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The best way to learn a foreign language is to speak it

This is probably the most frequently repeated piece of advice for language learners. You will hear it from teachers, webmasters of ESL sites, and people in the in this discussion.

For most language teachers, the goal is to have you talking as early as possible and as much as possible. They believe that they should be quiet during their classes, while their students should have the opportunity to speak.

Speaking is imitation. When you speak your native language, you don’t make up your own grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. You use the same grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation as people around you.

Similarly, when trying to speak a foreign language, your goal is to imitate the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of native speakers, so that your way of speaking is correct and natural.

It’s pretty obvious that, in order to talk like the native speakers, you have to listen to the things they say and read the things they write. When you do so, you learn new words and grammar structures that you can use to express your thoughts. As a result, it becomes easier and easier for you to build your own sentences in the foreign language.

By contrast, if you follow the popular advice and concentrate on speaking rather than listening and reading, you will learn few new words and structures and, like so many learners, will be stuck with your limited vocabulary and grammar. It will always be hard for you to express your thoughts in the foreign language.

Benefits of speaking

While speaking practice does not develop your vocabulary or grammar, it does offer a few important benefits:

  • It helps improve your fluency (moves your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation from your “slow memory” to your “quick memory” — however, first you must put something in your “slow memory” through input)
  • Communicating in a foreign language is quite exciting and motivates you to keep learning
  • It helps expose gaps in your vocabulary and grammar (shows you what you don’t know and encourages you to look it up)

What you should do

  • If you don’t know how to begin your sentence, even after thinking for a while,
  • If you stop in the middle of a sentence, and can’t continue because you don’t know a word,
  • If you produce awkward-sounding sentences because you don’t know how to say something in a natural way,
  • If you often make mistakes and are not aware of it,

…you need more input, not more speaking practice. Such problems show that you simply don’t know how to say certain things in the language, and should look at how native speakers say them. More speaking will not improve your vocabulary and grammar; actually, it can make things worse.

From the very beginning, you should spend all of your time on reading and listening (thus acquiring the necessary vocabulary and grammar) until you can write a few simple — but 100% correct — sentences in the language. For example, you can start by writing an e-mail message to someone who speaks the language. (It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to write that message. It may be two hours, if you have that kind of patience.)

At the same time, you should study the phonetics of the language, practice pronouncing its sounds, and learn the pronunciations of words.

Then, you should continue getting input and writing until you can produce simple and correct sentences without consulting the dictionary or the Web. This is when you should start speaking — again, slowly and carefully. However, you should still spend most of your time on reading and listening, because input is the only way to develop your vocabulary and grammar.

What happens in language classes

Sadly, the importance of input has been greatly underestimated in the past years. The monopoly of the Communicative Approach in English language teaching means that students are expected to speak in class and write compositions almost from the first lesson, even though they have had almost no chance to absorb the grammar and vocabulary of English. A typical teacher demands output from his students, but does nothing to ensure they have had enough input. A few hours of English classes every week, where the teacher tries to speak as little as possible (to give his students the opportunity to speak), are not nearly enough.

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