I’ve been trying some new methods to aid my language learning lately, and I thought I’d write a bit about one of the things I’m doing: talking. That may sound silly – foreign languages are to be spoken, of course you need to talk – but I actually don’t think think it’s silly. Why? Because despite every language student knowing that they need to speak the language*, many of them don’t speak the language, due to embarrassment, or a simple lack of opportunity to speak the language.
I fall under both of those categories. When I have had, in the past, the very occasional chance to speak one of my foreign languages with a native speaker, I have often clammed up, because I was embarrassed, knowing that I’d stutter, stumble over words, and generally look silly. Furthermore, living in a small town, I just don’t have access to many native speakers of German or Russian.
So, what am I to do? Apparently, the solution is to talk anyway: to myself. I’ve been doing this lately, and it’s helping, a lot. I believe I wrote about it here in the past, but as a refresher, when I first started learning German, I dealt solely with writing and reading. I made the stupid assumption that if I could write and read a language, those skills would transfer to speaking and listening. So, after a few years of German study, I found that while I could read fairly well and write decently, I could barely understand any spoken German, and could speak even less. The words simply refused to come out of my mouth.
I’m trying to keep this problem from ever appearing in my Russian. From the start, I’ve been forcing myself to speak. When all I had to work with was my New Penguin Russian Course book, I would read a dialogue outloud a few times, and then try to go through the dialogue without reading the text. Now that I have a ton of audio to work with, I’ll listen to a dialogue, shadowing the speech. After doing that some, I’ll try the dialogue on my own.
The end result, which is probably no surprise at all, is that I’m finding it much easier to speak Russian than I found it to speak German. Not only that, but I’m also finding it much easier to remember words now. The reason is, I think, fairly obvious, which makes me feel even more dumb for not making myself speak more often: by having an aural link to the word, as opposed to a solely visual one (written), my memory has more to pull on. Furthermore, in Russian, due to it being in the Cyrillic alphabet, I’m finding it easier to remember how a word sounds than it is to remember how it’s spelled. The fact that I’m forcing myself to get used to producing, orally, the peculiar sounds of Russian, certainly doesn’t hurt.
After doing this for a while and observing the results, I’m beginning to wonder if I have been wrong about my primary learning style. I’ve always thought that, being someone who loves to read and does so all the time, that I would be a dominantly visual learner. But the results I’m seeing from forcing myself to speak – to babble, even – are showing something else. Whether this means I’m primarily an auditory learner, or just that speech is inextricably bound to language learning, I don’t know.
Now that I’ve seen how much of a help it is to make myself really spit the language out, as opposed to just reading it and writing it, I’ve started doing the same things with German. In one of the phrasebooks I have, I’ll read a sentence until it’s in my short term memory, and then procede to saying the sentence without reading the text. If it’s something I can do, I’ll experiment with changing the word order, or even some of the words. I’m seeing the same kind of positive effects with my German as I did with Russian.
* There are exceptions to the rule of “needing to speak a foreign language.” Dead languages are the primary reason for this. No one speaks Latin anymore, nor Old Norse, nor Old English, so there really is no pressing need to be able to speak them. I’ve read in the past, however, that it is that very silence about the language, the inability to hear a great deal of the language, that makes learning dead languages so difficult. From what I’m seeing though from experimenting with forcing myself to speak, perhaps learning the pronunciation of a dead language and practicing speaking it may help you learn the language anyway, even if you have no intent of conversing in it.