Dreaming of learning a new language?
Discover the secrets of speaking fluently.
By Guest Post
People decide to learn a new language for a variety of reasons. Work, love, or just the joy of acquiring something new all feature on the list of excellent incentives. And, of course, your language learning goals should (and most likely do) depend on how you’re planning to use your target language.
However, for the majority of foreign language students, speaking should be the only goal. This contradicts the way many of us (teachers included, sadly) think about the process. But there is a good reason to prioritize this particular skill above all else.
And here’s why:
The first reason has to do with the nature of language itself.
Despite what you might think looking at today’s world where most communication between people happens in the written form, Language (with a capital “L”) is a spoken phenomenon. In fact, around half of the languages on the planet today remain unwritten. And for the majority of human history, they were only spoken.
So, despite what it might seem like, writing is only a pale representation of language, not the real thing. And since you only have so much time on your hands, why not pour your efforts into acquiring the genuine form.
The customary approach says that four basic skills make up your language knowledge: listening, speaking, reading, writing. But that’s not to say that they’re all equally important. We already discussed why oral tradition is the most natural mode for any language. And since your learning goal most likely has to do with the ability to effectively communicate, speaking becomes vital.
In addition, if you prioritize speaking, you’ll naturally start improving in listening as well, as the two skills are complementary: you need to listen to your conversation partner to know what to say next. This way, the two most important skills (for seamless communication) develop hand-in-hand.
That just leaves reading and writing.
Of course, it’s hard to start speaking your target language without any vocabulary whatsoever. As a result, reading various language learning books remains a great way to acquire the basics. But cramming as much vocabulary in as possible shouldn’t become an end in itself. Instead, let the natural flow of conversation guide you to the vocabulary you need. You’ll soon discover that through practice, you’ve effortlessly learned enough new words to improve your reading skills.
And, as we’ve discussed, writing is simply a representation of spoken language. So, the more you speak, the better you write. Of course, your writing won’t be perfect but 9 times out of 10, but it’s better to focus on fluency over proficiency in your language learning.
“Hang on!”, you might say. If we can use the speaking-first logic to improve the other language skills, couldn’t we just invert the process and keep our noses in various textbooks. Why bother with the whole scary business of real-world communication?
The short answer is no – you can’t learn to speak from a book.
First of all, as we covered, writing is only a sad representation of spoken language. It can never fully capture the intricacies of face-to-face communication. So, even if you used books to increase your vocabulary to a near-native level, you would still miss out on very important non-verbal cues that can differ quite a lot from culture to culture. Not to mention that most vocabulary found in books is either out-of-date (real-world language changes fast) or would just sound incredibly stilted and awkward when spoken.
Additionally, speaking is something you can only ever hope to learn by doing it. If you’ve ever attended foreign language classes in school, you know that traditional methods fail to teach learners to actively use the very thing they’ve spent so much time in learning. And that certainly has a lot to do with treating speaking as only one of four important skills when it should be the be-all and end-all of language acquisition.
Language in the most basic sense is a verbal means of communication. This is something traditional teaching methods often forget and, thus, they end up failing students. But you can avoid the same fate by prioritizing speaking above all else. Forget about grammar and cramming vocabulary that you’re never going to use. Instead, go out and start having simple conversations with people as soon as you can to see a quick improvement in your language skills.
Liisi Pajula from We Are Teacher Finder has been an avid language learner as long as she can remember. These days, she splits her time between German and helping fellow enthusiasts find private language teachers.