Speaking as a learning approach

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”
by ~Zig Ziglar


Traditionally, reading and writing have been used as the main instructional tools in teaching or learning languages and although there are some approaches that vary from this practice the evidence still seems to suggest that many teachers and learners use reading and writing as the main medium. There is no doubt that on many levels reading and writing are more straightforward to use however that 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 thrust into the light last week on hearing a fellow language teacher tell me what she did in class. Before I tell you about that, I will quickly give you the background to that comment.

I have been teaching a small group of beginners for the past month and 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 language learners is so different that to hear something like that, said by a fellow language 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.

I decided to write about this, as I believe we can see in this practice why language learning results can be so poor and so slow in coming. The way of learning that this teacher asks the students to embark on assumes a very limited view of what people are capable. It assumes that learners can’t manage to learn language without reading and writing it. This is despite the fact that we clearly we showed we could do it when we learned our first language. 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.

There are many reasons why reading and writing has taken such a hold.  One reason, for the teacher, is that it is so much easier handing out teaching or exercise sheets, and getting students to read/teach what is on them than it is to teach without such props. The teaching of speaking requires the development of a particular set of understandings and teaching skills, which for the most part do not seem to be taught at Universities. Combined with that it so so much easier for the publishing industry to churn out texts with umpteen different kinds of exercises.

It is no wonder then that 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. There has recently been a lot more interest in another way of teaching, especially in the primary schools, and that is learning through immersion. It is not surprising that this is gaining in popularity given the poor results so many schools and learners achieve.

On a personal level, learning through speaking and listening requires the learner to be more ready to make mistakes, to sometimes appear “foolish” and to be on occasion tongue tied. For some people, the reaction to these feelings would be something to avoid or at least minimise, so it is no wonder there is a tacit acceptance of reading and writing as a valid way of learning languages. Also, learning through reading and writing provides a sense of more surety and less ambivalence as it can be seen, repeated and saved, so many people do prefer it- especially if there are no viable alternatives.

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. No wonder then that so many students attempt to learn a language by studying many aspects of the language from a book and doing written exercises to practice them but when they are asked to use them in situations where they are needed, they are tongue tied. 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.

Learning 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 utterances) 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 new skills  if we are to ever learn to speak the language well.  Learning by writing and thinking about the language will not, for the vast majority of people, ever achieve that. For most people all that it can achieve, in the best case scenario, is a change of understanding and enhanced writing skills. That, as has been mentioned before, may not improve your speaking at all.

Anyone who has ever tried to diet, may understand what the diet entails, but until you do it, so what? 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. Not speaking is a key reason why so many people struggle. They think because they understand, they will be able to learn a language. That is not the case; for the vast majority that will just not happen!

So as a language learner, be sure 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 advent 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 idea, but this approach can be effective.

Here is another idea for you to try. Spatial prepositions, for example, cause no end of problems in many languages. Walk around your house describing aloud where exactly your possessions are. Next to, under, to the left of etc 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 at your fluency, your tone and your speed. All of these are important elements in speaking. You could do the same with questions (Where is the bathroom?) or with negatives (My kitchen has no dishwasher. Once you get the ideas, the possibilities are endless.

Clearly there are all kinds of people and language learners and at many different stages, so this advice might not apply to you however if your progress is not as it should be I would strongly urge you to speak more and top vocalize what you are learning, making sure that your efforts are always moving towards increased fluency with pronunciation that is moving closer and closer to native like.


  • Sergio

    I would like to know what’s your take on the so-called “shadowing” technique (listen and speaking simultaneously at the same pace of the speaker). Does it really help
    to achieve fluency as some people say?

    • The reality is that to benefit from such a practice you need to not only listen to the other and speak at the same time, but you also need to listen to yourself and compare at some level what you are saying and what the other is saying.
      Without such a comparison, how can you improve?

      I am not saying you may not get benefits, some might depending upon their skills and presence. However I believe you can get far more benefits from the types of exercise where listening to someone else and speaking are separated. That way you can fully focus on yourself or the other.

      There are some ideas on that here: http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/improving-listening-skills/

      Hope that helps!