3.1. How soon should I start talking?
As I mentioned earlier, this is controversial, and so there can be no hard and fast rule regarding how soon you should start devoting a portion of your language sessions to producing speech in addition to understanding it. Many people think that it is important to begin speaking from day one and are surprised to learn that there may be advantages to waiting awhile. In general, I encourage people to wait awhile to start speaking, but on the other hand, I try not to discourage anyone who strongly wishes to work at speaking the language right from the start. For myself as a language learner, I do not specifically avoid speaking a language in real-life situations to the extent that I am able to and need to. I even design some of my early sessions so that they feed into my real-life communication situations. For instance, since I found that I was buying vegetables often, I chose to learn names for vegetables in an early session. Since I used taxis, I did the role play described above as a means of learning expressions which I might use in giving instructions to taxi drivers. So when I encourage you to concentrate exclusively, or almost exclusively, on learning to comprehend, I am referring to what you do in your sessions with your LRP, not so much in the outside world.
But, in general, you do not need to be in a hurry to start speaking the language during your first few weeks. That is entirely up to you. Postponing your production of spoken language has advantages. It also has disadvantages.
There are several advantages to delayed oral production. First, it takes awhile to begin hearing the new language really clearly. Some people refer to this as tuning up to the new language. It may take two or three weeks. It will be harder to use accurate pronunciation before tuning up than after, and you may begin developing poor pronunciation habits if you do a lot of speaking before you are tuned up to the language. Second, for many people, trying to respond to the LRP by speaking the new language significantly decreases the rate of learning. This may be partly due to the increased stress level. It may be partly due to the fact that it takes a lot of brain effort to recall vocabulary and phrases during the early days of language learning, so that the more you speak the language, the less brain energy you will have left for learning to comprehend new material. At any rate, if you are trying to both speak and comprehend during the early days of language learning, you are likely to cover less ground than if you concentrate on learning to comprehend only.
The advantages to delayed production would appear to relate mainly to the internal, psychological aspects of language learning. The disadvantages relate to external, social considerations. First of all, your LRP may not be totally sympathetic with the idea. She may feel that if you're not talking, then you're not learning. As I say, skeptical LRP s can become convinced of the value of what you are doing as they see your surprising progress in learning to understand their language. But this may be a hurdle to get over right at the beginning. Second, you may have real communicative needs that require you to speak already. Certainly, you need to be able to greet people, and show a certain degree of politeness. You may have certain absolutely essential needs, such as telling the taxi driver where you live. Third, you may have to interact with a number of speakers of the language who are expecting to see immediate evidence of your progress as a speaker of their language. Telling them that you can comprehend several hundred vocabulary items and many basic sentence patterns may not mean much to them. They would like to hear you speak, or at least you feel that they would.
I would encourage you to think of yourself initially as a baby bird in the nest. You need to grow before you can fly. To fly you need to be fed. Your nest is your home and other locations where you can work with your LRP or listen to your tape recorder. Your food is all the language material that you are learning to comprehend. You can eventually start flapping your wings in the nest. That is, you can start engaging in two-way communication with your LRP and thus developing basic conversational ability. Finally, you get out of the nest and start flying. With practice you become a proficient flyer. If you try to fly before you've grown feathers, it can be stressful. Why not minimize the trauma by staying in the nest for awhile. Of course, you do not want to stay in the nest more than is necessary, or you'll not learn to fly. It's a matter of balance.
How long then, should you concentrate exclusively, or almost exclusively, on learning to understand the language before you start trying to speak, assuming you feel like waiting, as I am encouraging you to do? I think that for many people a month may be a good period of time for exclusive, or nearly exclusive, comprehension learning. The second month can be a mix of both comprehension activities and speaking activities. Now it may be that after a week or two (or less [or more]) you find that certain sentences or words just come rolling out of your mouth. You have a need to say something, and what you need to say happens to be right there on the tip of your brain right when you need it. And you just say it. Great. Don't bite your tongue. Do what feels natural.
If you feel that it is important that you talk a lot in your early sessions, in addition to learning to understand (and in addition to talking in real-life situations), then you'll find that you can do a lot with pictures, objects and actions. You'll want to make a point of learning to use power tools, as described in the section on survival expressions. These enable you to use the language as a means of learning more of the language.
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Page content last modified: 11 September 1997
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