Some of us are talkers; speaking comes naturally, and we almost always have something to say.
Others of us, however, are much more comfortable listening, and marvel at how some people can seem to talk endlessly without ever coming up for air.
Whether or not you have the gift of loquaciousness will no doubt affect how you go about learning languages. The natural talkers will jump right into speaking, saying whatever they can and probably not worrying too much about how “correct” their speech is, while others will prefer to listen and may not be as motivated to lead a conversation or actively try and improve their speaking ability.
This post is for those of us in the second group,
who find that their listening comprehension skills far surpass their speaking skills. The level of language you can understand will always be higher than the level of language you can produce (even in your native language), but for some people, that gap between comprehension and production is more of a chasm.
If you find that you’re staring down into a deep chasm, you may need to find activities you can do to improve your speaking skills.
What kind of activities can you do to improve your speaking proficiency? Any activity should have four components:
1. It should push you beyond your comfort zone.
If you have been growing in a language community for at least a few months, and you simply talk about your trip to the market yesterday, or what you’re doing in Country X, you probably haven’t pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone.
Things you always talk about are easy to express, because you’ve had ample practice to form expressions, get the words in the right order, and train your tongue to make the necessary combination of movements to say those things. It’s only when you talk about new topics, or talk about old topics in new ways, that you push yourself.
It’s like a marathoner who runs sprints to prepare for a race. Stephen Krashen, writing about growing out of your comfort zone in comprehension skills, called it “i+1”: you get understandable input, plus a little more. And that little more is what makes you better over time.
2. Your activity should involve extemporaneous speech.
Extemporaneous is simply a big word for “unprepared”. This goes along with point one: if you use prepared speech in an activity, you’re not pushing yourself. You need to come up with things spontaneously in order to make the activity really challenge you.
After all, 99% of what you say is not prepared, so your speaking activities should reflect that. It may be helpful to make a mental note of a few things you want to bring up in a speaking activity, but you should train yourself not to prepare how you will actually say them.
3. You need an opportunity for your speech to be corrected by a native speaker.
Speaking extemporaneously (in an unprepared way) about difficult topics will push you, but if you don’t receive positive or negative reinforcement for your speech, you won’t have much of a chance to improve your speech. So make sure you do your speaking activity with a native speaker who can affirm what is well-phrased and make corrections on what is not.
This may mean that you record yourself speaking before you meet with a language helper (especially if he or she is talkative and has a tendency to interrupt you). Once you’ve received feedback, try saying the same thing again. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is the second time around.
4. You need something you can say a number of times to a number of people.
This may seem like it contradicts the second point (unprepared speech), since something you say a lot quickly becomes prepared. But what you want to do is retell the same story or description or argument to other people so that the phrasings, words, and argument structure which your language helper gave you feedback on can settle in your mind. Once you’ve given the same speech to a number of people, choose a new topic, take it to your language helper, and start all over again.
An activity which encompasses these four criteria would be what Greg Thomson calls a “record for feedback” activity. What you actually talk about in this activity will depend on your speaking proficiency:
you may choose to describe a picture, or tell a story, or argue a point, or give a scholarly lecture. The important thing is that you follow the four guidelines above.
What about working on your speech outside of language sessions? While you may not be able to receive careful feedback in the course of a normal conversation with a friend, you can do things which will help you improve your speaking ability. One important discipline to build is to ask questions which raise difficult topics, that is, topics which are not easy for you to discuss.
Bring up something you have never talked before, and see where the conversation goes. You may find you’re out of your depth sometimes, but that’s ok. It’s a chance to grow and to find out where your speaking skills are lacking.
And, as mentioned above, try to use the topics (or descriptions, or stories, etc.) you’ve discussed in a record for feedback activity with other friends so you can get more practice forming similar constructions and using new words.
One note: you may want to ask questions or retell a story only when you’re in a one-on-one conversation, unless your speaking ability is at a high level. It will take a patient person, who is focused only on what you have to say, to listen to you and understand what you’re communicating.
So, go for it! Get out of the confines of your comfortable topics, and keep on growing in what you can communicate with others.