Speaking Vs Listening/Reading to Improve Speaking

I was just sat here wondering exactly how much actual speaking practice you have to do to get good at it. I know Steve admits that you have to do a lot of speaking to speak well, however, I was wondering at what stage that applies most? I’ve also heard Steve say he’s yet to encounter anyone who could understand really well but couldn’t speak, which might support this idea.

So if one is to start speaking at say a late beginner/early intermediate level of listening and reading comprehension, I could see that you’d have to practice speaking if you want to say more than your name and where you’re from etc. What I was thinking though, is what if you delayed practising that level of speaking after getting your comprehension level up to an upper intermediate/early advanced level?

How useful was struggling through trying to speak when you had, at best, an early intermediate base?

Then I started to wonder about someone exclusively listening and reading for say 3-5 years straight, no speaking at all, say 8 hours + per day, to the point where literally nothing they read or listen to is the slightest problem to them.

How quickly would that person pick up their speaking? Would it flow naturally almost instantly? Would it take a week? A month? A few months?

Would it, in fact, be an optimal strategy to avoid it, struggling to understand whilst at the same time struggling to string basic sentence structures together? Could that actually be a complete waste of time if your end goal is fluency?

Again, I’m not talking about 30 minutes a day, or about what it’s like after 6 months. This would be close to full (passive only) immersion for a minimum of 3 years.

Is there any account of a 2nd language learner having done something like this?

Edit: Just to say, this is purely hypothetical, I’m not thinking about doing it, haha.


I’ve been in a similar situation in the past, although not exactly the same. Notice a couple of things:

  • Real conversation is not the same as listening to recorded audio. Someone who has never spoken would not be so used to understanding real conversation, just canned audio. Even understanding may take some getting used to. Demanding recorded video/audio (such as films) is typically harder than face-to-face conversation but there are, nevertheless, some factors that may hamper that person’s understanding: noise, anxiety from having to reply, etc.
  • If you’re level is so high, making yourself be understood is really not all that hard, so chances are you can get your message across but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be “fluent”. A big factor is your expectations. That hypothetical person

Probably, the person you’re thinkng about would be in a vey similar position to someone who reached a good level in a language years ago but haven’t brushed up on it for a long time: they’ll understand most of what’s said with some misunderstandings here and there and will be able to explain themselves with lots of hesitations to find the right word, many convoluted expressions and lots of grammatical mistakes that they themselves will identify as such.
As Steve explains, one week of immersion would be enough to take you to a nice (not perfect) speaking level.

My own experience: I learned French and English through a few classes and a lot of lonely work when I was young. I had spoken a bit in a class context but mostly I had read, read and read and I eventually purchased a short-wave radio for practice. It was a kind of pre-internet LIngq regime for the most part. Later, I had the chance to visit France and Britain. Again, I was not in the exact same postion as your hypothetical case. For example, I hadn’t watched films in the language (radio is different) and my grasp on slang was so-so. I suppose you can get more and better listening practice nowadays. However, I think the end result may be not so dissimilar.

The higher your comprehension level, the better you can speak with minimal practice, on the other hand, the more speaking practice you have, the better you can make yourself understood with limited vocabulary. BUT! You cannot speak at a high level without having a high level comprehension! So the ratio between the two quotients is not one to one. Comprehension must be weighed higher, because it preludes speaking. I would argue their weight is off by a 1/2* so the mathematical formula I would propose is this

Compression Level x (Speaking Practice / 2) = Speaking Ability or CL x (SP/2) = SA

So, if Person A has CL = 5 and SP = 5 then SA = 12.5
But Person B has CL = 10 and SP = 3 then SA = 15

Here, person B with he higher comprehension, but less speaking practice still can probably speak better than person A who has more practice, but less comprehension.

But, you also have to remember that CL has an upper limit in this formula – there is only so many words that are in common circulation that you can reasonably learn. So if you give that ceiling value, say 20, then

If person A: CL = 20 and SP = 3 then SA = 30
But Person B: CL = 15 and SP = 6 then SA = 45

So, at the end of the day, like chess pieces, both CL and SP come into play with different weights at different parts of the game.

  • I place the offset at 1/2, but of course the exact number can be argued up and down. 1/2 feels good based on my experience.

What you describe sounds reminds me of the toddler whose parents are anxious because he hasn’t spoken a word, and he is getting well past the age when most tots start using language. Then one day he blurts out a complete, grammatically correct sentence. He’s been listening and learning and building up the language capacity until he’s ready to use it. The difference between him and you, though, is that he has no other language in which to formulate thoughts. If you cannot think in your target language, speaking it spontaneously and fluidly must be a much bigger challenge.


When I started studying English what I did was learn basic grammar then some vocabulary but I got bored so I just went straight to youtube search some videos with Eng sub and started to read then translate every sentence til I didn’t need to use the translator anymore, and I thought “ok now is time to speak” I entered some international group chats… i realized my speaking level was low compared to my “reading skills” so I used the translator again but just to check if the sentence I was about to send was right, I did it like that until, again, didn’t need it anymore, luckily people there where nice understood and helped me, it took me about 3-4 months. I think it depends of the person more than the method, other language I’m studying now is Korean but still of “understand first speak later” I tried “understand a little try speaking” and I was able to speak (super basic simple phrases haha) quicker than with English


Thanks for the reply, very interesting, but it seems like you can only quantify it like that if neither skill influences the other. I’m wondering if comprehension is THE influencing factor and what we see as ‘speaking practice’ is merely more time getting input without realising it. I don’t know, but the more I think about it the more I doubt the effectiveness of struggling through trying to say things that you’ve yet to internalise passively.

The different skills do in fact influence each other. Everything is interconnected when it comes to languages. Reading, listening, writing, and speaking all build on each other. My proposed formula was taking that into account.
I would say you don’t have to speak early if you don’t want to, but it does help when you do it. That struggle of saying things is your brain exercising a muscle it hasn’t used yet – the next time it will be stronger.

I’ve done this both ways with different languages. I started speaking way early in French, but with German, I barely ever had the chance to speak before I was Advanced 2 here. My spoken French is lot better, but I also know it would take me a short time to get very good at spoken German if I had little practice. But since reading and listening to both languages is part of my daily life, I’m not really worried about it.

I’ve had that with two languages, not because I was avoiding speaking, but because my speaking opportunities are relatively low (it wasn’t 8 hours a day though). I live in Monterrey, Mexico. It isn’t like in Europe where you see foreigners everywhere, so I’ve spoken Italian probably like 5 hours at most. I also don’t want to spend paying for online teachers yet. I would consider my spoken Italian good, the times I’ve spoken it, I’ve felt really comfortable doing it. I may speak it well for four reasons:

  1. I’ve had enough input, when I was starting out I listened to 40 minutes of “podcast Italiano” each day.
  2. I practiced my accent since the beginning, I heard the lessons and then I read them out loud myself.
  3. I started thinking in Italian, after using the language long enough, I started thinking in it. I also have a trip to Italy this summer, so I imagined conversations to practice my speaking.
  4. Italian is very similar to my native Spanish.
    I don’t know what contributed the most to improve my spoken Italian, but I believe that language just comes naturally, I don’t think that the transition from passive skills to spoken ones is as big as it seems. When you read and listen you obtain vocabulary, get accustomed to grammar and get the rhythm of the language.
    I think that the brain doesn’t care if you speak with someone, or if you imagine a conversation. I’ve heard Vladimir Skultety say that he once had a 3 hour conversation with himself in Chinese.

Right now I’m learning German, I’ve had almost no speaking at all, and after 6 months I feel relatively comfortable with passive activities. My speaking isn’t great, but I wouldn’t say that it is that far from my passive skills. There’s always a gap between the vocabulary that we understand, and the one we can utilize. My biggest problem with German is applying the cases well, so the transition from passive to spoken, may be harder in this case. There are some languages where I believe it is a bigger problem to not be able to speak. I’ve heard people say that they have a hard time speaking Russian because of the 6 cases, even thought they understand everything.

To conclude, speaking comes relatively fast, but It depends on how similar is the language’s grammar to your native language or others you may have learned. Still, there are things that you can do to avoid getting this problem, even if you’ve nobody to talk in your target language. Think in the language, practice your pronunciation and when you get the opportunity to speak, it will be okay.


Listening is the opposite of speaking. Listening is when you are paying attention to someone you value like a teacher or a parent or perhaps a boss. Talking is when you want to communicate something to someone. Human beings must be able to do both to be effective.

Reading is when you try to get information from something in a print form like a book or a newspaper. We read to learn about things and get new ideas that others have written. Writing is the opposite of reading, we write when we want to communicate to others or for ourselves to remind us of something. and of course read more https://artscolumbia.org/category/definition-essays/