Saturday, 19 January 2019

You only learn speaking by speaking. There, I've said it.

Since airing a gripe about the CELTA course a few days ago, it's probably time to say something positive about it. Well, it has overhauled my thinking on a few points. And one of these is the importance of language production or "output."

The course made me realise that, as a learner, I'd always been very "input" focused. I'm a very reluctant speaker, you see, and I tend to place a lot of emphasis on reading and listening to the radio for hours on end in order to internalise the structures.

When attending classes in the past as a learner, I couldn't really see the point of engaging in speaking practice with other learners. What's the point, I used to tell myself, of listening to other people making the same mistakes that I was making, thereby reinforcing my own errors? Surely, to get good at speaking it's best to converse with competent speakers who can correct me...?

The CELTA course made a point of breaking down the language learning process into various components. It would draw a distinction, for example, between language "input" and "output."

Just to be clear: There has never been any doubt in my mind that speaking practice is important. Over the years, I've met so many people who told me, "I understand [insert language], but I can't speak it." The point is, comprehension alone is not enough. Consuming copious hours of input will only take you so far, but if you ever want to consider yourself a speaker of your chosen target language, you need to actually make those words come out of your mouth, no matter how haltingly at first.

Sonia, who was my Spanish teacher in London, once revealed to me that, after arriving in the UK, she used to sit herself in front of a mirror every night before going to bed and talk to herself until, eventually, she got to a place where she felt vaguely comfortable speaking English.

I'm sure I must have guffawed at this when she told me, but it clearly worked for her, and after finishing CELTA, I've come round to considering her "mirror chats" an effective method of fluency practice. However, I doubt that many would have the discipline to stick to it, and I've become convinced that a classroom setting is actually a very good place to make speaking practice happen.

In fact, I'd go as far as conceding that the core benefit of attending a language class at all is to get the opportunity to speak. Thirty years ago, it was still quite a challenge to find good quality input sources, and a class may have been one of the few occasions for the student to hear the language being spoken. In the online world, this is no longer the case. Magazines, blogs, articles, subtitled TV series, films, verb & vocab quizzes, YouTubers teaching you anything and everything from basic grammar down to colloquial expressions in bite-sized chunks - it's all right there, 24/7. And while it is true that you can quite easily find people for conversation practice online, from my own experience of having gone down that route, I'd say that, at least initially while you're still struggling to maintain a conversation, the classroom is a much better place for taking your first steps in this direction.

In an ideal world I personally still prefer working 1-2-1 with a native (or highly competent) speaker, but this isn't always feasible. In reality, it doesn't really matter whether your conversation partner stumbles over their words just as much as you do - the main objective is that you get those words out, no matter how. You first need to get used to producing the language - the quality of your output can be improved later on.

The upshot is, if I ever do get round to teaching, my focus would be on giving my students as much speaking practice as possible.