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This post, we will tackle speaking. We all have experience listening to someone who is trying to communicate but is hindered by the way they are speaking the language. Once, when I was working in another country, someone from the class I was speaking told me that I was talking too fast. He was from New Zealand, and I am from the United States. We both speak English natively, yet my American accent was incomprehensible to him at a speed I thought was fairly normal.

Gentle readers, that was a very useful day for me, because now I automatically slow down and use more clear pronunciation when speaking to my Spanish friends who are learning English.

Now, as a language learner myself, I appreciate clear pronunciation even more. Want a quick example in English? Check out the first minute of this video from the movie Hot Fuzz (excellent movie, by the way!). Everyone is speaking English in the scene, but communication is seriously hindered by different pronunciation.

In my previous post about listening skills, I discussed the real-world challenge of tuning your ear to a new language. As I mentioned before, there are four major language development skills (at least in today's world): Speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

I recently figured out a mystery of my own speaking challenges in Spanish. When I asked for a Coca-Cola in Spanish, I was almost always asked to repeat myself. The native Spanish speakers were not able to understand me. Finally, I remember to ask a friend to correct me, and he told me that I was pronouncing the word wrong. I was pronouncing the word with a critical error based on my American English speaking.

I was saying "coke-uh-cola" (American pronunciation) instead of "coke-ah-cola" (Spanish pronunciation). I could not even hear myself make the mistake until I was corrected, even after I have lived here in Spain for multiple years. Many words that exist in both languages are made more difficult to pronounce because I already know the word and have my own pronunciation that I have not adapted to Spanish.

As a language learner, speaking in your new language requires a whole collection of language acquisition skills. First, you have to have sufficient vocabulary in what you want to say. You also have to be able to complete grammatical structures so your words make sense. Finally, you also need to be able to pronounce the words you are saying in an intelligible way. Each of these processes takes time to develop. Thankfully, there are lots of tools that can help you make sense of both vocabulary and pronunciation. The grammar can be learned through consistent study and practice.

As a language learner and an educator, here are some tips for speaking a new language on your own:

  1. Accept your mistakes. This is the hardest, but honestly the most useful advice I can give anyone. If you never practice speaking until you feel you will be 100% correct, you will struggle with fluency. Start simple, learn how to say, "I am a [language] student and I don't speak very rapidly." Make the effort to speak, and find friends who can help you practice in exchange for a cup of coffee or perhaps listening to their English. You will make mistakes, and you will live to see another day. It's uncomfortable, but you will improve over time.
  2. Consistency is key (and honestly, I struggle with this one). Being consistent with your language studies will almost always outperform "cramming" information. In this case, slow and steady study will give you more permanent language skills than overwhelming your brain for a short period of time. When I am practicing vocabulary, I finish in about 20 minutes. I can do several practices a day, but usually one session gives me new vocabulary that I can use right away.
  3. Practice time on / time off by spending a regular amount of time learning and then letting your brain rest and make new connections. This is critical, because your brain is literally rewiring your language centers by growing and strengthening neural pathways to accommodate new communication patterns. The same goes for the muscles in your mouth and face that are shaping new sounds that are different than the sounds you normally make.
  4. Build your vocabulary with a "timed repetition" tool and/or method. Commonly called a Zettelkasten method, this approach can be implemented using an electronic tool or simple notecards. The concept is deceptively simple: create 25-50 flash cards of vocabulary or grammar structures, then sort each card into several piles as you practice them: "100% Remembered", "Partially Remembered", "Don't Remember". Once you have your cards sorted, spend some time with the Partially Remembered and Don't Remember stacks. Put the 100% Remembered cards away for a week, but study the other two stacks and work on committing them to memory. The following day, add 5-10 new cards and start with the two stacks from the previous day. There are also a number of software tools that do this, including Anki, Quizlet, Remnote, and many others (these are ones that I have used). Some even already have flash cards (like 5,000 most common words) for many languages.
  5. Find videos or resources to help you pronounce words correctly. YouTube is a great source for this kind of practice, and work hard to really make your mouth shape clear, intelligible words. If possible, listen carefully to native speakers in countries that interest you, and then imitate that pronunciation. Search for "pronunciation practice [language or country]" to see what you can find.
  6. Find high school or college textbooks and educational resources for your language. These are great self-study resources that are cheap and readily accessible! If you are not taking a class with others, you can start your grammar and vocabulary learning by teaching yourself. I have used textbooks and teacher editions from 2008 or so, and they work perfectly well to introduce new information in paced, easily accessible modules. Many also come with videos that have been uploaded to YouTube so you can practice speaking and multiple language learning processes at one time, and you might even be able to find workbooks and answer keys for your texts.

These steps are not easy or quick. You have to make a concerted effort to practice speaking another language. There are days when my mouth muscles are physically tired from speaking Spanish, and when my brain goes into "caveman" mode and I can't remember appropriate vocabulary for the conversation. I make mistakes, a lot of them, and have had to overcome my fear of speaking to others again and again. However, my successes have outweighed my failures, and I can hold many conversations with friends who don't speak any English.

One final tip: Native speakers want you to succeed, so don't be afraid to ask for help. This has been an overwhelming truth of 95% of the people who have been forced to listen to my fledgling speaking skills. Asking for help or advice is almost always successful in someone coming to my assistance. It is not easy asking for help (see tip #1 above), or admitting you have made a language mistake, but the reward for making an effort demonstrates a willingness to share, learn, and grow. If you don't make mistakes, you will not improve, and speaking to others (whatever language you use) is a critical expat skill.

Now, get out there and make some mistakes! Happy learning!