Many independent language learners–following the approach typically taught in schools–get good at grammar and/or vocabulary, but when it’s time to converse, they have difficulty with even putting a sentence together. There are a number of ways to resolve this problem.
Conversation involves at least two components: understanding what the other person is communicating and then somehow communicating your own thoughts. Understanding combines listening, paying attention to non-verbals such as facial expressions and gestures, and some background knowledge of the situation and culture. Speaking ideally should also include non-verbals and background knowledge (because it’s easy to assume that the other person knows what you’re talking about, but maybe they don’t). However, in this article, I’m only going to talk about forming sentences aloud, which is a major component of conversation.
Translating in your head? No problem
Thinking in your native language is often blamed for problems with forming sentences quickly, but that’s not necessarily the cause. It’s possible to get quick at thinking in your language, translating in your head, and still forming sentences aloud in a reasonable time. And with practice, you’ll find yourself translating less and less. Eventually, you’ll only translate when you try to say a sentence using a grammar form that you don’t know well.
Also, avoiding translation in the beginning is difficult for most people who learn languages on their own. Very few beginner courses are free of translation, plus translation is an excellent method for learning another language. In short, don’t concern yourself about whether you’re translating or not: Just pick a robust method of learning the language, practice often, persevere, and trust the process.
Many options available
All methods require a lot of time. Immersion by itself is known to work in the long run, but can be too slow, frustrating, and/or boring for many adult beginners to start with. Nonetheless, it’s certainly an option for those who want to use it. At the intermediate and advanced levels, some sort of partial or full immersion (i.e. a lot of listening and speaking) are mandatory for advancement, and certainly some listening practice is needed at all levels to make your speech sound less strange and foreign. Furthermore, technology is making it easier to read and listen more at an earlier stage in your learning. Just don’t feel obligated to get only or mostly input in the beginning if you don’t want to. This is just one approach to solve the problem.
Writing is another approach that some learners report has helped them greatly with their speaking. Whether you do the exercises in a grammar workbook, do creative writing in your target language, participate in text chats on the internet in that language, or keep a daily journal where you write only in that language, writing a lot can get you used to the grammar, vocabulary, and sentence formation in general. All of these will make it easier to speak later–but not necessarily easy. If you tend to avoid conversations in your native language, expect even more difficulty in another language–but writing a lot for a few months could make other approaches easier later on.
A specific form of writing that makes conversation a lot easier for me personally is to select a topic, then write some deep questions in the target language that might be asked in conversation, each followed by a one-paragraph answer of how I personally would answer it. Even if those specific questions don’t come up in conversation, I find I’m more prepared and can converse a lot more easily. (I write about this method more in depth in other articles on my blog.) A related method taught by Benny Lewis in his Language Hacking textbook series is to script a paragraph where you describe an aspect of your life (your family, a hobby, your favorite music, etc.) and then memorize that script so it’s always available whenever you converse in that language. Similarly, you can write and memorize quick answers that you can give to common questions such as whether you’re married or how long you’ve been learning that language.
A translation method could make it easier to understand how sentences are formed so that you can start forming your own sentences in conversation. Luca Lampariello, an Italian who has brought at least his Russian and English to very high levels of proficiency and who does public speaking in both languages, starts every language with a translation approach. He reports that it hasn’t worked as well for him for Japanese, but for European languages (not just languages similar to Italian), he reports very positive results. Bidirectional translation (Luca’s and Assimil’s method) involves translating a short text from your target language into your native language or English or another language you know well, comparing it to an existing translation, then translating it back into your target language, and checking it again. Innovative Language podcasts (such as FrenchPod101) are potentially good sources of texts (dialogs) that have both the target language text and the English translation on their downloadable PDF’s. Assimil textbooks are specifically designed for this method.
Audiolingual courses (such as the old FSI courses that are in the public domain–in other words, legally free for download) have been criticized and are therefore underutilized as an option. In my personal experience, they make a good supplement to other methods and resources, and have certainly helped me in the area of speaking and forming sentences. Specifically, the Russian grammatical forms that I feel most comfortable using in conversation are the ones I learned in an audiolingual course (Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al.). This particular textbook is not in the public domain, but Indiana University has made the audio freely available to the public. These courses are all very dry and tedious and won’t appeal to the average language learner, however.
Mass memorization of sentences, phrases, or dialogs is another method which requires a lot of patience but can make your speech a lot smoother-sounding and probably easier. But “mass” is the keyword here in that just memorizing a few dialogs or a few hundred sentences might not be enough to make speaking easier. However, it could be enough to immediately improve your pronunciation and especially your prosody (accent, rhythm, and intonation). You don’t even have to memorize anything completely, just repeat them many times over a period of days or weeks. Also, as I found out when I dabbled in Tagalog, it can be difficult for a complete beginner to start at the sentence or phrase level instead of with individual words–plus it’s a lot harder for me to memorize anything as a middle-aged adult. Book2 and Glossika both use this approach, and they provide thousands of sentences for you. In both cases, you can even select a source language that isn’t English: for example, you can learn Spanish from French or Vietnamese from German.
Sentence mining can be combined with mass memorization. Sentence mining means that you select sentences (or, if you prefer, 2-5 word phrases) yourself from your reading or listening. Combining mining with memorizing means that you can be sure that your speech will sound more natural and comfortable to any native speaker of that dialect that you converse with later. The disadvantage is that it’s difficult to collect both the audio and text of a sentence together. If you only copy the written sentence and memorize it, how do you know if you’re pronouncing it correctly? You can always pay a native speaker to record the sentences for you, but that’s not always possible or convenient.
Finally, you can just converse a lot in your target language–preferably with a paid tutor if you can afford one–even as a beginner. This is the “speak from day one” approach popularized by Benny Lewis. It can be the most painful and difficult way at first–but like almost everything in life, it will get easier with a lot of practice. A good tutor will be patient with you and can help you a lot along the way, but you might have to try several tutors before you find one that you can work well with. Of course, practicing conversation is the only way to get good at it, but this approach starts a lot sooner than most people are comfortable with. It can be combined with any approach above for best results, using other methods on the days when you don’t have a session with your tutor.
My own path
As for me, I like to start with some listening to get used to the way a language sounds, then follow an audio course that specifically trains learners to create sentences aloud (my favorite of which is Michel Thomas–except for Mandarin Chinese). If no such course is available, I write the grammar I want to learn in a notebook and make a lot of my own sentences aloud (which works really well for me with Japanese and Korean, but which I find harder to apply to Russian)–and I also have to do more reading and/or listening, if I have to do it this way. Eventually I start spontaneously talking to myself in the language a little bit. From that point on, I purposely practice talking to myself with the help of a dictionary and/or topical vocabulary book. It’s hard at first but eventually becomes fairly easy. Then, I do a lot more listening practice to dialogs for beginners for a few months, then hire italki tutors for conversation practice via Skype for a few months. This approach works really well for me, but of course not for everyone. I explain each of these steps at length in other blog articles.
Don’t believe anyone who claims that everyone should learn a language in a particular way, especially if they downplay all other methods. Every successful foreign language learner has their own path of learning that works well for them. There is no method that works for everyone. Likewise, there is no method that doesn’t work for anyone. I’ve just summarized many different approaches–any of which, when followed for a long time, will make forming sentences in conversation a lot easier.
An exception is if some kind of mental or emotional illness (such as a social phobia) prevents you from conversing even in your native language. In that case, an input approach (mostly listening but with some reading) can at least allow you to understand what the other person is saying, even if you can only give brief answers yourself. Add writing if you enjoy it.
Try any of these methods and persevere with it if you enjoy it, or try another method if you don’t. They work best in combination: For example, I discovered that I improve in a language faster and retain it longer if I work on grammar, conversation, and listening every week.