When should we start speaking in the language we are learning?

At what stage in your learning do you like to start speaking? We have the “speak from day one advocates”, and most schools follow this patterns, and on the other hand, there are the silent period advocates. Where do you fit in on this scale and why? What are the circumstances that affect your decision to start focusing on speaking?

For Japanese, I was nervous about speaking in the beginning. I’m not sure why in retrospect, but I guess I just felt like I couldn’t express myself well and therefore shied away from speaking in groups. I’d do it one-on-one though. In groups, I preferred to mostly concentrate on understanding what was going on around me. I felt like I couldn’t do that and also participate. It was several years before I felt comfortable speaking. But, since I did a homestay when I first went to Japan, I was actually speaking from day 1, and trying to communicate with my homestay parents as much as I could.

For French, I speak, but I find myself a bit intimidated because it’s difficult (I think) to pronounce French well, and it seems like French people are very particular about how their language is pronounced.

As for the silent period, it’s not really something that should be put in opposition to “speak from day one”. It’s just an observation that children, when placed in a new language environment, tend to listen quietly for a long term before beginning to speak. Silent period advocates argue that people shouldn’t be forced to speak early if they don’t want to, not that they should refrain from speaking. I fall on the silent period side. I think most courses put way to much emphasis on production for beginners.

I wonder what “speaking” means.
But here is my short answer.
It is better to start producing or imitating sounds from day one in order to concentrate on listening, but it is still difficult to talk with people in a real situation at this stage. However, it is possible to communicate with them for a short time.

I’ve only ever learned languages with the intention of speaking them. So, I’m always in speaking mode right from the start, reading out loud any written material. For instance, I enjoy reading a dialogue or text with a tutor or partner, and having them ask me oral questions about the text, so I can reuse the vocab and grammar, and this, more or less from lesson one. I also find that doing it that way – although it’s not a choice but an innate desire to do so – it allows me to jump into real language right away, my mistakes get fixed early on, I get to know right away what tools I’m missing, etc.

I am typically the “classroom-type” of learner, so I am always eager to use my foreign language already in the classroom setting as much as I can. I may probably never get the chance to speak the foreign language in foreign countries or with native speakers at all. Native speakers may not be available in my country or they may reject my attempts to speak the foreign language with them (one of my greatest frustration was of having contact with Turks living in Germany!). Steve’s strategy wouldn’t help me so much because I normally can’t travel to foreign countries and “activate a foreign language” there. My circumstances are very different from those of avid travellers and therefore my habits of speaking practise are different as well.


I prefer to wait until I’ve acquired a fairly large amount of - at least passive - words and some basic grammar knowledge in the respective language.
But I’m not so sure if this is really the right method, as my practical skills drag “light-years” behind. Even in languages in which I already have a rather solid base in theory (like e.g. in Spanish), I still make lots of errors, and I often don’t manage to recall immediately some most basic words or sentence structures.

It would be interesting to know, if it is possible to estimate how many hours of conversation practice one approximately needs, in order to get reasonably confident in speaking a foreign language.

@ Fasulye: I see we have a similar problem. At the moment, I don’t know anyone nearby with whom I can practice my language abilities and I - unfortunately :frowning: - can’t afford travelling a lot neither. But maybe we can find some willing interlocutors via Internet.

Just to clarify, Fasulye, my strategy does not necessarily consist of traveling to the country to activate the language. This is just something that I am going to attempt with Czech.

I also think, melomane, that we always make mistakes and are unable to recall some of the most basic words and structures in a language. Furthermore, reasonably confident is a subjective term, and that feeling of relative confidence is elusive, some days it is there and some days it is not.

And Alexandre, I suspect most people, including those who choose to delay staring speaking, learn a language with the intention of speaking it. Certainly that is my goal. However, I prefer to spend my time initially building up my familiarity with the language. This would be different if I lived surrounded by the language, in which case I would use it early on. As for fixing my mistakes early on, I have not found this to be the case. It was only when I abandoned my effort to memorize the declension tables in German that my German improved. I see the results of people who have studied grammar for years and make the most basic mistakes, and yet have no vocabulary or feel for the language. So speaking from the beginning is no guarantee of anything.

@dilemme, while some people may prefer to pronounce from day one, I find that I have better results if I delay pronouncing until I have become a little more accustomed to the sounds through a lot of listening, so I think this too is personal.

@Bortrun, there is a language school in Thailand which forbids its students from speaking Thai for the first 6 months or year. It claims that the results are superior.

But language learning is such a personal thing, I just don’t see how you can enforce such an edict. We should just do what we want to do, it seems to me.

However, I look forward to more perspectives on this issue.

I don´t like to talk in the language I am learning until I have a “enough” vocabulary. I am much happier and proud of my work once I can understand what the natives are talking. But I know many people who wants to practice,practice are their first goal. And I think it ´s natural that many people like to speak since the first day they start to study the language. Personally I don´t like.

In my experience, speaking is result of understanding and the more grammar I learn the more mistakes I do.

After 1 1/2 years of concentrated effort at learning German via the LingQ method, including reading aloud a lot to get used to hearing myself speak in the foreign language.Listened to spoken German for at least 2 hours a day., I felt like it was time to attempt a conversation with a native. I have to admit the first conversation was the longest 15 minutes of my life. I had built up probably 5,000 words in my vocabulary list. I was still at the stage where everything was a translation into English and then try to produce the German. I was afraid to make mistakes. I kept at it anyway with at least one conversation a week. The conversations got longer and less strenuous–ie actually enjoyable. Somewhere along the way ( during the 1000 hours of listening in a year challenge) I actually started understanding German without translating it into English. In other words I started to think in German when speaking and listening to German. How wonderous was that. Conversation and communication became much easier. I still make plenty of mistakes, but that doesn’t bother me any more. I can actually communicate with someone in a language that is not my mother tongue. I can enjoy myself. I can make the other person laugh! So I am delighted. So my feeling is that you should wait until you feel that you are going to be comfortable enough to try to speak in the foreign language. After you have enough vocabulary built up. With each person that will come at a different number of known words in their vocabulary list.

I realised that trying to speak in Finnish with people did not help me at all to improve in the language. Only after a lot of reading and listening, finally I start feeling I can understand some sentences. I am a bit critic with myself and I think natives don´t deserve to listen to me stuttering. I want to be able to communicate in a decent way. However I know thousands of people who really think they are improving when they are speaking although they had very few vocabulary,but they think(they feel they know already a lot,and they don´t bother to make mistakes,and speak like Tarzan)somehow, maybe it can be a positive approach for them. For me it does not work. I find that way of thinking a bit funny. Especially nowadays with all information,tools to study we have access.

Thanks to all of you who have written above. @ghenders, I have a huge number of words in my German list but I do not really know many them well enough to be able to use them in speech. I have said a few words in German to friends here where I live but have not actually had a conversation with anyone.
@alexandrec I like that idea. It does not sound too threatening. I am sure I could cope with reading together and asking each other questions. I could write questions out before we begin and have all of them in front of me so I could read them out. I think that recording the conversation would be beneficial because the native speaker could give more interesting answers than I could and I could listen to them over and over again.

I find “conversation practice” in the first 12-18 months causes very little gain.

The rate of progress through listening, reading and some (effective) pronunciation practice has far greater ROI (during this initial time).

Even after a couple of years, conversation just reinforces existing vocab and helps iron out everyday useful expressions. Even at this stage, it is still the listening and reading that builds your language ability most.

I have noticed that when people learn a language which is very different to their native tongue, spending too much time speaking too early often creates really bad pronunciation habits.

Anyhow,right now I decided to study Finnish intensively. Reading and listening the lessons at LingQ. I notice a big improvement,I am learning so many new words! So I am thinking about doing an exchange group conversation with Finns who are studying Spanish and Hispanohablantes who are studying Finnish(but I think it will only “work” for people who already had built a good number of vocabulary) so we want to meet and try to speak like 10 minutes in Spanish and then 10 minutes in Finnish. What do you think about that idea Steve? Somehow I want to “force” myself to use the language just a lit bit. In that kind of occasion I think it is better than attempting to speak with my neighbors or with strangers in the garden who don´t really, may have any interest to listen to me tartamudeando. I apreciate any

The only language I’ve studied “in class” (after the turn of the century) is Portuguese, and I can’t believe anyone of us would take a course and then not expect some kind of conversation. Of course we didn’t have a lot of vocabulary but we managed to use the skills we had. Maybe I should count Esperanto as well, but there, the speaking part consisted of two Skype sessions plus a telephone call at the end of the course (I’m still quite impressed how I after some mere 30-35 study hours managed to hold a conversation for about 20 minutes).

Anyway, my focus depends on the language (and possibilities to use it). If it’s a language I’m likely to use, I read aloud from day one. One can never get too much practice. It’s not that I shut my ears.

The thing is that even if my vocabulary may not be large, I have at least practiced speaking as opposed to those who just listen for hundreds of hours. No matter the amount of passive input, it’s still no guarantee that they (or I) will be able to activate a language easily.

@Steve: “…I see the results of people who have studied grammar for years and make the most basic mistakes, and yet have no vocabulary or feel for the language.”

I studied the grammar very carefully when I was learning German. I must say that I have never for one moment felt any regret for having done so.

Of course I agree that a knowledge of grammar is no use without also having a large vocabulary and a feel for idioms, etc. But in my opinion this is very much a question of ‘both-and’; it is not a matter of ‘either-or’.

In my experience so far, I’ve found it best to test the waters first before speaking “a lot” (I say “a lot” in relative terms, given that I don’t live in the target country and I have very few “real life” target language native speaker friends!). When I say “test the waters”, I refer to what I did with Spanish. I had been studying for about three months on LingQ (with lots of listening!) when I started to hear lots phrases and words ringing in my head, so I decided to have a conversation. I struggled and realised that I probably wasn’t really ready (i.e. I wasn’t getting that much benefit out of the conversation). I studied another three months and I think I only had one conversation during this time. Between months six and eight I had a few more, as I was able to participate in them more actively. From month eight to month 15 (approximately), I had many more conversations and I feel that the timing was right. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I know I can hold up my end of conversation (in particular if it’s 1-on-1). I also feel as though I have much less baggage in Spanish than I have in French. When I try to speak French with natives I meet in real life, I still feel a bit timid, a little bit too afraid of making mistakes. I credit this, in part at least, to the fact that I tried to speak a lot in French when I was a beginner and it was very frustrating (as well as somewhat discouraging).

I am in favour of using all sensory skills to reinforce what I have learnt. Speaking is an important component and for most people this is the ultimate goal. Speaking helps get things into the long-term memory. When you speak you do not have time to think about what something is called, you have to remember it instantly. That puts pressure on the brain. So I like to apply what I have learnt immediately. I will normally use a new word or expression almost immediately if possible. I will make sure I use it with a native speaker and will make a note of new words so that I can go and ask a native speaker at the next opportunity. My aim is the speak the language and communicate with people therefore I need an active vocabulary at the speaking level.

However, 70-80 percent of my time is spent listening. I need to have heard the sound in my head to be able to remember how it sounds to be able to reproduce it. So yes before speaking I listen to material a number of times. I will repeat the same phrases with numerous people to make sure I got it.

I know no worse feeling than standing there and not being able to recall a word which I “should” know. A lot of speaking helps overcome that.

I am currently in a semi-silent period for German. I learn German at LingQ but also have a private tutor whom I meet with once a week at a coffee shop. She forces me to have conversations with her in German, even though my speaking ability is still very limited. It has helped me immensely. However, when I am not with my tutor, I focus mostly on reading and listening and don’t speak much.

So what does this all mean? I am in favor of a silent period in general. Before I got a German tutor, I spent a few months learning to read the sounds of German and acquired a basic knowledge of the language. I also draw a distinction between practicing the sounds of a language and practicing speaking it. I practice sounds often but don’t practice speaking often, unless I’m with my tutor.

A silent period helps your speaking because it gets you over the initial anxiety and confusion of hearing the language’s foreign sounds. But I can understand not wanting a silent period. When it comes to language learning, the philosophy should be: if it works for you, use it.