How to learn a language
How to learn a language

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How to learn a language

2 So, what is involved in speaking?

There are lots of ways of thinking about this. On the one hand, speaking is about conveying information (and I mean information in the broadest sense of the word, whether this is factual, about your feelings and emotions, or anything else). In order to convey information, you need to speak accurately (using the right words and stringing them along in grammatically correct sentences), and fluently (if you are too hesitant, or too slow, your audience will find it hard to follow you, or might lose patience and disconnect). Your pronunciation will also need to be good enough not to make understanding you too taxing for your interlocutor. And you will also have to think about your intonation (in some languages, for instance, it is through intonation rather than word order or specific structures that you know if someone is making a statement or asking a question).

On the other hand, it is very unusual that you will be ‘just’ speaking (unless you happen to be giving a lecture or recording a podcast on your own) – most often, you will be speaking with someone, so engaging in interaction with that person: in that sense, speaking is very dependent on listening and understanding, which is why it very often causes a lot of anxiety in learners.

Watch the following video where some language learners talk about their anxiety when speaking in a foreign language.

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_lll_1_video_week4_voxpops1.mp4
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When I have to speak French, I am mostly nervous because the people I practise with or speak to regularly are native French speakers or always appear to have much more of an understanding of language than I do, even if they're studying beginners level the same as me. They just seem to be so much more confident or competent than I do. So nerves is the main factor that I have to overcome.
I found the bit where you have to actually talk just incredibly difficult. I would learn the content and learn the words and have an idea of what you needed to say, but then actually faced with a human being where I needed to produce the stuff, I was just so inhibited about saying anything because it wasn't going to be right and I wasn't sure. Did this agree with that, or was this the right tense of the verb? And so, I would just say nothing, complete silence, which most people know is not very characteristic of me.
When I'm speaking French to native speakers or other students who I feel have got a much better grasp of French than I have, I feel very self-conscious. I'm always afraid that I'm going to make myself silly or make loads of mistakes when actually I know that the best way to learn is to actually practise. So it just takes the extra courage to do so.
Well, the way I feel about speaking Spanish is I tend to get very nervous, probably because unlike with writing, you have to react quite quickly. And so I worry about being correct. I worry about the grammar. I worry about my pronunciation. And I worry about whether I've understood the person who's talking to me.
I find Japanese conversation the most difficult part of studying the language because I get a mental block about the words. I know what I want to say, but I can't get them out in the right order.
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Now watch the next video, where some learners talk about how they practise their speaking skills.

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Nowadays, I practise my speaking Spanish with a friend on Skype. And I find that is more real than a formal or academic situation. So we talk about our lives. It's much more personal, and there's much more context for using the language.
I'm fortunate that I have some native Japanese speakers who are my friends, and I'm able to practise my listening and speaking skills with them. They are helpful because they're trying to learn English, and so we can share experiences with each other. A lot of the language involves idioms and understanding each other's idioms is quite important in the sort of conversation.
To practise my speaking, we've just started, well, recently started a conversation group with a couple of Japanese women who come, and we meet in each other's houses. They speak in English, and we try and speak in Japanese. And then we quite often keep a diary all of us, and we look at what each other have written. And that's very useful because we'll read it to each other, and we'll listen and hear the intonation, which is really good. And they find it useful picking up idiomatic phrases from us.
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Speaking is, in some ways, similar to writing – in both cases you need to produce meaningful content using the right words and the right grammar. But whereas when writing you often have time to think about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it and can check a word up in the dictionary, for instance, when speaking you just have to produce your language ‘on the fly’. And whereas in writing you can often go back and check what you’ve written, and correct any mistakes, once you have uttered your words in speaking, you can’t really ‘un-say’ them.

Most spoken language is unplanned, spontaneous, takes place face-to-face, and is informal conversation. But although that might be your ultimate goal when starting to learn a language, it is very difficult to achieve, and requires literally hundreds of hours of practice.

Activity 1 Speaking recall quiz

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Match the definitions of the following words used in this section.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. The quality of being correct, precise and free from mistakes of errors.

  2. The quality of being efficient, speaking articulately without unnecessary or overlong pauses.

  3. The rise and fall of the voice in speaking.

  4. The way the sounds of the language are pronounced, the ability to make those sounds in the correct or a particular way.

  • a.Intonation

  • b.Pronunciation

  • c.Accuracy

  • d.Fluency

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = c
  • 2 = d
  • 3 = a
  • 4 = b

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