Sunday, 6 June 2010

Knowing when to speak

This is going to be the last post in the eight weeks series, I have a lot more to say about conversation and a few more things about tones and reading/writing etc.but hay-fever has kicked, in, time runs out and a want to learn languages rather than write about what is happening. This post is a follow-on from my post: Doubting to speak Thai.

There has been quite a lot of controversy online recently about when to first speak the language you are learning, some say straight a-way, right at the beginning. There is a legitimate concern that some people are never ready to speak, never get over the nerves and insecurity of speaking a new language and never feel they have absorbed enough grammar, vocabulary etc. However going from this concern to "speak straight away" is a big leap and a rather lazy fix. In many fields of learning there is a possible "short sharp shock" approach to get over barriers of nerves etc. but usually they are discredited, you have to be careful sometimes it works, sometimes a phased approach to build confidence is better.

So how to work out when to speak, how to deal with the amorphous "when you are ready". Well for my case I have worked it out. Firstly I don't have as big a barrier to overcome as the first time, I know I can speak Chinese with people. In trying to speak Thai right from the start I found what made me uncomfortable what made it unpleasant and at what stage all that when away.

Firstly vocabulary, I don't expect to be able to say very much at all at first, but I do want to a basic set of common phrases that I "just know", that can come to mind without really thinking and that sound reasonably native in my head (so hopefully my pronunciation won't be too horrendous). I do not want to be suddenly forgetting how to say "sawat dee krap" etc. I do not want to have a little collection of phrases and words swimming around in my short term memory that I have recently "crammed there", that is uncomfortable.

I want to know that those phrases I know, I have a reasonable chance of understanding when I hear them, that I can recognise them in a radio broacast or TV program, if I can't do that how will I know that I can learn anything new. I should only be thinking hard to pick up or say new things.

I want to have a feel for variations and breakdown of the things I know, the person I am about to talk to has not "read the script".

For me with Thai, that took about six weeks, not a huge amount of time, if this was my first language then maybe 2 months, 3 months, but a finite goal still. But what if you HAVE to speak because of X or Y, then simple just speak after all you HAVE to. Maybe my criteria are not quite refined for the general population but it should be possible to come up with a better defined set.

If an individual chooses to not speak until later, if that is a choice not made by fear or indecision but a conscious choice because of belief that it will harm their learning, then that is fine of course.

There will be more on conversation, much more.


  1. I am caught up now with the posts on this blog. :)
    I have gotten a feel for what you are doing here. How long are you planning to keep this up? In one of your posts here, you were talking about taking your Chinese to the next level. I do not remember you stating what level it is is at now. Anyway, this has all been very interesting to read. I look forward to more. Thanks.

  2. Hi Keith, thanks for the comments :) This blog will continue, I aim to keep learning Thai for ever (we shall see). Like with Chinese if I get over a certain level of commitment then I don't know how I would stop, once it is in your head, once you have an interest how can you stop? ;)

    Chinese was the first language I attempted to learn, I enjoyed trying to blog about it but looking back I reaslised that I didn't document it a level where even I was clear about what I did and what was most important. The Chinese blog will soon focus on exactly what my level is in Chinese and what I intend to do next. Brutal summary, I can converse quite happily in Chinese for hours (I do get tired though), adapt to various accents etc. Can read a lot of general stuff naturally (but have too many gaps for sophisticated reading material right now). I know lots of alternative words for things but not many specialised words, that kind of thing.

  3. I don't go for the 'speak right away' mindset for myself, but that's just me. I speak when I'm ready. Due to shyness, it's usually later than most. No matter, it's not a race but an experience I'm after.

  4. exactly experience is really important, ironically I think if I was actually the target country I would speak later (I can imagine sitting back sipping coffee or beer and absorbing what was going on around me).