Hacking your way to speaking a foreign language

Hacking your way to speaking a foreign languageIt’s no secret, speaking a foreign language when you start is hard but it doesn’t have to be as difficult as you think. Learning to speak is one of the least practised skills and the most difficult to master.

As I explained in this post, when I started, I was close to having an anxiety attack almost every time. This didn’t pass until I started speaking regularly.

While I am still not the type of person that can speak from day 1, I do recommend starting as soon as you can and almost certainly by the end of the first week. The longer you wait, the harder it is to take that step.

Avoid the temptation to “wait until you are ready” as you will always wait “just one more week”

So how do you speak before you have the vocabulary?


Speak In English

What? Really?

Yes – the first step is plucking up the courage to speak. So book a lesson, meet your teacher and just speak.

The first lesson is all about telling your teacher your goals and figuring out a plan which is pretty much all in English.

Try to use the words you already have and look to your teacher to give you more. It’s that simple!

Practice speaking with other beginners

There are language groups all over Facebook, a quick search should find you a few. If you can’t find any, also look at the Community section on Verbling. This allows you to start a beginner level Google Hangout that any other beginners can join.

Practicing with other beginners has some really big advantages.

If you can get a Google Hangout together with a few others then take it in turns to practice your vocab. If you are working on greetings, introduce yourself to the group each in turn and then when you feel more confident you can introduce each other.

If it’s not a group then introduce yourself and then your speaking partner to an imaginary 3rd person.

Let the more experienced speakers speak first – this gives you the vocab you need before it’s your turn. Instant revision.

Beginners also speak much more slowly which will be much easier for you to understand at this stage.

One important point to note with this though – only use other beginners to practice not to learn otherwise you will be learning their mistakes too.

Talk to Yourself

This is a great way to progress and not just when you start. Once you have said something over and over, you no longer get flustered.

Think about it, if you have taken a few lessons already, is it hard to say “Hi, how are you?”

No, because you have already done that over and over.

Saying something out loud over and over makes recall much much easier later on.

If you are just starting out, it’s fine to write out an introduction and then practice saying this over and over.

One important point though, don’t practice this as a monologue. Make sure you ask yourself questions throughout.

If you just practice a huge block of text and someone asks you a question that it buried in the middle of the dialog, it is much harder to recall.

For example…

Instead of practicing “Hi, I am Gary, I live in Scotland near Edinburgh. I have 3 children, 2 girls and a boy. I am a computer programmer…..”

I would practice:

“Hi, I am Gary, please to meet you”

Where are you from? – I am from Scotland near Edinburgh.

What do you do for a living? – I am a computer programmer etc etc.

Master speaking at your level.

What does that mean?

Let me give you an example. After a week of learning Spanish, my tutor asked me

“Do you have any hobbies?”

What I wanted to answer was

“Yes, other than learning languages I run a website and Facebook group for language learners. When I am not online I love to read and to listen to music. I also train in a Korean martial art to help me keep fit.”

What I actually said was

“Yes, I make website, I read and I music (while wave my hands at my ears to signify headphones) and I do martial art”

There are a few important things in there.

  1. While my speaking was in no way eloquent, I was understood.
  2. I didn’t know the word for listen, but using hand signals I got my point across.
  3. What also isn’t apparent is that I didn’t know the term for martial art either, so I said it in English.

My tutor gave me the additional vocab that I needed to improve this and if I am ever asked again, my answer will be better.

Record your speaking sessions

Personally I hate taking notes, during the really difficult parts of a lesson my notes have been generally insufficient for me to recall the explanations properly.

I’m guessing it’s because at that point in time, I am really flustered. To get around this I now just record the lesson and just avoid taking notes entirely.

If you are using Skype for your lessons, then you can do this quite easily. When on a PC, I use Evaer (this has a $20 one off licence fee but it’s worth it) or Call Recorder on Mac (free) – let me know if you need a tutorial in the comments and I’ll write one up for you.

I then use the recording in a few different ways:

  1. I jump to the difficult parts of the conversation and once I have seen it a few times, I never forget it again.
  2. During conversation parts, I pause the video after a question and answer again. Each time you do this, your answer should improve slightly and become more fluid.
  3. I check my pronunciation. Often the way we think we are saying something is different from how it actually sounds but you will notice any errors on the playback.

Obviously you should get your tutor’s permission before recording first but in all of the Skype lessons I have had (with multiple tutors through both iTalki and Baselang) I have never had a tutor decline the request.

If you explain it’s for revision and won’t be uploaded or used in any other way they will normally agree.

Have you had your first conversation yet? If you haven’t been able to pluck up the courage yet, try some of the tips above and you will get there.

Still not sure? Leave me a comment below and I’ll help you out!