Speaking as a learning approach

It is commonsense I believe to suggest that you improve a skill by doing it. So to say that the best way to improve English speaking is by speaking it should not be a hard pill to swallow. However for a variety of reasons, most approaches to learn English speaking is through reading and writing.  Before I go into looking at learning speaking through using it, I do want to spend a little time on looking at why the reading and writing approach has gained such dominance. By understanding why it has become commonplace, it might help you to change what you do, at least a little! 

A Way Not To Improve Speaking English

Although there are some approaches that vary from this practice most teachers and learners, from what I have seen and read about, use reading and writing as the main way. There is no doubt that reading and writing seem more straightforward to use. However it does not necessarily follow that they are more effective. 

As any language teacher will tell you there are many factors involved in why learning a language is such a struggle for so many people. I believe that that this practice of using reading and writing as the main drivers for language learning is one of the key factors that explain this struggle. This issue was put into the light recently on hearing a fellow language teacher tell me what she did in class. 

A Short Story

I had been teaching a small group of beginners for some time. I had to be away from the group for a session, so another teacher took my class for a few hours. I asked the teacher the following day about the class.  She said, "When I started the class, one girl said to me, after I told them what they were going to do, that we don't do writing'!" The teacher told me that she had set the class straight by telling them that they will only speak after they have written. Then they were told that they will be reading out what they had written.

I was a bit taken aback by this revelation, though on reflection I don't believe it is vastly different from common practice. It's just that I have never heard it put quite like that. My work with English language learners is so different that to hear something like that, said by a fellow teacher, shocked me a bit. Reading and writing, of course, have a place, that is not in question at all. What is in question is how they are used and for what purpose.

My experience with teaching people who have learned primarily through reading and writing is that their speaking and listening skills tend to be poor. As a result, they also have very limited ways of improving so they tend to get more easily stuck at a level. They also tend to rely on translation, memorisation, written exercises and drilling to improve. All of these have limited value and by themselves these ways of learning can never get you to the higher levels.

Learning by focussing on reading and writing

One reason why language learning results can be so poor and so slow in coming is focusing on these two skills. The way of learning assumes a very limited view of what people are capable. It assumes that learners can't manage to learn a language without reading and writing it. That is an assumption that has no validity. Either in terms of what we have seen people achieve who have not learned to speak this way. Or, in terms of what we see people achieve who learn in this way.

Adults, of course, might prefer approaching language learning through reading and writing for a variety of reasons, however, my experience has been that they will readily change when they see and experience the results of alternative approaches.

Reasons why using reading and writing are so popular

There are many reasons why reading and writing has taken such a hold.  Here are a few of them.

  • The learner feels more comfortable working with something they can hold, talk about, think and read about.
  • For the teacher, it is so much easier handing out teaching or exercise sheets, and getting students to read and learn what is on them than it is to teach without such props.
  • Combined with that it so so much easier for the publishing industry to churn out texts with umpteen different kinds of exercises.
  • On a personal level, learning through speaking and listening requires the learner to be more ready to make mistakes. Also, to sometimes appear "foolish" and to be on occasion tongue-tied. This clearly is far less comfortable than spending time preparing a written response.
  • Learning through reading and writing also provides a sense of more surety and less ambivalence as it can be seen, repeated and saved That is why so many people do prefer it - especially if there are no viable alternatives.

It is no wonder then that many learners also subscribe to this way of learning, as that is how they have been taught. They have very little understanding or knowledge of any other way of learning languages.

Some reasons why this approach is flawed

However, the thing to understand is that by learning a language through reading and writing a particular part of the brain is being trained, NOT the part which is needed to speak and listen. In fact, it is possible to learn to read and write a language without ever learning to speak it. What that tells us is that speaking and writing are, as skills, independent of speaking and listening. It is possible to learn to read and write a language without ever learning to speak it.

This explains why so many students who attempt to learn a language by studying many aspects of the language from a book and doing written exercises to practice them have difficulties in speaking. This way of learning is what we may use to learn lists of chemical symbols or the Latin names of plants, however, language is clearly very different.

On the other hand it is possible to learn to listen and speak without ever learning to read and write. As has been done for thousands of years, before writing was invented. People still do it for second languages, and of course all of us once did for our first language/s. 

Reading and writing are in fact a different skills set to speaking and listening.   Speaking needs us to learn to :

  • control a whole variety of facial muscles as well as our breathing 
  • master a the language structures/vocabulary AND use it spontaneously

Writing needs us to master:

  • the script ( 26 letters in English) 
  • grammar/vocabulary etc BUT not necessarily spontaneously. We can take as long as we want to write a word, a sentence etc.

By learning to read and write English first, learners need to learn how to move what they know as one skill into a another completely different skill area.

If you go the other way, from speaking to writing, all you need to have mastered is the writing of 26 letters. Which do you think is easier? Of course there are differences in writing language to speaking language, especially as you improve. But still the order of difficulty cannot be compared.

Using speaking and listening to improve English speaking

​Learning a skill and something so profound as a language is best done in a way that fully engages our perceptions, our awareness and our feelings as well as our intellect. We can help this along by speaking what we are learning, in a spontaneous way (starting sometimes from controlled situations and sentences)

Improve English speaking

and at a speed that is moving always closer to native-like. I am here not talking about mindlessly repeating stock phrases.

Without spontaneously speaking, most people are unable to transform the learning experience into something that actually improves their language skills. We must, in fact, develop skills if we are to ever learn to speak the language well.  Not just skills to do with the formation of sounds/words/sentences but also to do with putting together what we are hearing in ways that make sense to use. This way, in time we can construct sentences (and ideas) for ourselves that conform to English norms.

Anyone who has ever tried to diet to lose weight or to improve your health, may understand what the diet entails, but until you do it, it is all ideas. Or, you might know all the great ideas in parenting but until you implement them with your kids, what do those great ideas amount to? It is the same in language learning. Knowing something does not mean you can do it. Speaking is what transforms our learning into changed behaviour. Many people think because they understand, they will be able to speak a language. That is not the case. You need more than understanding, you need to act.

So as a language learner, be sure to use English and to concentrate on your speaking, doing whatever you can to let that be your yardstick as to what you have learned or not learned. This, of course, can be more difficult in situations where you have no-one to talk to. However, with the arrival of the digital age, this problem is being washed away by the likes of Skype, chat groups etc. Movies have been used by some to extend their own understanding and speaking. Not ideal, but this approach can be effective.

The importance of listening

Most people understand that listening is important. However, I don't believe most understand its absolute critical importance. 

You can only ever produce what you can hear.

If you can't hear it, of course you will never produce it. What that means is that improving your listening and making it increasingly sensitive is a top priority. (The video clip above explains that in a little more detail.)  So if you are feeling stuck, a key reason may be your listening is letting you down.

A good test for how well you listen is,  "Can you hear any differences between what you say and what you hear others say?" I am hear talking about differences that you can name and describe. Like, "In this word, I say /x/ but when I her others say, they are saying something else" Or, "In this sentence, I say /xyz/, but when I hear others say something similar they seem to put in another word."

If you can do the things I just mentioned, great. Then you know what you need to do - Speak more and let your listening and speaking be your teachers! If you can't, then there is work to be done on your listening. 

Examples of how to use speaking to work on your English

Here is another idea for you to try. Spatial prepositions, for example, can cause no end of problems in English. Try doing this. Walk around your house describing aloud where exactly your possessions are. Next to, under, to the left of etc, in FULL sentences ( for eg, 'My sofa is opposite the TV and between two small tables'). Go from easy sentences to more complex sentences only once you have mastered the easier ones.

Once you have the structures working, work on your spontaneity, fluency, tone and speed. All of these ( and more) are important elements of speaking. You could do the same with questions (Where is the bathroom?) or with negatives (My kitchen has no dishwasher). Once you start working in this way, the possibilities are endless. This does not replace speaking with people, but it can help build your speaking skills.

Clearly, there are all kinds of people and learners and at many different stages, so this advice might not apply to you.  However, if your aim is to improve your English speaking, I would strongly urge you to speak more and to speak out what you are learning.  Make sure that your efforts are moving towards increased fluency and with pronunciation that is moving closer and closer to native-like. That way you will develop the skills necessary to keep learning to the levels you desire or need.