Mark & Steve – Learning to Speak

Study the transcript of this episode as a lesson on LingQ, saving the words and phrases you don’t know to your database. Here it is!

Mark and Steve talk about how to make the transition from understanding a new language to speaking that language. 

Mark: Hello everyone.

Welcome back for another EnglishLingQ Podcast.

Steve: Hi there.

Mark: Steve is joining me, Mark, again.

Today I guess we thought we’d talk about speaking a new language.

Steve: Well, yeah.

I’ve had some questions on my blog and I’m, in fact, going to do a video for YouTube on the subject.

One of my readers said, you know I’ve been studying the way we recommend, in other words…

Mark: When you say for YouTube, YouTube approached you to do a video for them?

Steve: I turned them down.

No, I occasionally put up videos on YouTube about language learning; Lingosteve, if you want to go and look for me.

I have a bit of a following there and so this person said would you please talk a little bit about how do you get from input to output?

In other words, we say that you want to build up your vocabulary, build up your familiarity with the language.

We have all kinds of tools at LingQ that help you do that, but some people say, you know I know so many words, but I can’t use them, I can’t speak.

Now how do you get to speaking?

So I thought we’d talk a little bit about that; my experience, but also you’re experience, because you played hockey in German-speaking countries, Italy, in Japan and, of course, you didn’t have LingQ.

You didn’t spend your time reading up and increasing your vocabulary and yet you were in a situation where you had to communicate with your teammates.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So let’s just first of all deal with that sort of defensive communication, you know social communication.

Mark: Yeah.

I just wanted to say that you definitely do hear the comment from people that you know I understand everything, I know the vocabulary, blah-blah-blah, but I just can’t speak.

What can I do?

I need to speak.

I guess that’s what we hope to touch on today.

My experience, yeah…I mean wherever I was I was in a situation where some of my teammates would have spoken English.

But wherever you are, especially in an environment that’s in another language, the more you can interact with the locals the more you’re going to get out of it.

So while I certainly wouldn’t consider myself fluent in those languages, any of the languages in the countries where I played, after a fashion I was able to communicate and interact.

I guess I got more out of it and I guess partly because whenever I was talking to my teammates, for the most part, it was in the dressing room or in the rink or hockey-related.

In that kind of environment the scope of the vocabulary that was being used was probably fairly narrow so that there was a lot of repetition there and after a while you start to pick up what’s happening and start to be able to interact.

Steve: So you’re basically learning from them, the expressions that they use.

And if you’re talking about hockey, of course, you know very well what they’re talking about; it’s a very familiar context.

Even if you’re out having a beer or something, again, the context is somewhat limited.

You’re familiar with it, you’re hearing what they’re saying and slowly and you’re in a situation where they’re your friends, so you’re not afraid and so then you speak.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So you’re not intimidated, it’s a familiar context, you have a limited range of tools that you can use and you use them over and over and over again.

Mark: That’s right.

Steve: In a sense, just the mere fact that you’re speaking in their language, even if you’re saying things that are completely stupid, which you weren’t, of course…

Mark: Of course not.

Steve: …or if you’re saying things that are completely grammatically wrong, it doesn’t matter.

You’re communicating with your buddies, with your teammates; it’s a very nice scenario.

We have often said that we find that say Russian hockey players that come to North America to play hockey, professionals, very quickly they speak English much better than some professor of nuclear physics who gives a course at the university that no one can understand.

Mark: Right, absolutely. I mean you see that all the time.

Steve: So how does that then relate to…say your objective is not to talk very simply about a very limited context, but to actually be able to communicate on a wide-variety of subjects to become fluent?

So that one person you don’t know what they’re going to talk about…

Mark: Right.

Steve: …it may not be a context that you’re very familiar with, it could be anything.

Mark: Right.

I guess I didn’t stay very long in any of those places, but if I had I would gradually be exposed to more and more different vocabulary.

If you’re in an environment where you’re surrounded by that language 24 hours a day and I guess start reading in that language and so on, you’re gradually going to expand the range of things that you can talk about and your vocabulary, but that isn’t the situation for most people.

Steve: No.

But I think what also happens is even where you have people who are in an environment where they can use the language all the time or maybe they’re obliged to use the language, such as immigrants, they will also develop sort of a defensive level.

Mark: Right.

Steve: And very often they’ll develop patterns or phrases that, in fact, are not accurate.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Because they started, in my view, speaking too much too soon they develop bad habits.

Mark: Right.

Steve: And so what I’m going to say in my video, and what I believe, is that to learn to speak well you have to speak.

At some point, eventually, you have to speak, you can’t just continue listening and reading.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But if you are trying to speak when you have very little familiarity with the language, very little sense of the language, very few words, you’re not familiar with how the words change according to tense or case, in some cases, if you don’t have these tools, then you can get kind of locked in to some sort of defensive phrases.

So my feeling is that at an early stage in learning a language you don’t need to speak very much.

You can speak a little and, as I say, speaking a little or writing a little helps make you a little more observant of the language.

It helps you become aware of where your gaps are, but you still have to get that from the listening and reading.

But now let’s say that you spent a year or six months, depending on the language, in my case for Russian, two years mostly listening and reading, now I want to speak.

Well, I have a lot of potential words that I can use.

I know a lot of words passively, now to start using them; I’ve got to use them.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So I think at that point you do have to start to speak.

Mark: Now how do you use them?

Do you make a little list and say I’m going to start using these words or just all of a sudden it comes out of your mouth in the conversation?

Hey, there’s that word I’ve been learning, I’m going to use that word.

Or do you consciously make a list of words you want to try and use in a session?

Steve: You know now that I’ve started talking with my two tutors at LingQ, I just find that I’m starting to be able to use certain words.

Some of them that I think I know and that I understand and I think that I know how to pronounce them, when I try to pronounce them they just come out…my tongue is tied in a knot and I can’t say them.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But then my tutors point out the problems or, particularly in our discussions, I’ll get a report and I’ll study that.

If I write then I can be even more adventurous using words that I’m not sure what they mean and then I get a correction.

So all of this is helping me, but it’s not enough.

If I wanted to become very fluent in Russian, at some point I’d have to go to Russia for a month and speak a lot of Russian in order to become very fluent.

The other thing, just to carry on, one thing that I was told, I went to an evening here.

They had this Philosophers’ Café here in Vancouver, which is normally in English run out of libraries and places like that; people get together and talk about different subjects.

I went to one; I saw that there was a Russian language one, so I was all excited.

I went to the Philosophers’ Café and I didn’t do too badly.

And one person said, you know, you speak Russian much more naturally…he said you make mistakes, but you speak more naturally than people who have been to a course, because people who have been to a course are very concerned about getting the right case and the right this and the right that.

Is it, you know par va do, par va da?

They’re trying to make sure they get it right.

When I speak I don’t worry at all about getting it right.

I am interested now — when I’m learning in our system I’m tagging for gender, for case, I’m studying it — but when I speak I don’t even worry about it, whatever comes out comes out.

Mark: Well, I find that half the time the more time you spend worrying and trying to get it right you’re actually better off letting it come out, because it’s actually in you.

You’ve heard it enough that the chances are it’s actually going to come out right.

Steve: Absolutely.

Mark: If you just kind of let it go and just kind of go for it.

Steve: Actually, you know letting it go, I think for pronunciation, for everything, the more you let it go and that’s the most difficult thing for adults to do.

Children don’t mind, children don’t mind saying something stupid.

Children don’t mind being childish, you know, adults do.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: So I think that’s it and the other thing I think, too, is just to build up.

You know one of my favorite sort of educators or people who talk about education is Rubem Alves.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I always talk about him and when I was learning Portuguese he said that the main job of an educator is to create hunger.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So when you build up this vocabulary and you build up phrases and you build up some knowledge of how the language works, there comes a point when you want to speak, it’s almost starting to explode out of you.

You’ve got to get to that point where you want to speak, you want to find people and you want to talk at them and if it’s wrong it doesn’t matter.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So no longer is the teacher saying say this and you’re afraid that you’re going to be judged and it will be wrong.

No, I’ve now got so much in me that I want to put it out there.

Mark: Right.

Although, having said that, I mean I still think…like the first few times I signed up to speak French I was a little bit nervous, I hadn’t spoken French.

You know I don’t know if it was necessarily I had this burning desire to use it, I thought I just have to do it.

Because once I’ve done it once or twice, which was the case, after the first time you’re much more relaxed.

Actually, I did fine, I did fine; I can carry on a conversation.

Yeah, I stumble at times, but I get confidence from being able to carry on a conversation and every time feel like, more or less, I’m improving all the time and obviously adding more vocabulary and improving comprehension all the time.

Steve: I still think the knowledge of the language comes from the listening and reading.

But you have to develop the skill of retrieving what you’ve learned, so you do have to speak and you do have to write.

Mark: And the confidence that you can.

Steve: And the confidence that you can, so that’s a specific skill.

There is another one and this is a little bit maybe farfetched, but I did some reading a while back about mirror neurons.

Now it is true, when they measure people’s brains and see what the neurons are doing, if you are a piano player and you hear someone play the piano the mirror neurons will fire the same way, whether you are listening to the piano or playing the piano.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But this only works if you are a piano player.

My logic tells me if you are someone who has practiced speaking the language then when you hear the language it is doing more for developing your ability in your brain, these mirror neurons, so, in a sense, starting to do a little bit of speaking without worrying about how accurate you are.

That really doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is that you’re trying to speak…

Mark: Right.

Steve: …and that develops your ability to observe the language and to develop the ability, eventually, to use it again.

So I think the speaking, however much you struggle and stumble, as long as your goal is not to be perfect, as long as you’re not afraid, then the speaking is a good thing to do and as you become more confident, as you have more vocabulary, well, you end up doing more of it.

But, eventually, you do have to do a lot; in order to be able to speak fluently you do have to speak, there’s no question.

Mark: Right.

But, I mean I think…you know you say you’d have to go to Russia for a month, but probably after a day or two in Russia you’d be feeling pretty good.

There’ll be room for improvement, but you’ll probably feel like you can deal with most situations.

Steve: What I find is this.

Where I go, let’s say I was recently in Germany, the first couple of days you find you’ve ramped up now, you’ve really improved, then you might hit a plateau and feel you’re not doing very well; you know it’s not an even thing.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Of course you don’t know whether you’re not doing as well, you just think you’re not doing as well.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But at the end of the two weeks that I was in Germany and then I come back, I know that my German has improved.

The interesting thing, too, is that the two weeks I didn’t spend on my Russian, my Russian has improved.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I’m sorry and a lot of people have confirmed this, this benign neglect of the language that you’re really working on.

I think the reason is, again, from my reading of how the brain works, the brain likes fresh things; it likes new things, it’s stimulating for it.

So, to some extent, the more you spend time hammering in trying to remember Russian cases and stuff and it’s just not going anywhere, or at least you don’t think it’s doing anything for you, then you go away from that for two weeks and do another language, it’s fresh, it’s stimulating, you come back and what do you know, you’ve also improved in the other language.

But we go round and round in circles on this.

Mark: Yeah, that’s right.

Steve: But, again, it would be interesting to hear from other people on how they find their experience.

How do you get from this input-based learning, which I’m quite convinced is how we learn.

We don’t learn from theoretical explanations.

We can review tables, we can review rules, but, fundamentally, we learn by hearing it often enough…

Mark: Right.

Steve: …but then how to convert that into using it correctly.

Mark: And because there are a lot of people that say, oh, I just need to speak, I just need to have conversations.

I guess we’re saying you do need to have conversations in your target language, but we’re not saying that you don’t still need to do the other.

The listening, reading and vocabulary review is still the core, that’s where you’re really making your improvement and the speaking is, yeah, to be able to start to transfer that knowledge and to give yourself the confidence.

Steve: The other thing, too, is to speak you need to speak.

It’s a full-time job, you’re talking to someone.

Mark: Right.

Steve: My listening I can do it driving home, I can do it doing the dishes, so it’s a lot easier to organize.

So it’s inexpensive, it’s easy to organize, it’s practical, it’s effective, so that’s where I spend 70-80% of my time.

But I do enjoy now the opportunity to speak in Russian and if there were more Russian speakers around I’d do more of it.

Mark: Yep.

Steve: We kind of went round and round with that subject.

Mark: Well, that kind of covers that.

Steve: Yeah.

We’d like some feedback and some different opinions.

Mark: Absolutely.

Let us know how you’ve done, either on your first attempts on trying to speak in English or in another language and ongoing experiences that you have trying to speak English.

Steve: Well, that’s right, the drive to fluency.

I mean we hear a lot from people who are quite far along in the language, but would like to be better.

That’s the other thing I would just maybe leave with, you know, you’re never going to be perfect, you’re always going to make mistakes.

So it’s good that you feel that you want to be better, but don’t ever expect you’re going to be perfect.

Mark: Well and, really, the same holds true in your own language.

You’re always improving your ability in your own language.

You don’t realize it maybe necessarily, but usually older people speak better than younger people, just because they’ve been speaking the language for longer.

That’s just…

Steve: …because of our education system.

Mark: Right.

Steve: That’s another subject.

Mark: Anyway, we’ll talk to you all another time.

Steve: Alright, bye for now.

Mark: Bye-bye.

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