(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.