When Should You Start Speaking a Foreign Language?

"Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free" - Jim Morrison

In the human mind, there is one fear that has been shown to be more salient than any other.

No, not the fear of death...

...the fear of public speaking.

The mere thought of having to speak in front of a crowd will send most people into a panic.

It's no surprise, then, that the most common fear of language learners is something quite similar — speaking their target language to a native speaker.

For language learners, speaking can often represent an invitation for self-doubt, criticism, potential embarrassment, and a whole host of other negative emotions. And yet, the large majority of learners are well-aware that speaking is perhaps the most essential skill of language, and so cannot be avoided forever.

This push—pull, this desire to know how to speak without ever taking the risk of actually speaking, is the impetus for one of the most common questions I get from other learners:

When should I start speaking my target language?

There is no one correct answer to this question. Instead all answers lie on a spectrum between two extremes:

  • Start speaking immediately
  • Amass input, then speak

Each of the above approaches to speaking has its own advantages (pros) and disadvantages (cons).

Start Speaking Immediately

This approach consists of starting to practice speaking as soon as you begin serious study of your target language.

PROS:

  • Your speaking skills will improve faster - It may seem obvious, but the earlier you start to speak your target language, the sooner you will actually speak it well.
  • You will become comfortable with making mistakes - Mistakes are an inevitable part of language. When you speak from the start, you will make many, many mistakes, but also come to realize that these mistakes provide valuable opportunities for growth, correction, and experimentation in language use.
  • You will be able to see your skills improve in action - With each conversation, you will notice that you are making less mistakes than before, and becoming more adept at managing a conversation. The ability to directly observe your growth can provide an invaluable boost in motivation.

CONS:

  • You will need a strong mindset - Speaking from the start can be traumatic for the inexperienced, as learners who follow this method must attempt conversation with extremely limited vocabulary, phrases, and general knowledge of the target language. If you decide to speak early on, you will have to develop the mental fortitude to withstand the potential errors, the awkwardness, and misunderstandings that come with limited language ability.
  • You will face resistance from native speakers - Native speakers unaccustomed to interacting with learners can be impatient, discouraging, or downright rude to those who attempt to speak with extremely limited knowledge of the language. Even the most polite natives will often switch to a better-known mutual language to alleviate the stress on the beginner speaker. As an early speaker of your target language, you will need to learn to manage these varied responses, and push forward regardless of any resistance you may face.
  • You may not be understood, and others may not understand you - If you speak from the very beginning, your early speech will likely be heavily laden with mistakes, misunderstandings, and lapses in communication. In addition, you may lack the passive knowledge (of vocabulary, cultural norms, idiomatic expressions, etc) to actually understand what is being said back to you. As mentioned before, you will need to become comfortable with this uncertainty, and be willing to ask native speakers to slow down, rephrase, or clarify their responses.

A mass Input, Then Speak

This approach consists of starting to speak weeks, months, or even years after serious study of target language begins.

PROS:

  • You will have more language knowledge to draw from when speaking - With time, a learner is able to build a base of both passive and active language knowledge. Passive knowledge is particularly useful for helping learners understand what is said to them, while active knowledge is the repertoire of words, phrases, and other elements that learners can actually utilize while speaking. With more time and preparation, your passive and active knowledge bases will inevitably grow larger and more versatile.

CONS:

  • You will risk developing "Perfectionist Syndrome" - Learners who focus on language input before shifting focus to language output can develop perfectionist tendencies. As increased input theoretically decreases the likelihood of errors, learners who wait to speak delude themselves into thinking that by delaying speaking, they will be able to avoid making errors altogether.This is simply another form of procrastination, and most learners who employ this strategy never actually begin speaking at all, for fear of making mistakes. Even if you do begin speaking after amassing a lot of input, you may find that there is a large, persistent gap between your listening and speaking skills which will be difficult to fully eliminate.

When You Should Start Speaking Your Target Language

As stated before, the above examples represent the two most extreme approaches towards beginning to speak a foreign language.

In reality, the "right time" to start speaking for you will lie more towards the middle of the spectrum, based on both objective factors (i.e. factors independent of you) and subjective factors (i.e. factors dependent on you).

1 - Objective Factors: Language Distance

If your target language has internal structures (i.e. syntax, morphology, grammar, lexicon) that are more similar to those of your native language, you will find it easier to speak from the beginning.

Conversely, if your target language has internal structures that are very different from those of your mother tongue, you will have more difficulty when it comes time to speak it.

This is usually most evident when comparing the syntax of your target and native languages.

To give you a personal example, let me describe my experiences with Japanese.

Prior to learning Japanese, I had only studied languages with a Subject-Verb-Object word order.

In those languages, sentences are structured like this:

I saw the dog

As Italian shares this SVO structure, all my prior languages were syntactically close. Because of this closeness, I was able to start speaking these languages very quickly, as I had to devote fewer mental resources to navigating sentence structure.

Japanese, on the other hand, has a very distant syntax in relation to those languages. Instead of SVO, it is an SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) language. This results in sentences structured like so:

I the dog saw

This seems like a simple change when looking at a short sentence, but when dealing with more complex sentences and different types of phrasing, moving from SVO to SOV can require all sorts of mental acrobatics.

I tried to counter this difficulty by waiting to speak. But waiting turned to procrastination. When I finally began speaking Japanese, I had been studying it for over a year.

And sadly, after all that time, I was no better off! When I spoke, I tried to make the well-formed, intricate sentences that I had read in books and heard in audio, but I couldn't do it. Despite all of the input I had amassed, I lacked experience in navigating the syntax and social structures that are such an integral part of spoken Japanese. One year plus of input counted for practically nothing.

Looking back, despite the syntactic distance between Japanese and all the other languages I knew, I believe I would have been better off speaking earlier, and relying heavily on simple syntactic structures and politeness levels, before moving on to more complicated ones.

Simply put, language distance (and specifically syntactic distance) may play a part in how soon you choose to speak a language. A close language will be much easier to speak from the start, while a distant language will give you more difficulty.

2 - Subjective Factors: Previous Experience

The more often you do something you are scared of, you will automatically become less scared of doing it. This "desensitization" process is a key part of behavioral psychology, and plays a large part in many phobia therapies.

Language learners who have had prior practice speaking to natives will be more willing to engage in conversation with natives in the future, even if they were originally resistant to speaking.

This works across languages. So, if you've learned French, and already know that you're capable of speaking effectively in French, then you will find it easier to speak earlier on when beginning to learn Hungarian, for example.

If you've beaten the fear before, you can beat it again. Use that to your advantage.

Conclusion

Due to the amount of uncertainty involved, and the high likelihood of errors or embarrassment, most learners put off speaking until they absolutely must do so. A smaller group of learners prefer speaking right from the start, which, though advantageous, can be highly stressful on one’s mindset.

The best approach for you will lie somewhere between these two extremes, as determined by several objective and subjective factors.

Use the above tips to determine when to start speaking. No matter what, make sure that you decide on a timeline of when to speak, and then actually stick to it. If you don't make speaking happen, it won't happen.

And, lastly, when you do decide to actually make it happen, take care to engage in conversation with kind and supportive natives who have the time and patience to work with you as you seek to improve your speaking skills. Such choices will ensure that once you've started speaking, you'll keep speaking, again and again.

Written by Luca Lampariello

  • Sebastian says:

    Handling with deception while you are learning a new language shouldn’t be traumatic. Learning a new language shall give you a broader panorama of other cultures, that includes how some kind of people relate with others who are not native speakers, which not always turns out to be a good experience. I realized that kind of situations can’t define how you see this new language or affect your motivation, on the contrary must encourage you to punish your skills. It takes a while but you have to learn to take advantage of every single critic or comment others made, even if they did it without the better intention.
    In my personal experience, whether you start speaking immediately or not depends on how mature is the student and how well he/she can handle with criticism.

  • Jeff says:

    Two things:

    First, my experience: I can speak Japanese around a C1 level and French to a B2 level. With Japanese I spoke right off the bat, and it seemed to work very well. I progressed extremely quickly and had spoken fluency after about 3 months. I would say an additional factor not explored here, is the availability of native speakers. I lived in Japan at the time, so if I screwed something up, my attitude became “Ah well, next person” which is harder to do if you aren’t in country. French has taken much longer. The French people I was around weren’t as available in number or as patient, so after a few embarrassing attempts when I was just starting out (I actually quit studying for a bit), I decided to spend my time developing the other three skills instead, to great effect. Now I have some native speakers I can speak with, and the result of not speaking first has helped my confidence tremendously.

    Secondly, as far as Japanese goes, be careful with trying to make your sentences too long. Japanese changes more than English or French when you switch mediums: News reporters speak like news reporters, which will sound weird in conversation if you copy. Japanese sentences tend to be short and, even if you put together a long, complicated thought perfectly, you’ll still be making a cultural error because Japanese people in general don’t use long sentences outside of literature or TV. You can see this with Japanese comedy, usually the boke will say something overly long and nonsensical, and then the tsukkomi will check him with a single sentence, or possibly even a single word. We would never have a conversation that goes “hot?” “hot.” in English, but that’s how Japanese goes. The speak from the beginning approach I described above gave me fluency, but I assumed I sounded silly, so I studied literature and news to sound more intelligent, but now I’m having to go back and unlearn a lot of those words, expressions, and grammar points because they simply aren’t used in daily conversation.

    Sorry for the length, and thanks for the great article.

  • […] post When Should You Start Speaking a Foreign Language? appeared first on The Polyglot […]

  • Meg Kline says:

    I really appreciate your take on this issue, Luca. I grew up bilingual (English and Spanish), moved away from my Spanish speaking relatives in mid-childhood and “lost” my Spanish (still there, but very rusty) and have since been working to learn Irish off and on for about 20 years (more off than on, until the past year when I decided to really get serious).

    Part of what caused me to give up on Irish so many times was because I was trying to jump into speaking way, way too soon. Since I’ve had a basic working knowledge of Spanish all my life, I’d always had an easy time with *all* the Romance languages – while I’m nowhere near conversational in French, Italian, etc, I’ve always been able to learn, understand and use simple phrases without any problems.

    It took me countless attempts of trying and failing in Irish (losing confidence each time!) to realise that because Irish has so many features that are nothing at all like English or Romance languages – case system, initial mutations, a completely different approach to how verbs and prepositions are used together in a sentence, etc – that I needed to *stop* putting so much pressure on myself to speak, and ramp up the amount of input I was getting…. lots and lots of different kinds of input, until I had a better feel for how the nuts and bolts of the language fit together. I didn’t think of it as a mandatory silent period or anything like that; in fact, as soon as the self-imposed *pressure* to speak was gone, speaking became much easier and I did more of it, both with self-talk and in terms of seeking out conversations with others. I’ve got forward momentum now, which is a point I often despaired of ever getting to.

    All of which is my longwinded way of saying, I think your take on this issue is well-reasoned, and I wish more people would make the points you make here. Had anyone made them to me 20 years ago, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration and been far more advanced in Irish by now!

  • Andy R says:

    I always appreciate it when someone in the polyglot community speaks on a contentious issue in a balanced way, so thank you.

    Personally, I’m not afraid of making mistakes–I make a million of them no matter what, when speaking a foreign language–but I find it mentally taxing to think about form and meaning at the same time. I have enough trouble trying to remember the word I want to say that I don’t want to think about grammar at the same time. Also, until I know a certain amount of grammar, I have no idea how to express my thoughts, nor can I understand native speakers.

    To reduce mental exhaustion and make the process more enjoyable, I do two things. First, I have two specific criteria which I wait for before I try conversing in my target language. (1.) If I can’t even talk to myself in the language, I presume that I can’t talk to anyone else either. So I wait until I can talk to myself impromptu for several minutes on any topic and “get into the flow” of speaking. (2.) If I don’t understand anything that italki tutors are saying in their self-introduction videos, I don’t expect to understand them in conversation either. So I wait until I can start understanding some of what some tutors are saying. Until these two criteria are met, I continue to study grammar and basic vocabulary, try to talk to myself in the language, and do more listening practice.

    Second, once I meet the criteria above, I schedule 30-minute conversation practice sessions via italki with many different tutors (especially those who only charge $5 for 30 minutes)–2-4 sessions per week. When I schedule them, I propose one or more conversation topics and make sure each tutor agrees to them. (I want the conversation to be enjoyable by both parties.) Then I prepare by studying vocabulary on those topics, writing example questions and answers that tutors might ask me (in the target language, of course), and talking to myself on those topics. I had a lot of success with this process recently with Japanese.

    • Anna Fantastica says:

      Thank you for sharing your iTalki strategy, Andy! Very useful for me as I’m currently spending 3-4 hours per week with iTalki teachers and find that I don’t have a lot of direction in the lessons. The teachers are usually prepared, and I’ve been learning a lot, but I think that having a topic and questions prepared in advance is a fantastic idea.

  • Frank Facciolo says:

    First of all Luca, I have to thank you for all the content you put out. I just started to learn my first foreign language (Italian) just over a year ago and I was very lucky to have found your content from an early stage which really helped me understand what is needed to actually succeed in reaching my goal.

    I agree with your point of view that it doesn’t really matter and depends completely on the person. As we all know this is a long, very hard journey, especially if you have never done it before and while it’s important to step outside of our comfort zones as often as possible, I feel it’s important to know your limits and not over extend yourself in the earliest stages when you’re particularly vulnerable. It’s true the sooner you speak the faster you will improve your ability but if you don’t have the words and can’t express yourself at all the frustration could lead to a lack of motivation which we all know is the most important thing you need to succeed at learning a language.

    I got lucky in a sense. Being a super shy person if I had to start speaking from day one the fear would have overtaken me and I probably would have quit. I did however start with a course where you listen and repeat over and over and over by yourself and this trained my mouth how to say a lot of words before ever having a conversation. It was very helpful because I had already had the sounds and I had no problem with the pronunciation.(apart from the R of course) I still continued in baby steps in that next I took what I knew and started communicated with Italians via a text message app. Here I could start slow with a voice message here or there which were brutal at the time but all important steps. I saw I could actually communicate it was at this point it really started to become a passion of mine. Something that I had to do every single day for my own mental wellness.

    I didn’t really start speaking in full conversational form until I was maybe 9 months in. Looking back, maybe I wish I had started at 6 months but it just worked out this way for me with a few extra months of fear and doubt. I will say the ground work I laid prior did allow me to advance fast after I started speaking so it was not wasted time by any means. I still have my good days where it comes easy and my bad ones where it seems like I cant even introduce myself but finally through my baby steps the fear is minimal. I now look for people to Skype with everyday and if the people I know are busy a complete stranger will do just fine too. One year ago that would have been unthinkable to me and had I over extended myself too early I may have never arrived in this moment.

    • Andy R says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Frank. I recently heard someone say something similar in a video. Learning languages helped him to overcome much of his discomfort at speaking with strangers, so he’s more outgoing even in his native language than he used to be.

  • Anna Fantastica says:

    Love your nonpartisan approach, Luca.

    I’ve only been learning my second language (B1 Spanish) seriously for the past 5 months, although before that I had hovered around A1 for years and had had many painful encounters with native speakers. One of the most discouraging aspects of language learning that I’ve experienced has been speaking with native speakers in natural contexts. Most of them do not understand how to grade their language, the importance of enunciation, or know that comprehension comes first for the learner, so even though someone might not be able to speak very well, that doesn’t mean that they don’t understand you.

    In the beginning, my approach was focused on input which I think has benefitted me greatly. However, I wanted desperately to speak, so I began to do so by hiring online teachers on iTalki, and joining a local language meet-up group here in San Francisco that meets at a bar. I was also fortunate enough to be able to spend a week in Panamá taking private lessons. Beyond that, however, I also had to get over my fear of being wrong and learn to embrace that I was going to make mistakes and sound like a cavewoman for a while and that it was OK to not know the right answer. This simple acceptance did not come naturally to me, but I think it has made me a better person as a whole, as well, as I am no longer afraid to make mistakes in many other ways.

    Now I’m taking 3-4 hours of lessons per week with various teachers on iTalki, and try to go to the language meet-up once per week. My ability to speak has improved a lot, although it still lags behind my reading and writing capabilities and listening comprehension. But it doesn’t embarrass me as much anymore.

  • Ben Sinclair says:

    I had been learning Spanish for a few months and went to Barcelona to do some geography fieldwork with my University, and one of the tasks that I had to undertake was to complete some questionnaires from residents. Despite never learning Spanish beforehand or even visiting Spain, I am fairly fluent in French and can also speak Italian. This meant that I am quite confident speaking in a foreign language to residents, however, it is nevertheless still challenging. I found the ‘Start Speaking Immediately’ approach worked best for me, and it really helped me to improve my language skills and confidence to speak Spanish.

    My prior knowledge of learning French really helped with this, as before I would not have even thought to try speaking to native speakers with my limited skills, never mind trying it out!

    Luca’s lessons have really helped me to dissolve this ‘fear’ of making mistakes when speaking to natives, and as a result, my language skills have really improved in recent months.

  • Arthur Henrique says:

    I agree with all of it Luca, I’ve chosen the second alternative through out 1 year and half and I could not be more happy with my choice, but the ones who do not finished the process of listening(A LOT) and then start to speak are the ones who do not understand the secrets of mastering a subject or pushing more towards language learning are those who do not learned ‘how to listen’. I’ve had amazing discoveries that were reflect through out my entire spectrum of life, for me the secret (path) of learning languages is the combination of phonetics(symbology), perception and colors. At the present moment if you say to me a phrase in english( with american accent) I can tell you what were the exact phonetic vowels you used in the sentence. The moment when I perceived it I realized how powerful my brain was and that I was indeed in the right path.

    • Iris says:

      For me the benefit of waiting to speak was indeed that I ‘learnt to listen’. I wasn’t focussed on production, but could fully focus on WHAT speakers were saying and HOW they were saying it. I still reap the benefits of this (3 years later and daily using the target language), always listening for HOW something is being said and I still pick up some new ways of how to say something almost every day.

      • Arthur Henrique says:

        yeah that’s just amazing and changes so many things, for me is difficult to describe it in words, we have to live it to know. you know what I am talking about. But the best metaphor that I could make in my mind regard to sound is with colors. Colors have many shades right? so have sounds, that’s why I associated them on my process. A great way to first notice it is to listen to minimal pairs like the sounds of duck, doc, and dog, listen to the minimal diference between the vowels and how it changes everything.

  • Anita L says:

    Dear Luca, thank you for sharing this article. I find it very useful. This is the situation in which I find my self. I live in Rome and have been studying French for the past 2.5 years. I have expanded my vocabulary and grammar but I am just afraid​ of speaking. A few times talking to native speakers has been a painful experience. Now I am afraid to speak. Your article rightly points out the difficulties one can have in trying to speak. I guess the remedy is persist. Do not give up.

  • Kevin Richardson says:

    Dear Luca, good to hear your thoughts on this topic. So, my story – I started learning Japanese for a couple of years in England and then moved to Japan about three years ago. I was totally bonkers about Japanese culture and so dived into meetup groups in London armed with my self-introductory blaa and a limited vocabulary to talk about things that interested me. I had a blast speaking and hanging out with Japanese friends … every new word or grammar conjugation (which I thought of as power-ups in a video game) was like gold dust. After a couple of years, I moved to Japan. It was brilliant being able to go into a bar and yabber away in my not very articulate Japanese.

    So, living in Japan and teaching English … a year into this journey, I was still making progress, yet the combination of being in an intermediate plateau mixed with the amount of time I spent each day speaking English = certain amount of frustration of not feeling like I was making as much progress as I had when I lived in England. Then I started learning kanji. For the last year and a half, I’ve seen my passive vocabulary grow a lot and I still speak Japanese once or twice a week … and progress continues … slowly. This also combines with my master plan … I’m saving up money to spend about six months to a year without having to work. I figure that its an investment … I’m able to comprehend quite a lot more from authentic materials than I could before, yet I’m often tongue tied during conversations. Before, while I had a limited vocabulary, I was a lot more fluent with what I had. Now, it’s funny because I know there’s a more precise word somewhere between my ears … so I’m a bit more choosy about what word I want to utter.

    Still, all that said, I’m heavily into learning kanji and everything seems to have aligned perfectly with taking kanji tests, saving money and steadily getting stronger in the language. My plan is to take all the kanji (kanken) tests to get myself up to the same level as a Japanese high school graduate; then take that six months to a year off work … and live totally immersed in Japanese while I travel around the country.

    I guess the motivation changed from initially wanting to be able to express myself in a basic way … to kind of achieving that … and setting myself a higher goal of being able to express myself more elegantly. Recently, I started thinking … ha ha … after I’ve completed the next stage of my mission … where next … well, I’ve got so into kanji that the idea of taking the kanken level one kind of appeals.

  • Irina Ponomareva says:

    Hi Luca. Just listened to your video on YouTube, which is related to this post, and in it you asked people to share their own experience, so here I am.

    First of all, my native language is Russian, but I’m now quite comfortable with English as well. I’ve studied it for so many years that I no longer remember being afraid to speak it, but I know that at some moment I definitely passed through that stage. Personally, I much prefer the second approach – the “amass input” one, and I have the “Perfectionist Syndrome” very strongly, but, as I said, with English it’s no longer an issue.

    But since the last October I’ve been learning Italian. And of course it’s the same old story all over – except I don’t have another 36 years to dedicate to each language on my wish list, if I’m to achieve my goal of becoming a polyglot in 10 years. I’ll have to spead it up.

    Am I afraid to talk? Yes, I am. Partly, perhaps, because of the approach assumed by my second teacher, the one I was assigned for my A2 course. She was rather hard to please to begin with, and nearing the end of the course she actually became abusive and scared me out of my wits. So I had to write to the manager at the linguistic school, and they gave me my first teacher back. She removed the fear very quickly, and during our second lesson we talked in Italian for more than an hour non-stop, and I experienced a real level-up. Of course, I still stumble, mumble and look desperately for words at times, but it’s still much better than before.

    But then my teachers aren’t native speakers of Italian. With a native speaker I’d still feel rather shy, I believe. I’m naturally shy and an introvert, too, so it’s much like jumping into the Volga the first time in the season when it’s still rather cold.

    Recently I also signed up for a Mandarin Chinese course, and it’s already obvious that it’s going to take me a lot of time to overcome that initial fear of speaking – probably twice as long as with Italian.

  • >