The Skill of Daring to Open Your Mouth And Speak

Language learning can be divided to four core skills you need to develop to make progress in language learning: speaking, writing, listening, and reading. These skills are of course not separate, practicing one always develops the others, but they are quite different in nature and each needs deliberate practice. Perfecting all four of them will give you a comprehensive ability to deal with any kind of situation with the language.

Except. Lately I’ve been thinking that there is a fifth skill that needs to be practiced separately: daring to open your mouth. Yes, it is related to speaking. We might argue it is just a part of the core skill of speaking, because without daring to open your mouth, you can’t really make progress in speaking. However, I kind of like to think that it is a separate skill. I’ll tell you why.

First, I’ll share with you an experience that made me really thoroughly think about this.

A while ago, I was at a graduation party of a friend. She’s a so called Swedish Finn, Swedish is her first language. I’ve always spoken Finnish with her, though. But at the party, basically all the other guests were Swedish speakers. Knowing that my Swedish is pretty good – supposedly – and that I like learning languages, my friend introduced me to everyone in Swedish, and told them I like to practice, so no need to switch language.

There I was, sitting at the party, everyone around me speaking Swedish, which I could totally understand. But my brain was just a bit too slow to really take part in the conversation. I would start t think of a comment on something someone said, and while I was forming the sentence in my head, the conversation had moved on.

I suppose you  might be familiar with the situation, if you’re an intermediate learner of a language. It is always harder to participate in a conversation of native speakers, compared to speaking one on one with someone. I think that is when the skill of daring to open your mouth is more necessary than ever.

The difference between “I know how to speak” and “I can speak”

I think you could say that the “daring skill” is what makes the difference between “I know how to speak” and “I can speak”.

The thing is, I really KNOW HOW TO speak Swedish. So well that I actually believed for some years that I am nearly fluent. By the end of upper secondary school, I could read fluently and write excellent essays, and survived effortlessly the classroom speaking situations.

I think the truth was only revealed to me last spring, during my exchange semester in Gothenburg. I was very quickly shocked by my own insecurity to speak. I really tried to keep to Swedish with the locals but I always ended up being a quiet listener, because I just felt so clumsy and inadequate when speaking. Clearly it had been many years since I last used my Swedish, and I thought that after a while it would get easier. But I never dared to open my mouth often enough to really start to defrost my Swedish.

This is why I view daring to speak as a skill of its own, even if it truly is a part of the speaking skill. Because you can first learn to dare, and then learn to speak – as has been the case for me with Russian. I think I dare quite well already, but there’s still a long way to learn to speak really well. And then again, you actually can first learn quite a lot of the language, and then learn to dare to speak, as has been the case with French for me. I only recently started to practice speaking, and once I got past the inability to open my mouth, I’ve been surprised at how well I’m able to speak already.

Basically, you can learn how to speak by reading, writing and listening. But you can only learn to speak by speaking. And for that, you need to dare to speak. So perhaps we could say, that Speaking skill = Knowing-how-to skill + Daring skill!

Speaking skill = Knowing-how-to skill + Daring skill.

Is daring just a matter of personality?

I’ve noticed that some people are much better at daring than me. I’m quite an articulate person and careful speaker even in Finnish, meaning that I often tend to pause a lot, look for the right words and accurate expressions all the time while speaking. This seems to reflect to my language learning – I find myself less able to speak than someone else at my general level in a language. For example in Sweden I had a friend who had also learned French and I don’t think she was much more advanced than me – but she really didn’t hesitate speaking and could just chat happily, make mistakes and find ways around things she couldn’t say – while I struggled to find the right words and form correct sentences with them.

Is it a question of personality then? Someone I spoke with about language learning, a Finnish guy, told me that during their exchange studies in Germany, he had felt that the Spanish and Italian exchange students struggled much less to speak even though many of them seemed to know less German than he did. Is it a question of culture?

I think yes, partially both – but it is also something you can learn. To some extent, you can learn it in general, and being better at daring to speak one language means you’ll be better at daring to speak any language you are learning. But in some ways, you need to learn it for each language separately.

Why is it sometimes more difficult to dare?

There are a few things that make daring to open your mouth more difficult.

1. If you try to participate in a conversation of a group of native speakers

Well, clearly. Like the situation I experienced at the party. Even if the people are very patient and know you are still a learner, it takes a lot of effort to keep the conversation slower and simpler than how they would naturally speak. So if you don’t dare to open your mouth before having thought through what you want to say, you can’t keep up. And you might be more nervous anyway to open your mouth in front of more listeners.

2. If there is another language you both speak much better than the one you want to practice.

When learning Swedish, this is pretty much always the case, because Swedes are in general so fluent in English. So it can feel a bit silly to try and blunder on in Swedish when the conversation could be much more intelligent in English.

With the Swedish speakers in Finland, it feels even more awkward for me to speak Swedish, because most of them are practically bilingual, their Finnish as strong as their Swedish, and they are extremely used to speaking Finnish all the time in their studies, at work, and while shopping or running any errands – they are supposed to have the right to get service everywhere in Swedish if they want to, but the sad truth is, many Finnish speakers are so bad at speaking Swedish, they often find it less of a trouble to just speak Finnish (the areas where Swedish speakers are a majority, are an exception).

At the party I mentioned, I also wasn’t able to start a conversation with anyone, because I got stuck at trying to decide, should I dare to speak Swedish, or should I just go for Finnish. With Finnish as my native language and as good as their native language, speaking Swedish would just feel stupid and awkward. It really shouldn’t, but it does. And this is because I haven’t learned to DARE to speak Swedish!

3. If you learned the language for quite a long time before really starting to practice speaking.

Language learning gurus often say you should practice speaking from the beginning. I always thought it is important, but never really thought about why. Sometimes people like to think they want to first learn a bit more than the basics and only then get out there and speak with people. But at least for me, this seems to actually be a counterproductive approach.

The thing is, learned Swedish in school for six years without really practicing to speak. Sure, we did speak in the classes, but small dialogues from textbooks are just not the same as really producing speech and having a natural conversation.

So, like I said, I was pretty good at Swedish when I finished school, and I thought I was nearly as fluent as with English (which I could already speak quite effortlessly back then). But now that I think about it, before last spring in Gothenburg, I never really even tried to have a longer discussion in Swedish. So now that I try to speak, I know how to speak correctly. I can think through a conversation in Swedish. But when I really should speak, I realise all the grammar points I’m unsure of and get stuck with trying to figure them out, and I get anxious about each mistake. I get frustrated that my speech doesn’t match my perceived  level.

Another example I can give you is my experience with speaking French and German. I learned both in upper secondary school – French for three years, eight courses, and German for half a year, two courses. I should have been around CEFR B1 at French and A1 at German. At level B1, you should be able to survive most traveling situations. After our final exams I did an Interrail trip around Europe with a friend. I found myself quite unable to speak any French at all but could comfortably get by at cafes and buying train tickets with my few sentences of German.

I’ve thought this was because French was just harder for me. But now I’ve started to realise it must have been A) because my German teacher made us practice speaking a bit more, and B) because I was more advanced in French but had practiced speaking as little, so I expected to speak better than I was able to, and my expectations and the experiences of unsuccessful speaking situations made me unable to DARE to speak.

How can I learn to dare?

Now, all of this leads down to the question: is it possible to learn to dare? Like I said in the beginning, I like to think that daring to open your mouth and speak is a skill among other skills. I like to think about it this way, because if it is a skill, it can be practised.

I described things that make daring more difficult, and based on that, I also recognise some ways to make it easier at first, how to start practising. Here are my ideas:

  • Practice one-on-one first. Don’t be discouraged if participating a group conversation is more difficult. It might take a lot of practice before you can rock that.
  • Practice with someone you know. Especially if you are shy, it may be easier to first practise with a friend.
  • Practise with someone you don’t know at all. Sometimes it can be even better this way. It is really difficult to switch languages, if you are used to speaking a certain language with someone. I think our personalities change a bit when speaking a different language, which can feel weird with people you know well. And of course, if you are used to having very deep conversations with someone, in a language your fluent in, switching to simpler things can feel silly.
  • Practise with someone who is also learning the language. They’ll certainly understand why you want to speak this language and not a language you both are more fluent at. You can overcome the fear of mistakes together.
  • Practise with someone native, who is learning your language (tandem). It really helps to hear someone speak your own language  imperfectly, like I’ve written earlier. You’ll realise mistakes aren’t dangerous, and that getting your message through is more important than correct grammar.

I’ll put these ideas to test next month, when I’m planning to try and finally defrost my Swedish and learn to dare to speak it!

What do you think? What are the best ways to overcome nervousness to speak? Is there a way to move from one-on-one practice to being able to participate in a quick-paced conversation of a group of native speakers? I’d be really happy to hear your thoughts!

“Before vs. After” – My Personal Language Learning Victories

A beautiful day in Paris. I sit in a brasserie très chaleureux and order une assiette de charcuterie from the waiter, compliment the charming atmosphere and appearance of the place and throw in a small-talkey comment about the weather. They politely ask me something about my stay and if I like it here, I assure I do and ask for tips for something interesting to see in the neighbourhood. Everything in French, bien sûr.

That’s the dream. I don’t know any statistics, but I would guess it is the typical dream of  an average language learner: being able to travel and speak the language. The great moment of language success we aim for may be successfully making an order in a restaurant, or managing to hold up a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker, or even surviving the whole trip speaking the target language only.

At least I admit I have always been a travelling-oriented language learner (besides just being passionate about the languages). In upper secondary school, I was learning French and German, and had really high expectations about testing my skills in practice on an after-graduation interrail trip I was planning with a friend.

But language learning is a long process, and personally, I really don’t travel that often (wish I could, though). So when I do get to travel somewhere a target language of mine is spoken, I put a lot of expectations on the trip and on the upcoming language-speaking glory. Then I get disappointed, if I miss any chances to speak or if it just doesn’t go as smoothly as I’d imagined. On the interrail trip, after three years of studying French, I didn’t even manage to buy stamps at a post office without switching to English.

That was, of course, many years ago. I like to think I have matured as a language learner. I now realise I need other goals and milestones, too, and that language learning success comes in many forms. It is important for motivation to find moments when I can look back and say: “I’ve learned a lot. I’m better at this than before.”

But in everyday language learning, the moments of success are hard to catch, because the progress is often so subtle. For example, with my Russian tandem practice, it took three months before I could even notice I am getting better. And still I sometimes feel like I’m getting nowhere and I’m getting there too slowly. That is when I might start losing motivation if I wasn’t able to tell myself I can do it.

I’ve already learned a few languages, and they say you get more confident as a learner with each new language. The thing is, until last year, I’d basically only learned languages in school and at uni, and I hadn’t really thought that much about how I know if I’ve made progress. The courses I passed and the grades I got were my metrics for that. I was quite confident as a language learner, but after starting to learn on my own, I have struggled a little with being unable to measure my progress.

My personal language learning victories

I’ve been here before. “Here” is at the beginning of trying something new in a language, and finding it really difficult, but not impossible.

A while ago I had an experience, that made me think of how many personal victories I can actually find in my history of language learning.

This happened over a month ago, when I was sick for a few days and got really bored and totally ran out of stuff to do. Then I got the idea to try listening to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone in Russian, just to see how it would feel. (In case you didn’t read this post, I’ve previously listened to Harry Potter audiobooks in French). I didn’t expect to understand enough to be able to actually keep listening and enjoy it. I really didn’t consider my Russian to be on a level where I could listen to an audiobook, even a familiar one.

But when I started to listen, I instantly got a funny feeling. Like I’ve been here before.

“Here” is at the beginning of trying something new in a language, and finding it really difficult, but not impossible.

It felt exactly the same as when I first started to listen to the French version: At first, I could only pick a word here, another there, but could still follow the story. And I was only able to listen for a few minutes before getting overwhelmed and tired.

It was of course great that, unlike I had expected. I was able to listen and pick a few words here and there and follow the story. But what was really brilliant, was that with French, it only took me a couple of months that my ability to listen had improved what felt like ten-fold, so I got the feeling I’m not that far from my goals with Russian, either.

Inspired by this, I wanted to make a list of things that prove me I’ve made progress and improved in other languages before. So in the future, if I ever lose courage, feeling like I’ll never get anywhere, I can look at the list and see, that I’ve been there before and I’ve gotten far. It might also help me recognise new milestones I’ve reached.

This is my list of reference points of where I was before and where I am now:

  1. BEFORE: I can recall when I was around 16, and stayed in England with my aunt’s family for month in the summer and I really struggled to get a whole sentence of English out of my mouth trying to talk to my British uncle, even though in theory I was supposed to know a lot already. AFTER: I’ve spoken English quite confidently for at least seven years.
  2. BEFORE: I also remember the first times I tried reading a novel in English. It was so slow, I couldn’t concentrate, I had to stop and check words in a vocabulary frustratingly often. And I got tired after a few pages. AFTER: Now I read scientific articles for my thesis and wouldn’t think twice about should I read a book in its original English version or not.
  3. BEFORE: In 2009 I was on a week-long language scholarship trip in Sweden, and we went to the movies to see “Män som hatar kvinnor”. I felt like I didn’t understand a word. AFTER: Last year I watched a couple of Swedish films without subtitles, and struggled a bit, but not too much.
  4. BEFORE: Two years ago at my summer job I tried speaking French with a Brazilian guy who’d studied in France, but the conversation practically stopped before it started. And a year ago in Sweden I participated some language cafes to try and speak French, and I was able to say something, but probably sounded like a two-year-old. AFTER: this month, I was able to explain the topic of my Master’s thesis in French (it is rather complicated).
  5. BEFORE: In October I was in St. Petersburg in October, and I actually didn’t even dare to properly try speaking, unless you count reading out loud the Russian name of the food I ordered at a restaurant. AFTER? I’m not sure yet how much my speaking has improved during our tandem practice, but at least I most certainly do dare to open my mouth and try to say something!

Quite an amazing feeling, to realise all this. May the list get longer as I keep going!

Before and after… but after what?

Besides reminding me about the fact that I have succeeded before and I can do it again, there is another important purpose for the list above.

You know those “Before vs. After” pictures of people who lost half of their weight in no time with a super diet or training program? This Before and After list, I assure you, is not like that. What happened between Before and After here, was not a magical intense language course or program I paid a lot of money for. None of these happened overnight.

How did I make it? At least for numbers 1 and 2, it took years of practice and being forced to use English in my studies and immersing in it in my free time via films and music etc. For number 4, it took a lot of defrosting of what I’d learned in school, with a 1000 Goldlisted words, maybe 200 lessons (and reviewing them continuously) on Babbel and at least 60 hours of audiobooks.

So the list should remind me of not only where I’ve gotten so far, but also what it takes to get there: hard work, time, patience and persistence.

What is on your list? How do you know you’ve made progress? I recommend giving that some thought! Even if you are learning your first foreign language, pay attention to the small things that tell you you are moving forward. Start building your list of language victories. It will get longer and longer!

The Best Reason to Learn Languages

I just got this moment, when I remembered why I’m actually learning languages. I needed to share it. I wonder if there’s someone else out there, who sometimes gets a feeling like this?

A moment when I was just struck by the breathtaking beauty of a language.

Today, I was watching Бедная Настя and it got me by surprise. It was this song:

 

I think there would be a lot less problems in the world, if everyone could, when hearing a foreign language, just stop, and listen, and hear the beauty of it. In stead of being afraid or suspicious about something we cannot understand, we could be fascinated and awed by it.

I am so overwhelmed that such a variety of languages exist. Different languages that people around the world strive to express their thoughts and feelings in.

It’s universal. It is so beautiful. I cannot even describe it.

I have no idea why, but I needed to share it.