I‘ve heard a lot of language bloggers and even English students here in Prague say that to really learn and speak a language you need to ‘speak, speak, speak.’
My message is simply: ‘speak and be active.’
I’m an introvert and for me to learn a language and speak it better, I get a lot of value from ‘reflective time’ and doing activities other than speaking.
Don’t get me wrong – speaking is still essential. But it’s not the only thing you can do.
Beyond ‘Just Speaking’
For example, I find reading really helpful. I get to see the words (I benefit from visual activities) and this helps me remember them when I speak or write to people. I’m also more likely to immerse myself in the language as I try to understand what the writer is saying, and work out if there’s any deeper meaning beyond the words they use.
And these days reading need not be something formal or something altogether different from spoken English. If you check out many news sites, webzines, and magazines for women and men, you’ll see the language used is often snappy spoken English: full of phrases, idioms and collocations.
Writing too across a range of genres can help you see differences in formality, register and style, and this can help your speaking when you come across people from different backgrounds. For instance, I found writing essays and stories in French years ago helped me see how French sentences are constructed, and how I could better develop the points I wanted to make.
Even looking at your favourite English coursebook or collocations guide can help you. Recently I got one new book for my students which presents features of spoken English. It’s full of useful observations on how English native speakers communicate with each other. For example, one unit deals with the different ways we use ‘actually’, ‘just’ and ‘really’ in everyday speech. It’s gold for anyone looking to get a deeper insight into spoken English.
‘Speak, speak, speak’ can have its limits
There are two main problems I have with ‘just speaking’. The first one is that if I’m in the middle of the conversation, trying to interact, express myself and listen to the other person, I’m less likely to be able to make deep observations about the language.
I’m less likely to see the full picture.
Sure, now that I’ve been teaching for many years I can notice some aspects of a language quite well, but non-speaking time can help fill in some gaps for me that I wouldn’t learn from ‘just speaking.’
Related to this, one advantage of reading, writing, listening, and looking at useful vocabulary and grammar books is that you will have the opportunity to learn more about which vocabulary and grammatical constructions are more frequent. Yes, speaking itself will help a lot here, but an integrated approach to learning will help build a better all-round communicator.
The second thing about ‘speak speak speak’ is that while I totally agree it’s a vital part of learning, I grow and learn when I have time to myself to reflect on the language. As I said, I’m an introvert – I value time on my own, and this is beneficial for how I develop.
Be active, not an avoider
Speaking is still an essential ingredient of language learning. I’m not giving you excuses to avoid going out and speaking.
I am however saying that simply being active and in charge of your learning is a better overall philosophy to have than just ‘speak speak speak’.
So a new rule can be: speak as much as you can and be active in the language outside of ‘speaking time.’
david [at] GetIntoEnglish [dot] com