Converting an understander into a speaker

On aforesaid camping trip to wild and woolly Wales (see I took along a book on how to teach English. I was a bit glum to read the confident pronouncement that people don’t actually need lessons to understand a language, as long as they get enough comprehensible input, but if all they get is comprehensible input without proper lessons, they they will not be able to produce (ie speak or write) the language.

Well, I’ve spent 5 years learning to understand Russian, and I can understand it quite well now, but if this book (Jeremy Harmer, How to Teach English) is to be believed, I’m on the wrong track entirely for learning how to speak and write it. If this is so, not only am I misleading myself, but potentially all the students who ask me how best to learn a language.

My question is this: how to convert a language understander into a successful producer? How long will it take, what kind of structure is required, what kind of activities, what materials and what kind of outside help?

I still have many pages of Mr Harmer to chew though, but I will be very surprised if he addresses this question.

Helen, what does Mr Harmer mean by ‘lessons’? I infer from your post that this refers to ‘speaking sessions’?

What is the approach that really ‘misleads’ you? Are you talking about ‘input-only’ approach?

I think “fluency from input-only” is a myth. We need to focus on inputs, but we still need to practice outputs. I think LingQ also preaches this idea, just that we as members sometimes don’t pay too much attention on outputs.

What is Mr Harmer’s approach?

To speak better, you must speak more.

When you speak, you are making predictions about what is correct in the language. These predictions, as they are either confirmed or rejected, reinforce the active knowledge of the language and allow the speaker to express ever more complex ideas. Similarly, a cyclist couldn’t become a good cyclist only by watching other cyclists.

Unlike speaking, the act of listening doesn’t require that you question the way the language is structured and the ideas are presented, so unless the listener is very critical of what he is hearing – which is very rare – he will simply continue to listen passively and will remain unable to make sound decisions when speaking.

So how does one begin to speak? By doing so at every opportunity, even when he is likely to be completely wrong or sound like a fool. No mistake can be corrected unless it is made, and production cannot be improved if there is no production.

I’ve just posted about this in another post, but I’m in the same situation as you, I understand lots of what I read and listen to, but find it hard to put together my own sentences and keep up with conversations. I don’t see how input just by itself will eventually help anyone speak.

I have not heard anyone say that with a lot of input, and without any output, you can just start speaking and the words will flow out of your mouth like beer at a pub after a British football match.

To speak well, you need to speak, and you need to speak a lot. If you understand well, as tony and Helen say they do, then you are ready to do a lot of speaking, and really need to do so in order to achieve full fluency. If that is not readily available to you, you can continue to improve your speaking potential by listening and reading, but you eventually need to speak. If you have limited opportunity to speak, write, and then have it corrected, and then read the corrected text out loud ten times. This is what Hermann Schliemann did so successfully many years ago. (google it)

As to cyclists, learning a language is much more difficult, takes much longer, requires the acquisition of lots of words etc. The similarity is in the need for confidence and motivation to do both. A person who has seen others ride bicycles, like his or her siblings, will consider it a normal thing to do, want to do it, and will learn more quickly than someone who sees a bicycle for the first time.So it is with speaking languages. Confidence, and exposure help tremendously . Listening and reading not only build vocabulary and familiarity, they build confidence. But you still need to speak, and work your way through the initial difficult period, while continuing the input activities.

As alexandre says, when you speak you are confirming what you think you know about the language, and identifying your gaps. This supposes you know something. When you are a beginner you know very little if anything, so to me, the benefits are limited.

If you have the time and money to sit in a one on one classroom, you can learn from scratch while conversing, or taking lessons, with a teacher. If you have limited money and time, you are much better off building up your vocabulary and familiarity with the language using your own free time, or dead time, listening over and over, reading, reviewing words and phrases until you are just dying to try these out in conversation.

You will speak when you feel up to it, and when the opportunity presents itself. That point will vary from person to person. Just as the child does not speak fluently as soon as he/she starts speaking, and stumbles often as he/she ramps up in speaking, so with the adult. The more you have read and listened and the broader your vocabulary the better your speaking will go.


From my own experiences, and seeing how other people learn, I think it’s perfectly possible to learn to speak without lessons (but it helps to be living in the country where the target language is spoken) but writing grammatically is harder. We don’t speak like we write, especially not with things like formal correspondence, business emails etc.

If you’ve been learning Russian for a while, a good way to improve your writing and speaking, though, is to buy a nice notebook and start writing a diary every day in Russian. Don’t look up words (or you’ll start to look up every word!) Don’t worry about spelling. Don’t be formal, and it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake in every word. Keep it as simple as you need to. Try not to think of the sentence in English first and then translate it (which makes things much harder!) Just write freely, even if you just write “I went to the shops and bought milk”.

Then try to get a native speaker to correct it. Then read it out loud.

(The book you are reading sounds like it would make me want to throw it out of a window).

I think it’s such an interesting discussion. You can’t discount the power of input. Developing comprehension. I believe you don’t quickly lose your level of comprehension either.

I know people who have spoken a language their whole life (e.g. occasionally with grandparents, or relatives), but cannot understand radio interviews or news for example. They have spoken it infrequently at a very basic level their whole life, and have never had A LOT of input. They might be more comfortable speaking than the advanced input learner, but their level of comprehension is lower and their (current) potential is probably lower. I believe, as Steve said, that we develop a lot of potential with input.

Another interesting issue, I find, is that of ‘thinking’ in the language. I think it’s very hard to do unless you have spent a lot of time using the language. Just today, I thought of something I wanted to discuss with one of my tutors in Spanish, and started speaking to myself (as if I were speaking to one of them) and it all came out very unnaturally. I think this is because the whole thought process was in English. I think it was Luca who said in one of his videos, that you have to keep the language in your head, think in it, use it (not necessarily at work, but when you are at home ‘studying’ it). If you move to the country, you will have a much greater chance of eventually ‘thinking’ in the language (I don’t get this idea of ‘dreaming’ in a language, because I don’t remember ever having any (or at least many) dreams where there was dialogue).

Meanwhile, I think we are a bit tough on ourselves at times (although I can only really speak for myself). Although I don’t speak French or Spanish as well as I’d like to, I am generally more comfortable using the language than the learners I’ve met who have studied the ‘traditional’ way for years, but usually less comfortable than someone who has spent a year or two in the/a target country.

Sorry Helen, for not staying on topic. Hopefully I don’t get blocked :slight_smile:

In my opinion, it all depends on the (relative) complexity of the target language.

One can possibly learn to understand Russian (i.e. in a purely passive way) without a vastly greater investment of time and effort than would be needed to understand - say - Indonesian. But I wouldn’t mind betting that one could get into speaking and writing Indonesian at least 10 times more quickly than Russian!

I can remember that it took me MUCH longer to start any kind of smooth output in German than it had done in the case of Italian. (However, after a year in Germany, my output skills in German were pretty good while my ability to do any kind of output in Italian had become very thickly encrusted with rust…)


I totally agree, after spending a small about of time learning Spanish and a little German, I was able to produce much more content quickly and with considerably less effort than I did with Russian. There is so much going on in terms of grammar that only lots and lots of practice speaking will improve. It’s true though, that I know what sounds good and correct by the amount of input I’ve received.

Interestingly, I am actually fine and can understand mostly informal texts and articles, interviews etc, but when I go and browse forums where people write as they speak (Arguably), I have a lot of trouble. They use lots of idioms, slang and strange word formations which takes me a while to work out. These incidently are sentences I am now concentrating on.

@summergold: I often feel like throwing “how to teach a language books” out of windows! But I want to learn how to teach languages, and I can’t assume that my personal feelings or methods I have used myself are “right” without doing a lot more reading on the subject.

Harmer is a well-respected (I believe) writer of such books. He appears, like many authors, to begin with the assumption that language learning happens in a classroom and a qualified, experience teacher is managing it. What I would like to see is some sort of diagram showing you how to convert various sorts of semi-skilled language users into fully proficient ones. My experience is that individual students don’t come with tidy little sets of beginner, intermediate or advanced-level skills, even if, for the purposes of running a class session, you have to make this assumption. Tutoring one-on-one is a bit different, and I haven’t seen any textbooks that consider this.

Interestingly, both B***y and Steve are big fans of the “get out there and speak as much as you can” approach to activation. Presumably there are several methods, and this might not be the best or the most practical one for everyone. I was thinking more in terms of blogging (I don’t get out among Russians much) with some LingQ discussions.

I guess you could just start posting on the Russian threads here?

I guess what’s really bugging me is that I’ve got all these “How to teach people to speak a foreign language” book and none of them address the position I’m in as a learner myself.

It makes me feel that either the books are rubbish or that I must have screwed up.

Helen, I have only spoken to you in Russian. You sound as if you simply dont speak enough and are too worried abiut making mistakes, otherwise you do fine. The books on how to teach that I have read were useless. The question is how to impart or acquire the attitude of a linguist (polyglot). That means just going for it and believing in oneself. However well I speak at anytime is good. It is just me communicating. But I always want to improve.

@Helen: I see. So it is a book from the ‘opposition’. Is he teaching a ‘classroom-only’ approach, or does he still encourage students to go out and get in touch with the language themselves?

Still, I guess the fundamental difference is that the classroom approach does not encourage the students to be independent learners.

As for the frustration a few of us have expressed here, I think Steve always stresses that language learning takes time. LingQ never guarantees fluency in a short time. So we must be on the right track. :slight_smile:

As for your original question, a baby step is to write in the forums in your target languages. I don’t even bother getting my posts corrected. I just need to get my points across. I myself find blogging in my target language difficult and rather hard to sustain the habit. Participating in forums is different. You are really engaged in conversations or discussions with other people, instead of imaginary readers.

Let’s not forget that for most people, opportunities to speak the foreign language with native speakers are too rare to really foster a boost in speaking ability. Self-talk is a great way to alleviate this problem and to improve without any risk of embarrassment.


I agree. I think that daily self talk can let me be aware of what I need to work on in a less threatening environment. If I then make note of what gives me trouble, I can then work on those things with a tutor. That is the theory, anyway, I haven’t yet done this, but am planning to do it.

However, I think that somewhere in the back of my mind I feel that talking with a tutor or self talk aren’t “real” uses of the language. When I talk with a tutor, I do decently (although I have good and bad days), but when I am in the situation of talking with a native speaker I don’t know in a natural situation I freeze.

Hi skyblueteapot. You wrote: “Interestingly, both B***y and Steve are big fans of the “get out there and speak as much as you can” approach to activation. Presumably there are several methods, and this might not be the best or the most practical one for everyone.”

I’m a fan of getting out and speaking too, but it’s not always very viable! It depends on so many factors.

If you can’t do that, what about chatting on Skype (text chat if you are not confident about voice chat) with a Russian speaker? Blogging or even microblogging might be good - what about Twitter or Tumblr? If you write short sentences, at least at first, it would be easier to tackle and easier for people to make small corrections.

I completely agree with what you wrote about there being lots of methods and not all are suitable for everyone. I think that’s very true. Everyone learns differently…

(I really hope you don’t mind me butting in with what might be silly suggestions. I just adore Russian - so I’m always overjoyed when people learn it!)

aybee77 – I disagree when you say self-talk isn’t real use of the language. It’s the best kind of preparation for a real live exchange; it’s what comes even before you meet a tutor.

I don’t mean to force another wonky analogy, but you don’t go run a marathon without preparing first. Running in preparation is not like running a marathon, but it’s running for sure.

Whenever you try self-talk, you get to repeat as many times as you wish any part where you hesitate, you get to look up any word you are missing, and you get a real sense of what your actual abilities are (at least in the best of conditions).

“Converting an understander into a speaker”
As long as he or she understands you very well, converting him or her into Mr. or Madame Speaker is a wise policy.

It’s very difficult to make a reluctant student talk. The impetus to talk must come from the student himself. How to encourage a student to want to talk is another story, but let’s assume he wants to speak better.

I will try to suggest something. Maybe you’ve tried it, maybe it doesn’t work, but maybe it will.

Ask the student to prepare, for the next class, a short oral presentation – to be delivered without notes – about what he did last weekend (but he is allowed to choose any other topic if one motivates him more). Sounds simple, but it doesn’t matter: the real issue is how this should be done.

Tell the student that while he is encouraged to look up any word he is missing, he must prepare this strictly orally. No written notes as he prepares, no notes as he practices, no notes as he delivers. The point is that the creation process must be done out loud from beginning to end. The manipulation of ideas, the choice of wording, the modification of sentences, etc., is to be done entirely mentally and output orally. If a sentence is difficult, he shall repeat it over and over until it flows.

It’s surprising how many students really have no idea how it feels to produce a sentence from beginning to end with intent and without hesitation. Hopefully, this exercise can help him get a sense of what it feels like to have an idea, to put it into words, and to learn to deliver it in a natural way.