It activates vocabulary.

2. It starts building your muscle memory.

3. It helps you understand the relationship between grammar and words.

4. It activates grammar and automates its use.

And so on.

 

  • Speaking is relatively easy.

It can be as simple as uttering short sentences over and over again. You don’t need to talk with anyone really. You can just talk to yourself.

What’s more. Your sentences don’t have to be correct every time. It’s enough that your language partner understands what you mean.

 

  • Speaking = active learning

Last but not least, the main rule which contributes to the rapid learning is using your knowledge actively.
So it happens that speaking is the pinnacle of active language use.

Of course, you can choose to ignore active learning but I can tell you right now what will happen:

a) you will succeed after a long time

b) your progress will be so slow that you will start backhanding old ladies at bus stops. Finally, you will give up and move on to another language. Inevitably, after some time you will arrive at the same crossroads with your new language.

So do yourself a favor and start talking as quickly as you can. Remember. You don’t have to talk to others. You can just start with uttering short sentences under your breath.

Other perks of self-talk include

  • a) not being judged by others
  • b) you can behave like a Tourette’s-ridden geezer. Bash people in your head all you want!

When it’s a bad idea to “just speak”

 

Just speaking is a bad idea

 

Nothing good lasts forever. Speaking has also its expiration date efficiency-wise.

So when does the fun-ride end? Around a B2 mark (i.e. 4000 / 5000 words.).

Why?

There are two very important reasons for that.

1) You are already (quite) fluent grammar-wise

By this level, you should have your basic grammar fluency. You have produced enough sentences to automate dozens of different grammar patterns and constructions. Uttering more sentences won’t bring you much closer to your goal of being fully fluent.

At this point, you need to expand your vocabulary more in order to achieve your goal.

2) You keep on repeating the same things over and over

Remember previously mentioned numbers? They will come handy now.

We established that knowing about 5 k words grants us the understanding of about 98% of all the things we hear on a daily basis.

What this number is trying to tell us is this:

If you just talk and don’t challenge yourself, you repeat things you already know  95-98% of the time.

Let me rephrase it – out of every 100 words you use only about 2-5  of them can be considered learning.

Even better! Think about like this.

Out of every hour, you only practise for 36 seconds to 3 minutes.
Let’s go crazy and say that it is 5 minutes.

How would you react if your buddy told you about a friend of his who is a little bit “special”. Jeff works as a car dealer and every day he calls the same 95 people, who already bought a car, to sell them the very same car.

I guess you would imagine that he is the kind of guy who gets his pay in sugar cubes and wears a bib instead of a tie. That’s how special he is.

Don’t be like Jeff.

Of course, if your goal is to learn just one language or have a lot of time, keep at it.
However, for any other goal, I would suggest you start fixing your learning schedule.

How do I know it applies to me?

There is a simple rule for that.

If you can already spend an hour or two talking without finding blood stains under your armpits and seeing black blobs in the corner of your eyes it means you’re not learning anymore.

You’re just repeating the same ol’ things over and over again and most of your time and effort is wasted.

I am willing to bet that you already know it deep inside. Try to tune your ears to conversations you typically have in your target language. Aren’t you using the same phrases all the time?

If yes, you need to step it up and stop wasting time on lessons that don’t contribute much to your language development.

The higher your level, the bigger the problem

It’s worth noting that the more advanced you get, the bigger the said problem becomes.

At a C1 level, you know about 99 % of all the words that can be encountered in everyday conversations. Speaking more is clearly not an effective solution here.

Solution – fixing your learning schedule

Why Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

 

Before I move on, keep in mind that all the advice in this article aims at improving your learning effectiveness regardless of whether you are learning on your own or by having privates lessons or language exchanges.

By no means am I suggesting that you should cut off your friends and leave them high and dry just because this kind of talking is not the most effective learning option out there.

“Sorry Suzie, this random dude on the internet helped me realize that you’re wasting my time. Good riddance and farewell!”.

If you are talking to your friends on a daily basis, there is no reason to give it up. You will learn something every day anyway.

Now that we’ve gotten this hurdle out of the way, let me repeat again – If you want to get out of this gruesome rut and fix your language learning schedule, you need to concentrate on words/phrases you don’t know well.

There are a couple of ways to do it but they all share one feature.

Preparation

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

Making the best use out of your lesson is all about the proper preparation.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend most people at a B2 level or higher to put in 4-5 hours of preparation before each lesson.

Of course, if you learn on your own, feel free to use those techniques whenever your heart desires.

 

  • Discuss a topic beforehand 

If you use structured lessons, usually there is some subject or article that will be discussed. In that case, always make sure that you discuss it with yourself or your friends in advance.

Here is a great website with over 100 topics and thousands of questions which you might use to test yourself.

http://iteslj.org/questions/

Remember – if you catch yourself not knowing some word, always write it down and learn it.

Think about words like “bodkin”, “grovel” or “coppice”. Most people don’t use them that often in their native tongues, let alone in their target language.

That’s why you always should have a system in place to master such words. Otherwise, they quickly fall into oblivion.

As always I recommend ANKI as your go-to program for learning new vocab.

 

  • Look up new phrases/words

Speaking Can Be A Bad Language Learning Strategy

 

While discussing a given subject beforehand is a foolproof method to quickly discover gaps in your knowledge, there is a method that’s much quicker – open a dictionary.

After all, there are potentially thousands of words there which you don’t know and use. Pick the ones you find useful, learn them and start using them during your next language learning session.

And don’t worry too much about using them incorrectly. If it happens, your teacher/language partner will quickly correct your mistake. Not a big deal, right?

 

  • Read a lot about a given subject

Another good idea, although much more time-consuming compared to the previous ones is to simply read a lot about a subject you’re going to discuss during your next lesson.

Find 5-10 articles and start slogging through them!

 

  • Make a conscious effort to use new words/phrases

Your brain is wired to use the most efficient neural pathways i.e. the words you already know very well. That’s why you need to put conscious effort into avoiding them.

It can be as simple as writing down a couple of new phrases on a piece of paper as a reminder of what you can say instead. That’s why Thesaurus is going to be your new best friend.

For example

“I think” = “I believe”

“She cried” = “She was crying her eyes out”

Read more about the word substitution technique – how to increase your vocabulary size considerably.

 

  • Speak about the same topic for a number of days

Why change a subject every 2-3 days? By discussing the same subject for a longer period of time, you will be able to activate your topical vocabulary much better and understand it much deeper.

Final words

Speaking is not the ultimate remedy for all your language problems. While it’s a great strategy at the beginning of your language journey, it gets progressively less effective the more advanced you become.

If you hope to keep on progressing fast, you need to start using some strategies for activating less frequent vocabulary. Once you incorporate them into your language learning schedule, you should see a huge difference.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

Not everyone is equal in the kingdom of languages.
There is one group which is mercilessly oppressed.

One group which suffers from a crippling disease called…

SOCIAL ANXIETY.

It’s a terrible, terrible malady.
It doesn’t matter how hard you try to keep your fears and anxiety in a padded cell of your brain.

They always scrape their way out just to feed your soul with poison.
Even if only through the cracks.

But does it mean that you can’t learn a language because of it?
Hell no!

I used to suffer from anxiety-induced panic attacks in the past.
I sat in my room for days with curtains closed until I ran out of food.

Those days are, luckily, long gone. Although anxiety still looms the dark corners of my mind.

So if you are also a victim of this condition – don’t worry.

Here is the list of six ideas which you can use to overcome your anxiety and learn how to speak your target language.

1) Don’t find a teacher, find a friend

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

There is a good chance that you don’t want to talk with others because you don’t know them.
You don’t feel comfortable baring your soul in front of them.

Every cell in your brain send you warning signals – watch out, they are out to get you.

But you don’t feel this way around friends or people you trust, do you?

That’s why this is probably the best way to approach language learning for those anxiety stricken.

You won’t be able to get any panic attacks or feel anxious with a friend by your side.

Discussing anything becomes much easier when you grow attached to another person.
You don’t even have to suffer from anxiety to be able to benefit from such a relationship.

Having such a contact with another person drastically changes the way you experience lessons.
You don’t sit in front of a stranger who doesn’t give a shit about your day or well-being.

You sit in front of someone who cares.
Such a bond makes all the conversations much more meaningful and memorable as well.

That’s why you should pay close attention to a person who will become your language partner or your teacher.

Look for similarities. Try a lesson to make sure that this person is trustworthy.

And, what’s most important, don’t be a weirdo. “Hi, my name is Bartosz. Do you wanna be my friend?”.

Ugh.

2) Talk To Yourself

 

Talk to yourself in a foreign language

 

What 99% of people seem to miss is that you don’t necessarily need countless hours of talking with others to be able to communicate freely in your target language.

Why?

Because almost all hard work is done in solitude.
Learning vocabulary, grammar, listening. All that you can do on your own.

Of course, it’s great to have some private lessons from time to time to make sure that you are on the right track. But other than that – you will be fine on your own.

Actually, you can create your own feedback loops to make sure that you are speaking correctly.

But how can you practise speaking on your own

The basic technique goes like this

  1. visit iteslj.org/questions
  2. choose a subject you want to discuss
  3. start answering and do it out loud

Don’t know a word? Write it down.

You know a word? Try to find a synonym!
Depending on your preferences you might look it up immediately or save it for later.

You can even scribble these questions on a piece of paper and write down needed vocabulary on the flip side. It will allow you to answer the same question again in the following days.

EXAMPLE:
Q: Why do you hate Kate? (translated into your target language)
A: (needed vocabulary) brainless chatterbox, pretentious

As you can see, you don’t need to be serious when you answer these questions.
Heck, the questions themselves don’t need to be serious!

Have fun!

Q: Have you ever tried eating with your feet?

Q: If you were a hot dog, what kind of hot dog would you be?

The greatest thing of all about learning to talk like this is that nobody judges you. You might mispronounce words in your first try. You might forget them.

And guess what?
Nothing. Nothing will happen.

And once you get good and confident enough, you can go and start talking with others.

I find it quite often to be more effective than the real conversations.

I know, I know.

On the surface, it might seem absurd.
There is no interaction after all.

However, if you look beyond the superficial, you will be able to see that self-talk offers you a lot of opportunities which real-life conversations can’t.

For example, self-talk gives you a chance to activate less frequent words.

I can talk for 20 minutes with myself about cervical cancer. Could I do it with someone else? 

I guess so. Let’s try to imagine such a conversation.

– “Hi Tom! Wanna talk about cervical cancer? Will be fun! I promise!”

– “Stay away, you weirdo!’

– “Cool! Some other time then”

3) Write instead of talking

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

Talking doesn’t necessarily mean discussing philosophical treatises face-to-face.
It’s perfectly fine to stick to written communication.

In the era of the internet, you are just a few clicks aways from millions of potential language partners.

Here is the list of websites where you can find some language exchange partners:

Don’t want to talk with others?

Don’t worry. You still might activate your vocabulary. Simply start writing on a daily basis. Anything really will do. It can be a diary, a blog, some observations.

Make it difficult for yourself and choose some difficult subject to jog your mind.

it can even be some erotic novel! “The secret erotic life of ferns”, for example.

Yep. I definitely like this one.

4) Condition yourself

 

We might be the pinnacle of evolution but in some regards, we are no different from your average gopher or a sloth.
You can easily get conditioned to react to certain circumstances in a given way.

Why?
Habituation. That’s why.

Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequences.

Habituation usually refers to a reduction in innate behaviours, rather than behaviours developed during conditioning in which the process is termed “extinction”. A progressive decline of a behavior in a habituation procedure may also reflect nonspecific effects such as fatigue, which must be ruled out when the interest is in habituation as a learning process. – Wikipedia

Once you learn that all that gloom and doom is only in your head, you can start modifying your behavior (you can read more about it in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Highly recommended!)

You can leverage this rule and condition yourself to become a braver version of yourself.
Maybe you won’t get I-will-slay-you-and-take-your-women brave in two weeks but it will get you started.

Your action plan is simple but not easy.

Find situations where you can expose yourself to stressors

As Oscar Wilde used to say, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

And only you know how deep you are stuck in this anxiety gutter.

Choose your first task accordingly and move your way up from there. Don’t make it too easy or too hard on yourself.

Some of the things you might do are:

HIGH ANXIETY LEVELS (dropping comments)

  • comment some post in one of FB language groups
  • comment a YT video
  • comment some tweet
  • comment an article on Reddit or some other website

In other words, just leave a comment somewhere.
You don’t even have to go back to check responses!

MEDIUM ANXIETY LEVELS (exchanging messages)

  • register at Italki.com and write to just one language exchange partner
  • download HelloTalk and write to someone

LOW ANXIETY LEVELS (face-to-face conversations)

  • go to a nearby language café and talk with others
  • find the nearest language meeting on MeetUp.com and go there

Any start is a good start as long as you start.

5) Reframe your thoughts

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

There is a good chance that you have heard about reframing your thoughts.

The basic premise is very simple.

Every time you catch yourself being anxious about some situation, you should look at it from a different perspective.

Instead of saying, “Gosh, she sure wouldn’t like to talk with me”, you can change it to, “I bet she is bored right now and would love to have a nice chat with me”.

I know. It sounds corny.

The first time I heard this piece of advice, I felt as if a ragged hobo tried to jam a lump of guano in my hand saying, “Just pat it into your face and you will gain superpowers”.

Little did I know that this advice is as brilliant as it is simple.
Much water passed under the bridge before I finally started applying it.

But why does it work?
Because such is the nature of memories.

They are not set in stone and perennial.

Research conducted by Daniela Schiller, of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and her former colleagues from New York University shows us something truly amazing.

Schiller says that “memories are malleable constructs that are reconstructed with each recall. We all recognize that our memories are like Swiss cheese; what we now know is that they are more like processed cheese.

What we remember changes each time we recall the event. The slightly changed memory is now embedded as “real,” only to be reconstructed with the next recall. – Source 

So what does it all mean?

It simply means that adding new information to your memories or recalling them in a slightly different context might alter them.

How much?
Enough for you to recalibrate how you perceive the world around you!

It’s up to you how much you want to reshape your perception of the reality.

6) Decide whether you really need to speak a language

 

How To Learn To Speak a Foreign Language With Social Anxiety

 

It seems like a strange statement, doesn’t it?
But the truth is that not everyone needs to learn how to speak some language.

Before you dive into the language learning process, be sure that it’s something you really want. You shouldn’t feel pressured into doing so just because others do.

You don’t want to spend hundreds of extra hours on something you are not going to use.

Remember that every language, even the tiniest of them all, is a skeleton key to the vastness of materials – books, movies, anecdotes, etc.

It’s fine to learn a language just to be able to access them all.

Conclusion

Overcoming your language learning anxiety can be hard but it is certainly doable.
When in doubt, always keep in mind that our reality is negotiable to a large degree – if you believe you can change, it is definitely possible.

What’s more, you shouldn’t forget that the real work is always done in solitude.
Teachers or language partners might show you what to concentrate on but it’s up to you to put this knowledge into practice.

Lastly, you don’t have to limit yourself to activating your vocabulary only through speaking. Writing is also a very desirable option.

Back to you.

Can you share any tricks/methods which helped you overcome your language learning anxiety?

No advice is too small or trivial.

As always, feel free to comment or drop me a message.