Increasing confidence in speaking

2010-06-15

I’ve been wandering around Munich for a few days, and I’ve had many more chances to speak. By now I’m quite convinced that it’s totally fine to wait until late in the game to speak. Spending so much time just listening and reading last year was the right thing to do.

With a pretty decent level of understanding, you can go quite far in practical situations. I’m finding it quite easy to pick up new words, because I can get them from context, or I can just ask someone what it means, and I usually understand their entire explanation. If I were working on a minor language (ie one that I don’t intend to pursue in-depth), then I’d be quite satisfied with my level right now. I can read novels that I like, I can go for dinner with friends and talk with their German-speaking parents. I can understand most of what people say in a noisy bar, and I can get my basic meaning across verbally.

German, however, is not a minor language for me, since I have some family background and other motivation to learn it. Therefore, much further work is required. One thing I’ve been trying to do is improve my verbal nimbleness. There are a lot of phrases that are still like tongue-twisters for me, especially when involving a mix of “ch”, “sch”, and “s” in sequence.

Good pronunciation is firstly a result of LOTS of listening, in combination with some knowledge of the general workings of the mouth, and some specific knowledge about what sounds exist in your target language. After that, you’ll have the tools required to practice speaking. Sure, try a bit out early on if you like, but at this point I sorta think that most of your speaking practice should wait until you have the above items first.

My personal speaking practice consists mainly of coming up with something I may need to say, and then trying some variations on it. I try to add more words to it, or say it differently, and then I repeat each of those a bunch while listening to myself very carefully, and trying to correct my mistakes. This sort of iteration is only worthwhile after LOTS of listening, because then you know a lot about what the language *should* sound like, so that you can correct yourself. This is even better to do if you have a native speaker around that can repeat the phrases over and over for you, and correct your mistakes, but it’s sometimes hard to find someone willing to do that for you, and they’re not usually present at all times when you wish to practice.

Today, I decided to work on my numbers a bit, which sounds like a basic topic, but I realized I don’t have them drilled into my head enough to be really natural at them, so I need more practice. My main problem is that 2-digit numbers in German are “backwards” compared to English, so something like “twenty-three” becomes “three-and-twenty” in German. It’s sort of embarrassing when someone asks for 24€ and you start looking for more than 40€ because you think they said 42€.

Anyway, as I was walking down the street by myself, I just started counting from 1 to 100 over and over. Every time I made a mistake, I’d go back to the nearest multiple of 10 and go through them again. My goal was to be able to do it fast and completely effortlessly, and I’m hoping that by drilling this into my head like this, I’ll also be able to recognize spoken numbers at lightning speed too. For every number I spoke out loud, I also visualized the written form.

During something like a bike tour, where you have plenty of “free” time during the day while you’re riding, it helps to also have a little notepad with you at all times. I tend to come up with a lot of things that I don’t yet know the words for, so then I write them down in my notepad to look up later, along with an example of what I was trying to say.

Things like this that have some personal importance to you are very valuable, because that experience of wanting to know them will aid your memory later when you actually look it up and try to use it in practice. If possible, you should also put anything you looked up into a flashcard program too, so then you won’t have to look it up in the future.

So, all this speaking practice is fine, but I also need more vocab! I just went to a bookstore here today and bought a novel. Last year, the latest book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan (and now Brandon Sanderson) came out, but I was too busy working on my German reading skills to stop and read a big long English novel. Fortunately, it’s now available in a German translation, so I can finally read this eagerly-awaited continuation of the series, and also spend a lot of time studying German in the process. The best way to “study” is to do something you would do anyway, except all in your target language.


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