I’m pushed for time today, so I’m copying and pasting an email I received
You have a convert in the reading and listening techniques. On the other side I would love to see a letter from you on how to practice talking and writing. Example. I am trying to write (or talk to myself) every day. What should I do when I cannot think of a word I need. Should I write the word in English, leave a blank… suggestions? Should I look up the word(s) I couldn’t think of? I would find your thoughts on this interesting.
… and my reply, which I hope WILL be interesting:
Writing and talking are very different processes, Anthony, so a starting point would be to consider that and reflect on the opportunities and limitations of each.
With writing, probably the easiest way to learn to write in any language, including your own, is to use texts created by others as a model. That’s what all the modern coursebooks do. For example – “Here’s a standard job application cover letter, notice this feature? And this? Now do one of your own.” Most writing has a specific purpose and an intended audience, so learning to do it the way everyone else does makes a lot of sense. Creativity comes later, if ever.
Speaking on the other hand is much more personal, is real time, and is normally interactive. It makes a lot of sense to devote time, and if necessary money, to interacting regularly with native speakers of the language you’re learning, which is what I do. I took my wife out for lunch the other day, which cost me €45 and lasted about an hour. For the same money I could get three thirty-minute conversation lessons, which offer at least as much value!
There are few valid, free ways to practice speaking, so for people who can’t afford lessons, I’d suggest increasing the amount of listening you do to compensate. If your listening is above average but you’re hesitant at speaking, any future conversations are likely to work out anyway. And if, at some future point, you get the chance to speak to people in the language you’re learning, the ease with which you understand what’s said to you will encourage the people you interact with to keep talking to you, which in turn will give you the time to gain confidence and improve.
Hope that helps!
To which I would now add, having re-read Anthony’s email and realised I didn’t specifically address the ‘what do you do when you don’t know the word’ issue, the following:
1. When writing, you COULD look it up, but then you risk misusing it. Translating what you want to write from your own language is a process that is fraught with difficulties. Better by far to research what you want to write before you actually begin, find texts that you can learn from, make notes, etc. And THEN write. If you find you’re missing a critical piece of vocabulary, then the fault was at the research stage. But if you’ve done your homework properly, even without the word you don’t know, you’ll be able to produce a text that’s more than good enough (perhaps you’re doing an exam and need to pass with a certain %?) One reassuring thing to bear in mind – people don’t read everything your write in any case, or if they do, they fail to understand it (I know this from bitter experience!) So why worry?
2. When speaking, assuming that you need to say ‘widget’ but have no idea what it is in Italian, then first ask yourself, does this really matter a damn? Couldn’t I tell her that her hair looks lovely today, instead, or moan about taxes, or ask what everyone’s plans are for the summer? Frustrating though it might be to not know EXACTLY how to express your every thought, instantly, success at oral communication (monologues, conversation) rarely depends on lexical precision. And secondly, assuming you’ve decided that ‘widget’ really needs to be said, just explain what it is or what it means, like this “I don’t know how to say this in Italian, but it’s a general word we use in English for a small component or device, especially when it doesn’t really matter what it is. So instead of saying there used to be plenty of companies making various types of widget, we could say ‘various types of component or product’.”
Given that I do conversation lessons in four different languages most weeks (plus speaking Italian and English in my day-to-day life, so 6 languages!), you won’t be surprised that not-knowing the right word, or confusing words from different languages, happens to me on a daily, hourly, or even more frequent basis!
Few, though, would regard me as a hesitant speaker, even with the languages I know relatively little of. As I wrote to Anthony, regular practice, assuming you can afford it, makes a huge difference, and when you have dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of hours of experience speaking a foreign tongue, ‘not knowing the word’ (and other linguistic issues, like mispronouncing things or making grammar mistakes) becomes so routine, you hardly notice. Which is a good thing, I would add.
No really! I have students (Italians learning English) who make so many mistakes in even a short sentence that there are almost more inaccuracies than words. And yet, they may be quite skilled communicators in English, so people that you could chat away with without really consciously being aware that they are screwing up virtually everything in one way or another (this is NOT an exaggeration).
Skilled experts (not all teachers are – this is something that takes years to learn) can hear the issues, but will also be aware of how generally effective the other person’s speaking is – are they making their point? Without undue effort? Is it hard work listening to them? I often tell people how well they did, even when what they said was light-years from ‘perfect’. And vice versa, if that’s what’s needed…
Unskilled listeners (so probably you, interacting with an Italian friend who’s speaking English) will make a much more subjective, but still very valid, evaluation: “Couldn’t understand a word he said, poor fellow” or “He speaks English really well, considering he’s only been here a few months.” Native English speakers are sometimes convinced my wife is a native speaker too, or almost. I can hear the tell-tale Italian-native-speaker grammar boo-boos, but people who interact with her often don’t notice them, or just dismiss them as you would the speech characteristics of someone with a regional accent.
Practice, chill about your limitations, focus on the overall sucess of your interactions, you’ll be fine!
By the way, in July, exactly three weeks from today, we’ll be having our Summer Sale, which means a coupon code that will save you 20% on online lessons and ebooks, should you be in the market for either, or both. Watch this space for more information.
In the meantime, why not follow my advice to Anthony and up the amount of listening practice you do each day?