For many language learners, myself included, speaking can sometimes feel like a high-stakes, anxiety-inducing disaster. Your mouth may move faster than your brain can process and you end up tripping over your words. Or, your body might freeze up altogether which can lead to the oh-so-dreadful Awkward Silence. However it goes down for you, I'm sure we can all agree that speaking can be a nightmare.
These difficulties make sense if you take our learning environments into consideration. Language students often find speaking to be the most challenging skill to master given that school, where most people are first introduced to language learning, tends to privilege reading and writing skills, given its academic context. Even if you are lucky enough to find a speaking partner in a more informal language learning setting, you still might be too shy to engage. As a result, it's very common for language learners’ speaking skills to be the most neglected out of the 4 main skills.
As a student and teacher, I’ve been through my fair share of awkward speaking encounters— enough that I’ve been able to identify some common pitfalls. So, in order to serve myself and my students better I’ve worked out some mitigation tactics to help improve one’s speaking skills:
One of the biggest pitfalls of speaking in a target language is not completing your sentences. This can happen when learners lose confidence in their speech. Instead of finishing their thought they may just simply trail off, leaving their conversation partner to fill in the gaps, or hoping that the conversation will die altogether.
Example: I wanted some food, so I went to the place and….yeah.
Sure, whoever you’re talking to may be able to infer what you mean (i.e. you wanted some food so you bought some) and they might be able keep the communication going. However, if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know you well or who doesn’t understand the scenario you’re explaining you might run into problems. Leaving your sentence endings to the wind becomes especially problematic when you are trying to convey complex ideas which need more context and elaboration to be conveyed properly.
Another reason for incomplete expression is frustration. You might find yourself stuck at a mental block and your mouth won’t move the way you want it to. You’ve stuttered twice already, you still can’t think of the word and oh god they’re still waiting for you to finish your point and— ugh! Then you give up on speaking altogether.
Everyone has those moments and muscling through them is NOT easy but it’s important to build up your tolerance for challenge. Even if it hurts, take a breath and start over more slowly and calmly, at which point you can maybe rephrase and find an easier sentence structure. And if it’s a situation where you’re definitely being rushed (like if you’re in line at the grocery store or trying to set an appointment) do your best in the moment and later, when you have more time and space to breathe, re-create the scenario and construct how you could have completed your thought less stressfully. Once you get into the habit of finishing your sentences, your coherence will improve because you will no longer talk aimlessly but with an end in mind.
Even fluent and native speakers sometimes have a problem with talking in circles. This is the kind of habit where you say what you want to say in about 500 more words that you need. It tends to happen when you’re explaining a point or trying to say too much in one sentence. Example: ...and because she wanted food, she went to the store but the store was closed so that’s why she didn’t have any dinner and what a shame, she was really hungry, that’s why she went for the food…
To correct this, it might help to speak in shorter, clearer sentences, choosing efficiency over verbosity. Everyone wants to be eloquent and witty, everyone wants to show their personality, and your capacity to do all of that will improve. But if you’re still in the early stages of training your speaking skill, try to express one idea at a time, don’t get caught up in endless conjunctions and get to the point. Story-telling flare will come with time.
In short: your mouth is going faster than your mind can keep up. That’s fine; you are a learner after all and knowing something doesn’t mean you can reproduce it perfectly yet. So, you need to give yourself some grace and slow down, allowing yourself to become more familiar with the motions of speaking. While our native tongues might seem natural to us now, it took us time as children to train the muscles in our face, throat, neck, etc to make the sounds we want. It took us even longer to string the correct words together to form grammatically correct sentences. Give yourself space to think instead of talking a mile a minute!
We’re all working with limited vocabulary to an extent— even native speakers! Everyone’s had a moment or two when they’ve had to go ‘What do they call this, again? You know, the thing that does the thing?’ In those moments, you attempt to talk around the forgotten word or phrase, describing its attributes and explaining what kind of association it is supposed to trigger in your conversation partner’s mind. Sometimes they're even able to supply the word!
A: I ate a...um...what's that yellow thing? It's a fruit. Sometimes you use it in smoothies or eat it with ice-cream?
B: Like a banana?
A: Yeah, exactly. I ate a banana.
Or even if they can't pinpoint the exact word you're looking for, usually whoever you're talking to will get the gist of what you mean if you describe it well enough. (Worst case scenario where they still don't understand: Google it, lol.)
Also, sometimes you just have to simplify. You might not have the range to speak about a particular topic in detail and that’s okay. It might feel weird not being able to express yourself fully but do your best with what you have. By using the words you do know it is usually possible to give an estimation of what you’d actually like to say.
This is definitely a hard one. You may have heard at some point or another that you should refrain from translating the sentences you want to say in your head and instead try to think in your target language (whatever that means). I’m not here to tell you anything different, unfortunately. Avoiding mental translations may not be easy at first but it is necessary. I promise that training yourself to think in your target language over time will be way less painful than constantly reproducing bad sentence constructions because you’re translating word for word in your head. Languages are never just about the words themselves. They are also about constructing a new perspective of the world around us. The more you give yourself over to the learning process, the more you’ll be able to internalise a new way of thinking.
Here we’ve come to something I know you’ve heard before: ‘Read more, listen more, write more, speak more’. For our purposes, however, I’m gonna modify that to ‘Read more, listen more, write more so that you can speak more’. By engaging with your target language thoughtfully and with intention you can pick up subtle nuances, turns of phrase and vocabulary that will, in the end, make you a better speaker. Pay keen attention to idiomatic phrases, in particular, as they will help you to sound a bit more natural in your delivery. Additionally, creating an immersive environment for yourself will help you to absorb things faster as if you were learning by osmosis, so find a routine and some resources that work for you and get to it!
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