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.
- 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.
- 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.
Amass Input, Then Speak
This approach consists of starting to speak weeks, months, or even years after serious study of target language begins.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
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.
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 and Kevin Morehouse