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Do we overemphasize speaking?

People frequently say their goal is to be able to speak a language. They ask for advice. People often reply, "To learn to speak, well, you have to speak." Undoubtedly, that's true, but there's also a question of degree. I just reflected briefly on my personal experience learning my first foreign language, French. I'm American. Our language instruction has a tendency not to be great. However, I was lucky to have been able to start comparatively early, so I had six years of French by the time I finished high school. And I'd only ever had one speaking test (the AP exam, which I did ok but not super well on), and I'd rarely spoken at all. I'd heard only a very limited amount of spoken French that wasn't straight-out-of-textbook-exercise sort of stuff. Yet, when I went to France for a language program, I was placed into the most advanced course level (largely on the basis of a speaking test), and when I got there I could understand basically everything, even complex grammar explanations conducted in a much more authentic form of French than I'd ever had substantial exposure to, and I found I could say pretty much whatever I wanted. Then within a couple weeks I could basically talk to anyone and understand most everything they said, even though I just know my vocabulary wasn't large (I always hated vocab drills so never learned more than the minimum required, if that).

So how did I do all this? OK, obviously two weeks of an intensive language program helped, but clearly it was mostly from those years of slogging away on homework, written homework. And written class exercises. Which leads to an interesting, frankly pretty hopeful takeaway: master a forward tree and, very importantly, its reverse — b/c target language writing , and you could well be on the threshold of spoken fluency even without having put specific focus on speaking (obviously this assumes you have some minimal grasp of the production of the sound system).

It's only a hypothesis, obviously. I know my French vocab wasn't large, but I don't know how it compares to what's in a Duolingo forward-reverse tree combo (which obviously varies by language, as well). And maybe those few halting spoken interchanges with ever-recalcitrant classmates helped me more than I recognize. Or the oft-noted "impracticality" of Duolingo might leave one grasping for words in everyday situations my textbooks might have better prepared me for. But I wonder about the experience of anyone who's gotten a really good grasp on a tree combo in one of the closer-to-English languages (obviously it's a different story in a Russian or a Swahili without the stock of obvious cognates that so facilitates things). When you've gone and spent a while in a place where your target language is spoken, how have you fared?

November 12, 2017


  • 1945

Hi Adam!

IME, the need of speaking skills depends on how you use the language. For translation work, it is not critical. For immersion in the culture/interpreter work, it is a must! As you most likely know, vocabulary and proper grammar are only part of speaking. Proper pronunciation becomes an important factor for efficient/effective verbal communication...

Long time no chat! Daniel


In general, I agree - my reading/translating ability in Italian far, far outpaces my speaking skills.

However, I think even for translation it is needed. There Is spoken slang that is colloquial, and slippery untranslatable words and phrases you just need to hear in people’s mouths to really “get.” Words that seem to be synonyms aren’t always. My reading ability improved exponentially after a recent trip to Italy because somehow the language just was more fluid and musical in my head.

  • 1945

I am glad to know that it helps you with your translation work. My experience is different and I may very well be the odd person!

On a separate note, I believe that Adam's original point is different than mine! He is talking about overemphasizing the skill. I am talking about the importance of speaking in different contexts.


My husband and I lived in Firenze for a year in 2015. We had both been doing Duolingo for some time before we left. I was attending a printmaking course which was supposed to be in English as well as Italian, but was mostly in Italian- the course was full time so I couldn't attend a language class as well. I found that I could understand a lot of what was said , but as for speaking!!!!........ My fellow students had a little English from when they were at school, some of them had no English and as they were from different regions of Italy they had different accents and some were hard for me to understand (especially the two from Livorno).

If my fellow students were speaking together in a group I had no hope of understanding them- they used a lot of slang and everything seemed to run together (like one really long word punctuated with laughter, swearing and hand waving!!) If they were speaking to me they would speak much more slowly and I had a better chance of understanding. My husband fared much better as he seems to have a better ear for picking up what people say- he made friends with lots of my fellow students and when we travelled around on holidays and weekends he would get into conversations with people on the train and in shops.

Since we came home (Australia) we have continued learning and are attending an Italian conversation class and I am a lot better, but I still get hung up on a word when people are speaking and then get the whole context wrong because my brain goes off in another direction. So, in my answer to your comment (sorry I took so long to get there!)

I think speaking the language you are learning is really important, especially a language like Italian that requires such precision in pronunciation ... I have met people who have a much smaller vocabulary than I do, but they can converse quite happily in Italian, they have got the small talk down pat and I haven't. I get too hung up on the grammer and I think I must want to be able to say the same things in Italian as I would in English. I think it's wonderful that you were able to speak in French when you arrived in France, just the fact that you are learning so many languages says that your brain is geared towards language learning. I used to say that I wanted Italians to come with subtitles as I am pretty good at reading Italian!!


Could you please use paragraphs to make reading your post easier? Thanks.


First I'm going to talk about Korean. I've been studying it on/off for 5 years. I'm very good at listening, and okay at reading. But I'm bad at speaking. I know in my head how words should sound, but whenever I try saying them, it comes out differently. So my pronunciation is absolutely terrible. Aside from a brief 2-week Korean Skype friend, I've never actively spoken Korean out loud. I do believe, for myself, that my pronunciation will get better after I spend more time actually speaking the language.

For Spanish, though - my pronunciation is a little off sometimes, but I'm already better at it than Korean. I believe this is because English and Spanish are more similar than English and Korean.


I agree that the more time you spend speaking, the easier it will be. One thing I do is read out loud. It helps me make connections between the text and the sounds of the language. And I have one other strategy with Spanish that helped me a lot if you are interested. In a really basic sense, it allows one to practice making the sounds, strengthen the muscles used to make the sounds, make it seem more natural, and I think it facilitates more fluid speach as ones ability to make the word sounds becomes better. It also in a basic sense—and I can't stress how much I want to stress basic—a way to self evaluate and improve ones pronunciation. Making the sounds over, and over is how kids learn, and this can be replicated okly with this strategy, comparing native speaker pronunciation to how one is self evaluating. Maybe not everyone can do this? Maybe I have good auditory proccessing, but it is a skill I have gotten better at. And I haven't met anyone personally who does this, but it has been really good for learning for me. Like, if I read for 30 minutes in Spanish, if I go and talk with people after I am way more fluent because I start functioning in the language. And that is another basic thing! It can help one start thinking more in the language, not specifically dependant with the level understood. An idea, for you.


Thank you for your advice, EnzoKrensky. I'll try it out :)


Learners are individuals. Some people learn best by absorbing information in conversation. Personally, I need to see a word or a phrase in writing or I will not be able to remember it or use it in context of other things I have learned. I also need to understand the rules behind the structure of any phrase.

The good thing about those written exercises you had to do is that they taught you how to create phrases you have never been taught by using grammatical information the repetition in those exercises cunningly sneaked into your brains.


I am still a bit like you for learning arabic. However, with Spanish, I learned how hear a words and instantly know how its spelled (and like obviosuly, it is not that hard with Spanish with its straightforward phonetics). But it was a helpful skill for me learning things verbally that I developed.

I just started reading out loud in the language, and before that, I would just read the vowels (which are different from english, and I adapted too, essentially coding my brain so that I know what sound those makes in an internalized fashion. And it worked quite well).

As for understanding the structure of each phrase, I don't always need to know that, though I like to know the logic some time, but I have gotten very good at dealing with ambiguity in communicative settings, and with my experience learning languages I can come up with a pretty good hypothesis to how stuff works just hearing a little and not getting a direct grammar explanation. I absorb a lot tacitly, and it is helpful, especially for stuff like arabic. And those skills were absolutely developed so that I could learn without having to see each word.


I saw the same happen to a close friend of mine with English. Needless to say that public education in Brazil, specially English education, is just terrible. We had the luck to study in a private school, though, which had a barely ok English. One wouldn't become fluent by it. This friend, however, managed to understand and communicate at a certain degree solely because of it.


I actually largely agree with you. I think as children we receive so much more input by listening than foreign language learners ever do before they're asked to start speaking. I've found my speaking ability goes up much faster if I read a lot, because my brain is much better at replicating the structures and grammar that I've gone through hundreds of time by reading, so my brain is able to put the sentences together much faster.


I totally agree. I've always struggled with the speaking and listening aspects of learning languages. I don't know why but I really struggle to distinguish the sounds people are saying, even when I understand the words they're saying perfectly. And it always bothered me. But then I went to Argentina only really able to read and write Spanish, and to my surprise found that speaking and listening stuff sort of took care of itself once I actually got there and my ears attuned to hearing it all the time.

I think as long as you have a solid base of grammar and vocab (which for me is easiest to learn through reading and writing), it then just takes time to 'click' with the spoken stuff. Whereas if you focus too much on speaking and listening, you might be able to have a really fluent-sounding everyday conversation, but you'll struggle to elevate your language to the point where you can discuss complex ideas without that framework of grammar to build on. Or at least that's true for me, others may find it easier to absorb information aurally. Maybe that's why I prefer reading to watching films too, stuff I'm listening to seems to go in one ear and out the other!


I say speaking is one of the best way to learn, because I have done and it works, for me; and I have seen lots of other students not do it, and stagnate.

I went to Cuba with a year of college Spanish, being able to say very litte, and I just went around and tried to talk to people about random stuff. I was learning pronunciation, sentence structuring, how to communicate meaning when I really didn't have a strong vocabulary—like I don't know how to use hacer and decir. When I came back, I felt like I got at least a semester in the language, and I was only there for a week.

When I have spent time in Arabic speaking areas with 1 semester of college arabic, I found it helped my pronunciation, but I still wanted some more instructure to develope more, and actually understand more of what was going on. It did help my pronunciation, and my speaking practice not specifically there helped me get to 3rd year arabic in a year because I knew how utilize my Arabic better than all the students around me for the time put in—and this is in large part because I had learned Spanish, I had spent a lot of time learning how to communicate (and remember this too, all but one of the other students who probably could have benefited more from the easier class had a year more than me). While some people had stronger understanding of grammar terms specifically, I knew how to use it which was better in a larger sense. Thats how I place my values looking at it.

As for your last question, I did a laddered Portuguese and Reverse course from Spanish, and I have been learning other languages from it, like French and Italian. For me, I spent a lot of time listening, their is a good amount of time I have invested in translating here from the language and into various languages, and I got a pretty good understanding of the language, and how to utilize my Spanish knowledge well to learn it (and also the communicative and hypothesis making strategies that come with speaking—and I think the second point is a big one. When people speak they are using the information they have to try to convey meaning, hopefully in a correct way. Practicing doing that is a great way to remember things, learn lessons, but a lot of people are nervous doing that. I just have tried to talk to the best of my ability, and I have consistently learned new things as such). But first thing, I had some pronunciation stuff with the language because I hadn't gotten a lot of real exposure; I sometimes went to my university portuguese club to try to understand, and say what I could with my really basic knowledge, which helped a lot, but I didn't do a lot of stuff like that. Then say fast forward a few months, having done most of the course and still exposing myself to Portuguese with movies and things as such. I started trying writing in groups of Brazilians, to my Brazilian friends, writing here in Portuguese and getting better. I think like a month ago I talked with my friend who was a big influence on me starting portuguese, and he thought like that he was going to teach me the basics, because remember something—I have had like no formal instruction (save 2 weeks of Portuguese class, which was helpful for pronunciation, a little vocab, and some cultural knowledge). I could basically understand most of what he said—sometimes I would have to ask in Portuguese and he gave some pointers on accent stuff. And I could communicate pretty well! When I think about learning a language, I like the speaking part, and when I got done talking with him, I felt I could speak a little less patchilly and I could go between words a little faster. While all my practice wasn't speaking, I was typically keeping in mind how I would use what I knew to Speak (and all this is influenced by my history learning languages).

For your hypothesis, sure doing the tree and reverse tree could get one on course, but I think if someone was like going on Lingbe and talking before they have finished both courses, they will fair better because they have gotten more exposure and practiced a good learning skill—though clearly different practices can mutually reinforce ability, and individual language goals affect the framing of what is good. Learning Arabic, I based a lot of what I saw should the proposite of the system here: learn grammar concepts and useful sentences in a practical way from flashcards. I think I would have done better with more speaking practice, and when I started doing more listening outside of class, I started to get way better, way faster. I think your hypothesis depends, like with so manyt things. How much one learned from the tree, your right to say people need to have an ok understand of the sound system, and their ability to synthesize that in the speech are factors; at least this. Would I say it is possible? I think it can put one on a functional level in the language, at least in a communicational sense that can develop much more. I think that is possible. And I think speaking is an important way to learn. And I like your hypothesis, but posit this: if you had been speaking more—like say some language exchange with a native speaker—during your years in High School, I bet you would be even better now. Is Speaking necesary? again, it depends on what one wants to do, and I think it is a good learning strategy I like, and its not that everything is 'necessary' —though some things are more helpful than others. And one last tidbit (yes I know this is long). When I was in Spain for two months, I was in a class where all the other students had had one or two semesters more worth of Spanish than I did (though I had done a lot outside of class, and spent a week in Cuba that helped a ton). They were all afraid to speak with other people; I was not. I would walk to random people on the street or wherever the hell I was, and just start talking; no kidding, I had one conversation that lasted like 2, 3 hours and we went and got coffee, dinner, and beer! When the program was doing, I was basically fluent because I had spent so much time putting what I knew into practice. There was one other individual in the class who didn't like making mistakes, and was all into the technicalities to the grammar; I was far away from this, because when I got a basic sense of the grammar, I just went and talked to people even if I was making errors, and eventually they got ironed out even though I didn't do the textbook way of learning stuff—I did immersion, which is a lot more like how native speakers learn language. Which I don't think everyone takes into account. But long story short(er), by the end of the program I was basically fluent! And then there are all these other kids who were no where close to that and could barely put together sentences. While I acknowledged the subjectivity of context and biology with people, I think speaking is a good way to learn. And its fun.

Those are some of my thoughts.

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