on January 25 2011 10:21 pm 4

Improve Your Speaking Skills by Surrounding Yourself with Opportunity

Pushing yourself to take risks and achieve goals can help you improve your skills with a foreign language, but sometimes too much pushing just gums up the works. I noticed a good example of this recently when I spent some time with an acquaintance and her young granddaughter.

When we met up, my acquaintance mentioned that her granddaughter knew some Russian, which we were speaking, and English. She asked the girl to say something in Russian, but the girl shyly refused. Then Grandma asked for a few words in English, the young lady refused again.

Later that evening, when the little girl looked tired, I asked her in Russian if she was sleepy, even making that international hands-as-pillow gesture. I was expecting a silent nod, but she answered without hesitation, in English, that she was because this was her first time staying up so late. Like a lot of us, she clammed up when asked to “perform,” but had no trouble when the conversation happened naturally.

Take the Pressure Off

There’s nothing wrong with having performance-based goals like “order a meal in French at Chez Martin,” but when you set those goals too high and demand success of yourself, it’s easy to get so intimidated you end up not talking at all. If you’re having trouble working up the courage to go out and “force yourself” to speak, stop expecting yourself to perform.

It’s a lot less painful to slowly get used to speaking your target language in an environment where speaking that language is natural and expected. Instead of trying to accomplish something (like getting a meal without making the waiter laugh) or pass for a native, which carries risk of “failure,” you can just be there and allow yourself to be draw into conversations.

When your target language is the default or at least almost universally spoken among the people around you, you’ll probably find people assume you know the language and naturally speak to you in it–even if just to ask you where the restroom is or what time it is. All you have to do is answer. If you manage a few sentences, but then the conversation gets too difficult for you, just explain that you only know a little of the language.

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t strike up conversations of your own and even if you’re ostensibly there to do something else (watch a film, look at paintings, etc.), you do have to be ready to speak and not look like you’re afraid to interact with people. That’s still easier than demanding some performance from yourself.

Where to Find “Ambient Opportunity”

To get you started, I’ve collected a few ideas for places to go to surround yourself with speaking opportunities without being under pressure to speak. Many of these are the same types of places you’d go for any type of speaking practice (in fact, I think I have a similar list somewhere on this blog).

The difference is primarily in your goals–going to watch a film at the Institut Francais, attend a concert at the Goethe Center, visit the nearest Russian Orthodox Church, or eat a meal at a restaurant with a primarily Korean clientele–all of which put you in contact with the language without pressuring you to accomplish a specific goal.

Now, I admit these opportunities are a lot easier to find in larger, more culturally diverse cities, but at the end I’ve included an alternative method you can use even if you have no local native speakers.

Cultural Centers
These include places of worship, theaters, libraries, college heritage clubs, and heritage events with a connection to the nationality that speaks your target language. If you’re not comfortable just showing up, go and ask if they have a monthly program of meetings and events, so you can choose something specific to go to ahead of time.

Expat/Diaspora Hangouts

These are often restaurants, night clubs, and even hotel lobbies, but they really could be anywhere and may not always be the obvious spots. If you have a native speaking friend, they may be able to point you toward some good places. Another way to find these locations, along with culture centers, is through publications targeted for that population that speaks your target language. Look for guides designed to help new arrivals find shops and service providers where their language is spoken.

Check out local volunteer opportunities that might put you in contact with speakers of your target language. And just because an organization doesn’t advertise for volunteers that doesn’t mean they would refuse free help. It never hurts to ask.

Conversation Practice Groups

While you’re unlikely to find native speakers at a conversation practice group for learners of that language, you’ll at least be in an environment where the language is spoken. And you may luck out from time to time and run into a native speaker who was invited by a regular participant in the group.

Take a Tour
This one’s only good once or twice, but it’s something to do for fun. If you live in a city with a fair amount of tour agencies, go on a guided tour for speakers of your target language. If the tour leader thinks you’re a little odd, just explain you’re learning that language. They won’t care as long as you pay.

Fake it
If you live out in the middle of nowhere and can’t access any of the above opportunites, you may have to get creative with what you do have. The internet is an invaluable tool for this. Play internet talk radio while you make dinner or clean up the living room. Watch movies online or look for online for shops that sell DVD movies in your target language. First of all these things will give you exposure to dialogues, which can help you learn useful phrases.

Secondly, nothing’s stopping you from talking back to the radio and TV–announce your opinion on that outrageous news item, make a peanut-gallery crack at something, or warn the lady in the horror movie not to go upstairs–you know, the usual. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have to understand much to benefit from this. Just as you may not understand the conversation around you in a restaurant or theater, you’re still getting exposure to the sound of the language and probably at least a little vocabulary review.

Have any other good ideas for places to go for speaking opportunities? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Related posts:

  1. Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language? Consider This When You Travel
  2. How to Overcome Fear of Speaking a Foreign Language
  3. Foreign Language Learning for Introverts: Speaking Practice Tips for Immersion Situations
  4. Learning a Language in a Bilingual Culture: Getting the Locals to Talk with You
  5. Three Ways to Improve Your Ability to Listen for Detail

Filed under Speaking

4 Responses to “Improve Your Speaking Skills by Surrounding Yourself with Opportunity”

  1. John says:

    I have found it intimidating trying to speak aloud in a new language! But I am working on it..

  2. Amelia says:

    Just keep at it and soon enough you’ll wonder why you were ever intimidated.

  3. Ege says:

    i think the best option is getting a native speaker friend for a language learner. Your friend may help you to improve your speaking skills.

  4. Amelia says:

    Oh, I agree that’s ideal whenever possible. And if you’re studying a less common language and can’t find any native speakers locally, you can probably find someone by frequenting forums or other places where speakers of your target language hang out. Even if you start out just writing, Skype makes it cheap to call internationally, so you can eventually start having “live” conversations and get some speaking practice that way.

    There again, though, if you only visit forums in your own language (or ones you know well), you may not meet anyone you can practice your current target language with. So even online, there are ways you can surround yourself with more opportunity.

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