Help, I understand but I can’t speak!

(This post comes as a response to a question on HTLAL, where someone asked for the best websites to teach him how to actually speak Hindi, although he already had excellent passive understanding of Hindi. I had a very similar experience with German where I could understand, but not speak. In this case, searching for a website that will give you magical knowledge is not what you need. Here’s my response: )

You might be better with something like Lang-8, where you attempt to write something and get it corrected. Also, reading more books would help you develop a better sense of intuition about the language (but won’t help you directly with actual speaking).

In my experience, if someone can already understand the language, but not speak it, the problem is just lack of speaking / writing practice. It feels really hard at first, but you have to try to come up with things to say, and when you don’t know how it would work, just come up with an approximation and then ask someone who knows. When you find out, then you know for next time. The process of just trying to talk a few times per week can have impressive results in a short amount of time, if you already have an in-depth understanding of the language passively.

Activation of that knowledge happens when you put some pressure on yourself to come up with something. You could be talking to yourself when nobody’s around, or you could be in a cafe trying to chat with someone. Sometimes it also helps to read something out loud, and try to act it out like you mean it, or imagine yourself saying that in some situation.

Even with languages that have widespread instruction amongst English speakers, such as German and French, there are very few, if any, web sites that are going to be able to just explain something to you in a theoretical sense and then suddenly allow you to be able to speak better. My feeling is that when you understand but can’t speak, it’s just a matter of speaking practice.

Online, try writing a blog, writing a diary, whatever, and have people on Lang-8 correct you. Think about the things you want to be able to say, and when you can’t figure out how to say it then write it down in a notebook, and then you can ask someone later. Practice saying helpful phrases. This is the stuff that has helped me with activation.

Try to concentrate on simple everyday tasks. Describe in simple terms what you did that day. If you can’t, you may have to look up some of the common words. Then try again. Describe what you did as you walked through a store…which items did you pick up, were you hungry, etc. Talk about what you want to do tomorrow. Once you’ve worked hard on describing the basics like this, then try moving to logical connectives. Try to explain the reason you did something, or explain some concept that you like to talk about.

All of these things are handy to know in all sorts of situations, and you have to deliberately practice them in order to get good at them. Get awesome at the fundamentals through practice, and then the harder things will just fall down easily with a little more effort.


5 Responses to Help, I understand but I can’t speak!

  1. WC says:

    I agree. Lang-8 (or something like it) is the way to go.

    I can’t even understand Japanese all that well, but Lang-8 has helped me learn to write better with the little that I do know.

    Also, a language partner is an excellent way to get better at speaking. Since you’re both there to learn to speak, neither of you will mind being corrected. You’ll find that you grow quite rapidly with a friendly partner to correct you, and since you both make mistakes, it isn’t really embarrassing when you do so.

  2. Andrew says:

    Well, the obvious answer is to actually speak! If you can find a native speaker locally, which is what Benny advocates, then you should do that (still waiting for him to explain how to do that, he’s promised but hasn’t done it yet), and the next best thing is to use a language exchange site and chat with people via Skype–you get live audio and video, so it’s 95% as good as having them there in person. What do you think?


  3. Bakunin says:

    Hi doviende, I’m not sure, but I would say if speaking doesn’t come naturally to you and you need to construct sentences piece by piece (and translating from your L1), then you haven’t had enough input yet. Speaking itself never helps apart from training the muscles in your mouth and as a strategy to elicit communicative input. Having a conversation has a different dynamic than reading a book (or watching a documentary etc.). The language used in a casual chat is different from the language in a book. If the expressions and behavioral conventions don’t come naturally to you, you might just need more input. Reading books (or watching documentaries etc.) will only help to a limited extent with the particular skill of having a conversation. I would rather recommend watching talk shows and TV series, or, maybe less useful, listening to talk shows on the radio. After some time you’ll notice how much more language just pops up in your head in communicative situations. At least that’s what I experience with English and French – the more I listen, the better and more fluently I speak.

    • doviende says:

      Although I agree with most of your comment, I disagree with the part saying that speaking only practices moving the speech muscles. Active vocabulary is much different than passive vocabulary, in my experience. Speaking forces you to think up the words that you want, and you need to do this in order to activate them. In German, for the past few months I’ve been struggling through activating my knowledge. Even though I understand almost everything that someone says to me (even mumbling), it has taken me a while to be able to spit things out fast enough. More listening hasn’t helped me nearly as much as just trying to think up the words over and over again. The more I speak, the better I can speak. I had a very very good accent months ago, so speaking more wasn’t at all necessary for training those mouth muscles.

      • Bakunin says:

        Hi doviende, thanks for your reply. I appreciate the conclusions drawn from your experience. My initial comment may have been too general. On further reflection, I’ve realized that sometimes I also need to ‘activate’ words and expressions, but mostly with words I’ve learned consciously (explicitly, deliberately) without getting enough exposure to them. Language that I’ve acquired is just there, without the need to activate it. It pops up and feels right. I prefer the latter, but I can see that activating the language may be useful.

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