If you are like most language learners, then you probably have experienced the fear of speaking in your target language. While reading, listening, and writing are all well under control, speaking just seems to be on a whole other level.
Fortunately, like any language skills, speaking can also be improved with the right techniques.
So if you are interested in how to improve your speaking skills in your target language, read on to learn about 6 useful techniques.
Overcome the fear of speaking in a foreign language
First, admit that having a fear of speaking is totally normal and is nothing to be ashamed of. You may feel extra shy, introverted, or lack confidence in your target language. So are most language learners! Just treat it as another obstacle and find ways to overcome your fear.
First, identify what makes you afraid. The awkward silence when you don’t know what to say? Fear of others’ judging you as a person based on how you speak? Or is your pronunciation not that perfect so others may not understand you?
If you don’t know what to say, start with familiar topics that you are comfortable discussing, like personal hobbies or experiences. As you gain confidence, challenge yourself with more complex conversations or unfamiliar topics.
If you fear people will judge you because of how you speak, then don’t be! Ask yourself, will you think low of someone trying to speak your native language? No. You will probably be extra patient and happy to know they are trying to know your culture, right? It’s the same way around.
The last reason is probably more common: the fear of not being understood by others. Be it your pronunciation, word choice, or grammar, many things can result in failure in conversation. But it’s a natural thing that happens, even among native speakers. So tell yourself this is not fear, but excitement brought by learning opportunities. Making mistakes is an integral part of learning any language. The more you are exposed to natural conversations, the faster you’ll become fluent.
So, find the root of your fear by asking yourself why you are feeling this way and address the problems one by one. Don’t let fear hold you back from improving your speaking!
Exercises and activities to practice speaking by yourself
While the fastest way to improve speaking is absolutely talking with a partner, ideally a native speaker who can provide you with feedback, this is not always the case for most learners.
So if you don’t have a speaking partner, or simply prefer practicing speaking by yourself, here are some methods you can try by yourself to improve your speaking skills:
Monologue is basically speaking to yourself in your target language. The good thing is you can do this 24/7 no matter where you are. You can try to narrate your daily activities, describe your surroundings in detail, or debate over a topic with yourself.
Practice speaking by monologue is also recommended by the famous polyglot and linguist Kató Lomb. By engaging in inner monologue, language learners train their brains to think directly in the target language, and enhance vocabulary memory. Consistent practice with monologue can help you get used to expressing thoughts in another language and gradually build confidence when speaking.
If you like watching movies or shows in your target language, then don’t miss this method. Dubbing is a great way to help you improve your pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, and even emotion when speaking in your target language. Simply choose a scene or two that you like and listen carefully to what the character says. Slow it down if it’s too fast. Then record yourself saying the same lines and try voicing over for the character. Compare your version with the original scene over and over again.
The reason why dubbing works is it usually takes 10+ times for you to get a satisfying result. From intonation to emotion, everything has to be right. In this process, your pronunciation and speaking skills will be greatly improved. You’ll sound more and more like a native.
Another method quite similar to dubbing is shadowing. Shadowing combines the process of listening and speaking and is commonly used in interpretation training.
Shadowing is simply listening to a native speaker or audio recording and repeating what they say simultaneously. You can do this while watching YouTube or TV shows. Repeat as you hear native speakers say a sentence and try memorizing some useful expressions as well.
Similar to dubbing, shadowing can help you match the speed and intonation of a native speaker. And since listening and speaking are closely related, it also helps with vocabulary and listening comprehension.
The last useful tool is AI. There are a lot of bots and AI programs out there designed for practicing speaking skills in a foreign language. They have pretty mature language processing technology that can benefit language learners. Simply with a microphone, you can go to websites like Eviebot or use Chat GPT to engage in a conversation. Remember to switch the settings to your target language before you start.
Another very useful way to practice speaking skills is paraphrasing. It’s an important skill as it helps you to express your ideas even if you forgot certain key vocabulary.
If you don’t know a specific word, try another way to express your ideas. In this way, you are not just repeating what you’ve heard, but making sentences of your own. That is what speaking is all about, right?
If you have a vocabulary book, try to describe all the words you don’t know with words you do know. For example, “a stranger” is “someone you don’t know”. It is a little bit like dictionary definitions but can help you speak without stumbling on difficult words or concepts.
To take it to the next level, you can slightly manipulate what you hear, be it a verb, a noun, or a subject. For example, when you hear “I read a book today”, you can say “I read a book yesterday” or “She read a book today”. In this way, you are not just passively copying what others are saying but actively building your own sentences.
Journaling & thinking in your target language
If you have the habit of journaling, why not try journaling in your target language?
Writing in another language can help you think and get used to expressing yourself in that language. Writing is similar to speaking in a way that it forces you to express yourself in your target language. Writing, however, gives you more time to look up certain words and grammar, ponder on your word choice and drag those passive vocabulary into active ones. Good vocab and expressions you found in writing can also be reused later in speaking. Give it a try!
Use filler words
One thing many language learners overlook is filler words. Filler words are just small words to use when you don’t know what to say. Just like we often use “well”, “um”, “I mean” in English to begin a sentence or change a topic, so do speakers of other languages. Without real exposure to your target language, it’s hard to learn these words simply from textbooks. So actively look for how native speakers use filler words instinctively. Pick them up so you can also use them in your conversations.
In our previous post, we have summarized some common filler words in 7 languages. With these common filler words native speakers use, you can have extra time to fill the gaps and think about what to say next.
Speak, speak, speak
In order to speak fluently, the fastest way is of course to practice speaking A LOT. The best way is of course to find someone, ideally a native speaker to practice talking with you. When you have reached a certain level, consider going to the country of your target language and see what it’s like to use that language every day.
Of course, you can practice speaking without going to the country. There are many online platforms (like HelloTalk and Tandem) where you can find native speakers. And if you prefer talking by yourself, try the several methods we mentioned before about how to practice speaking on your own.
One suggestion for talking with native speakers, especially if you are paying for it, is to prepare ahead. Look up words and expressions related to the topic so you can use your time more efficiently.
Eventually, the trick is to simply speak a lot without worrying about making mistakes. Just put in the effort and learn through your own mistakes. Before you know it, your speaking skills will be improved a lot.
Lastly, remember that speaking won’t be improved overnight. Even in our native language, we still make stumbling mistakes sometimes. So don’t be too harsh on yourself. There is no perfection when it comes to speaking. With constant practice and the smart techniques we mentioned in this article, I’m sure you’ll reach fluency faster than you thought.