How do I practice speaking on my own?

(This was a response to a question about how introverts can practice speaking a language. Not all language practice needs to happen in front of other people, if that makes you nervous.)

I’m increasingly starting to see a relationship between active language skills and playing strategy board games (like Go or Chess).

When playing Go or Chess, knowing the basic rules is not enough to play well. While you can calculate out a couple of moves, no one ever gets good just by learning those basic rules. What distinguishes the better players is that they automatically only consider the “good” moves, and can find a good move much faster.

In conversation, one can memorize all the grammar rules one wants, and perhaps you could calculate out a sentence based on grammar rules, but it’d be painfully slow. In the same sense as Chess and Go, the experts have a natural feeling for good sentences, and they just “come out” without thinking too much.

It’s my hypothesis that these are related to development of your brain with this new skill. You need to do some type of repeated deliberate practice to burn in some new pathways. In Go, you get good by solving practice problems, and imagining the stones in your head. Some people say you should just get better by playing more games, but that’s much slower progress for almost anyone. Doing targeted practice problems is superior, because you can find a bunch that aim for the same concept, and practice until you’re good at that concept, whereas it might only rarely be found in your games.

So, since I can, as a Go player, get much better at Go without playing any games with other people, merely by doing individual deliberate practice, how can we apply this to languages?

Firstly, let’s assume that you already have decent pronunciation (at least according to knowledge and production of all the sounds). If not, then do that first. Given that, I think step one is just reading out loud. You have some predefined content, so the bottleneck is not in coming up with material, and you just read it out and try to get it smooth. This will get you used to producing the language at a real speed. In all the languages I’ve studied, I experience a time period where I can pronounce everything very well if I’m doing it one or two words at a time, but for several sentences at regular speed, I get a lot worse. So, simple practice reading out loud.

Next, now that you can utter multiple sentences correctly when they’re already supplied, you want to work on your ability to produce those sentences. I think this relates well to the task in Go (and I suppose Chess) of having to practice imagining the next 3, 4, 5 moves in advance in your head. It’s hard at first, but improves with practice.

So one thing to start off with is to imagine some situation you might encounter, and then work out a bunch of things that you can say in that situation…which will probably take some time at first. Then, you can act out the situation while visualizing it in your head. Pretend it’s actually happening, and then try to give the response naturally, and imagine what the other person is saying next, etc. Basically, self role-playing and working through a number of scenarios so that you’ll be prepared when those scenarios come up.

This has the added effect of confidence, which is something I find quite important. When you actually get into one of these situations in real life, then you can quickly respond because of your practice. Given the confidence that comes from this familiarity with the situation, you can allow yourself to feel relaxed as the conversation proceeds, and hopefully you’ll be better able to draw on your passive vocabulary as things get more difficult.

Along with situational practice, I think one should also do structural practice, where you work on some sort of sentence pattern and try to substitute other things in. What immediately comes to mind for me is logical connectives. The conversations I prefer are the ones where we’re discussing something of interest to me, and I want to make a point about my opinion, or perhaps argue against someone else’s opinion (like, say, on a language forum ;).

Practicing logical connectives and explanations will be very helpful, no matter what the conversation topic is. There’s certain vocabulary necessary, and certain sentence forms, and they apply to almost anything, so you need to have them well-practiced so they come out fast and naturally. Then you can pause, if necessary, to search your passive vocab for whatever the difficult words might be, but the rest of the sentence will flow well.

So, in summary, come up with ways to practice on your own in such a way that you are pretending that this realistic scenario is happening, and you’re trying to make the words flow. You should research the words that are likely to happen in these scenarios and practice saying them genuinely, so as to build up your active abilities with them. Also, once is not enough. You need to do this many, many times in order to really burn it into your brain. If the strategy games are indeed a proper analogy, then thousands of practice runs will be necessary.

Oh, and one last thing, while I’m on the topic of games. I also find it much easier to practice a language when there are not as many expectations placed on me, and I’ve found that this is the case when playing board games! Play a game of Settlers of Catan or Agricola or something, and try playing the game entirely in your language. Describe what you’re doing (“I’m drawing two cards, and discarding one of them”). The speech required is very formulaic, and nobody expects you to say something deep and meaningful, or even to follow up anything you’ve said. You have fun playing the game, and it’s a low-pressure practice situation too :)

Some people seem to find it easier to try and gain this practice purely through going to bars or cafes and talking to real people, and a certain amount of that is necessary, but I firmly believe that a lot can be achieved by deliberate practice alone in the comfort of your own home. Once you’ve practiced and become a little bit better on your own, it won’t be such an issue to naturally talk to other people whenever you want.

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12 Responses to How do I practice speaking on my own?

  1. Randy says:

    REALLY good advice here. Would you be interested in reposting this as a guest post at Yearlyglot.com?

  2. Andrew says:

    That really was good, I’ve got it bookmarked and might write something about it myself and reference you. I think that actually speaking with native speakers is the most important aspect of learning a new language, but I’m really hesitant to say that it’s the ONLY thing that you should be doing.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  3. James says:

    That was really good language adivice! I’ve had the problem recently where I just walk around trying to make conversations with myself but have the problem with what to say. I just seem to be concentrating on the language and not relaxing. I suppose reading out loud those trashy chic novels, or whatever you call them, will help as they are written in a conversational manner.

  4. Amanda says:

    I agree with everyone else when they say this is good advice. I find that this is what I’ve been doing with my language learning–finding it easier to say individual words without a hitch and even sounding fine, but then having trouble with longer phrases, and finding it very useful to start with a base structure and opt in different words…ingraining a certain pattern into my language processing that is natural and easy to repeat.

    Anyways, I have a counter example to your statement that knowing the rules doesn’t make you a great player of go(or any game/thing), and I’m sure you have some of your own, but I really like this one…
    I was once told a story, and I really really wish I could remember the details, of a master violinist who studied the score to a violin concerto before playing it. He memorized and and worked out how he would play it before ever actually playing it. When he was ready, he picked up his violin and played. And that is exactly how he played it every single time after.
    When I was studying flute my teacher always emphasized how important it was to study the score of a new piece before even picking up my instrument. I would argue that reading a score and “knowing it” before playing it is similar to knowing the rules to a game before playing. However, knowing a score before playing it makes the first attempt, and all the way through to the point where you’ve mastered it, much better and your interpretation of the music is much deeper. Perhaps when you are decent in an instrument, you learn how to arrange your fingers and correct your embouchure, yadda yadda, and those are the rules that you need to practice rather than know, and reading a score and musicality are different. :/

    • doviende says:

      Thanks Amanda, that’s an interesting comparison. However, what I’m referring to is the actual skill of playing Go, which I would compare to the skill of playing the flute. If you took someone who had never played the flute before, and described to them every possible bit of information about how to play a flute, and they studied that information for a long long time but never actually touched a flute, they would still suck at flute playing after that. To change your brain to get better at the skill of flute playing, you have to do lots of actual flute playing.

      I do agree, though, that once one is highly trained in an instrument, the act of reading a score and imagining it being played can allow one to “practice” that score before actually playing it, but this is a result of already-existing skill, not the cause of skill.

      • Amanda says:

        Yes, I recognize that there is a difference between learning the physical skills required to play an instrument and the skill of reading a score. But I would still argue that learning how to extrapolate learning a score from reading it to playing is a skill that can be taught, given you have to be able to play first.

      • Amanda says:

        I will also add, unrelated-ly that one way I like to practice on my own is video chatting with myself. This takes out the pressure of talking with someone else and trying to have a conversation. I usually just say sentences to myself and say back another sentence with the same structure but different words. It really makes no sense.

  5. Ksenia says:

    It’s a wonderful article!
    I will try to do it with Italian that I am currently studying.
    I would like to translate some part to Russian and publish it on my blog with the link to this page. Can I do this?

  6. [...] Недавно я прочитала вот эту статью: How do I practice speaking on my own? [...]

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  8. Mike says:

    HOW TO PRACTISE ENGLISH LISTENING COMPREHENSION AND SPEAKING SKILLS.

    In order to have good skills in listening comprehension in English and to speak it fluently, a learner should practise listening to audio and video aids in English (dialogues, thematic texts and narrative stories) with subsequent speaking. It is preferable to have English transcripts of audio and video material. I suggest that learners practise listening comprehension with subsequent speaking on a variety of topics and with materials for all levels on a regular long-term basis in the following sequence:

    1. Listen to each sentence several times. Alongside listening see and read each sentence in the transcript.

    2. Make sure you understand everything clearly in each sentence in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

    3. Without looking into the transcript, try to repeat each sentence (say it aloud) exactly as you have heard it. Being able to repeat a sentence means that a learner has remembered its content.

    4. Listen to that particular conversation or text (story) in short paragraphs or chunks, say each paragraph aloud, and compare to the transcript.

    5. Listen to the whole conversation or story without interruption several times, and try to tell the content of the whole conversation or text (story) you’ve heard. You can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on that particular dialogue or text to make easier for you to convey the content in English. It is important to compare what you’ve said to the transcript.

    It is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio aid to compare it with the original audio/video recording.
    I believe that for practising listening comprehension and speaking in English it is a good idea to include various practical topics for potential needs of learners with comprehensive vocabulary on each topic. As you know the content of materials matters a great deal.
    Ready-made thematic dialogues, questions and answers on conversation topics, thematic texts (informative texts and narrative stories), grammatical usage sentences in the form of dialogues and texts, and sentences with difficult vocabulary on various topics, especially with fixed phrases and idioms can be used in practising listening comprehension in English.
    It’s possible and effective to practise listening comprehension and speaking in English on one’s own this way through self-check using transcripts, books, audio and video aids to provide additional solid practice and to accelerate mastering of English.

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