The global polyglot community is divided into two camps: Those who practice conversation in a new foreign language from the beginning of their studies, and those who delay it until later. Both agree that conversation practice is important (unless someone only wants to read and/or listen), but they do it at different times. Those who advocate “conversation from day one” warn us that it’s possible to procrastinate indefinitely, saying “I’ll speak when I’m ready,” but they never feel ready.
Often the problem is perfectionism: Many people don’t want to speak until their grammar and/or accent are nearly flawless in order to avoid embarrassment. This is a poor reason to delay because perfection is impossible to achieve and embarrassment is impossible to avoid when speaking a foreign language. Besides, at some point it becomes impossible to improve without feedback. Textbooks won’t teach you everything you need to know to speak a language flawlessly.
A way to avoid procrastination is to set specific criteria for when you will start conversation. Some study for a specific period of time first (such as three or six months); others choose to study a beginner textbook such as Colloquial or Teach Yourself or Assimil from beginning to end and then start conversation. These are both good plans. When they finally start speaking, they’re probably less confused and stressed than they would have been if they had practiced conversation from the beginning. In my case, conversation in other languages makes me mentally exhausted, and the delay helps to reduce that problem.
People who delay conversation practice–when they finally start speaking–have the following advantages:
- They have things to say (vocabulary).
- They know how to express some of their thoughts (grammar).
- They’ve hopefully spent time practicing listening comprehension, and
- They’ve had time to work on their pronunciation.
Of course, if someone needs to use a language very soon, it’s best not to delay.
I, too, have particular criteria so that I know when I’m ready for conversation. In my case, my reasoning is that if I can’t talk to myself in a language, I can’t talk to anyone else either. And if I can’t understand even part of a tutor’s self-introduction video (on italki), I won’t understand them in conversation either. And so, I work specifically on speaking and listening from the beginning to bring myself up to that level. Once I’m there, I hire italki tutors for conversation practice. (By the way, at the present time, I gain no financial benefit from mentioning italki or any other brand.)
The speaking courses I prefer to use are Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, and LanguageTransfer. (At the moment, I’m learning German from them. After I’m done, I plan to write a comparative review of all three.) These courses are completely audio. The teacher presents a small grammatical point or a vocabulary word and then asks the learner to pause the recording and translate a sentence from English into the language they’re learning. Then they continue listening in order to hear and repeat the correct answer. Then the courses go on to the next point or review a previous one. They include a lot of review, so memorization, homework, and writing down notes are all discouraged and unnecessary. Furthermore, they get the learner used to creating sentences aloud in the target language, a prerequisite to conversational skill. After I complete Michel Thomas especially, I find myself thinking aloud occasionally in the target language unintentionally.
My next step is to talk to myself intentionally in the target language, usually while driving a car or taking a walk. If I’m walking, I often bring a pocket dictionary, pocket vocabulary book, and/or pen and pocket notebook so I can fill in gaps in my vocabulary as I practice speaking. At first, I can’t say more than a few sentences–but with practice, I can get into the flow of speaking in that language for several minutes, even if only on one or two topics. This meets my speaking prerequisite for hiring a tutor for conversation practice.
As a beginner, I limit my listening practice to easy materials: podcasts by Innovative Language, the Speak … with Confidence courses published by Teach Yourself, or even audio recordings of dialogs from beginning textbooks. Difficult listening–such as videos or radio–are unhelpful at this point, except to gain an appreciation for the way the language sounds. The key here is to listen often. From time to time, I test my listening comprehension skills by listening to the self-introduction videos by several italki tutors. If, when they’re speaking the target language, I am surprised that I can understand some of it, my listening prerequisite has been met.
When my speaking and listening prerequisites are met, I feel ready to practice conversation. I don’t procrastinate, but dive in as soon as my schedule will allow it–which is usually right away. (How I do it will be a topic for a later blog entry.)
To summarize, if you will need to use a language soon, start practicing conversation immediately. Or start immediately if you want to.
Otherwise, I recommend setting specific criteria and then holding yourself accountable to start conversing as soon as your criteria have been met. Also, avoid perfectionism when establishing your criteria. These steps are necessary to avoid procrastination, causing many people to never learn how to converse in the language they’re learning. If you haven’t selected your criteria yet, I recommend you do so right away, and then write them down and put them where you can see them.
Do you start right away? If not, what are your criteria? Will you change anything as the result of reading my article? Feel free to tell me in a comment. Enjoy your language studies!