Me: “Blahblahblah.” [talking in English]
Him/her: … [listens attentively in silence]
M: “So what do you think?”
H: “Ummm…I don’t know.” [shrugs with unease]
M: “Did you understand what I said?”
H: “Yes, of course!” [annoyed I thought otherwise]
M: “Cat got your tongue?”
H: “What?! I don’t understand.” [baffled look]
M: “Nothing. Why don’t you say something?”
H: “I can’t speak English.” [in English!]
M: … [poker face in silence]
Have you ever been on either side of such a conversation (in any language)? As an English user and teacher, I see this all the time. The idea of speaking in another language is terrifying for most new learners and they’ll do anything to postpone it. We’re going to take a look at why this issue is so common. Understanding this problem is the first step to any solution. Let’s get that tongue back from the cat!
Can’t Speak English? You’re Not Alone!
What do the numbers say? According to Statista, 1.5 billion people speak English making it the most widely spoken language worldwide. However that’s only true when we include the non-natives, otherwise the number is reduced to roughly a fourth (375 million).
There are 2 interesting points to those numbers. First off, native English speakers are outnumbered 3 to 1 by non-natives. Three times more people speak English as an alternative than those who use it as their main language. Non-natives are learning fast. Good job!
Secondly, even if you accept 1.5 billion as the total, you still have a world filled with approximately 7.5 billion people. That’s only a fifth of the entire population of Earth that speaks the language. In other words, for every 1 person that speaks English, 4 people don’t. No shame in it.
Understanding vs. Speaking
Before I sit down to assess a student’s level, I’m almost certain that they’ll have difficulty in answering. Even when they understand everything I say, they still struggle to respond. Why is that? To understand, we need take a closer look at the structure of language.
The Structure of Languages
Any language can be broken down into two major components: systems and skills. We’ll talk about language systems later, but for now consider it the foundation upon which skills are built. For now our focus is skills which itself is divided into two categories: receptive and productive.
Receptive skills focus on your ability to receive input and process it for comprehension. The input may be in written form or auditory; the first being your reading skill, the second listening. So answering some questions following an essay or class recording tests your receptive skills.
Productive skills, on the other hand, are all about output. Using prior knowledge or information you’ve received, you should be able to produce an answer. If the answer you’re giving is on paper, then it’s your writing skill. Otherwise, if it’s sound coming out of your mouth, then quite simply you’re speaking.
Why Is Speaking Harder?
Understanding generally refers to receptive skills, whereas we discussed speaking as a productive skill. So why is one easier than the other? In my professional opinion, the answer is feedback and practice. Though these two are closely linked, I’m separating them for the sake of analysis.
Anyone can take a reading or listening test and check the answer sheet to see how well they’ve done. But to get an accurate idea about your speaking performance, you need someone to listen and give you feedback. That someone has to know the criteria you’re going to be evaluated by and also, have a trained ear to tell you how close your answer was. In other words, a trainer or teacher. I don’t know any software that can do that yet (maybe some day in the future), but getting a teacher is neither as easy as picking up a practice tape or book, nor as cheap.
But let’s not forget that you have an in-built feedback system. Whenever you produce a sentence, you have a “sense” regarding its correctness (if your foundations are strong). So you could do yourself a favour a lot of help by (a) speaking in front of the mirror, or (b) recording your speaking and reviewing it later. While these methods have proven to be effective, most people pass on them; either because they seem too weird or too time-consuming.
Drawing from the statistics, I’m guessing you live in a country that doesn’t speak English as its first language. That doesn’t mean you haven’t been exposed to the many attractions of the English-speaking world: Hollywood blockbusters, engaging TV series, best-selling novels, international magazines, useful websites, and blogs, etc. They’re everywhere but in most cases, it’s a one-way street. You can get what you want from them, but when was the last time you had a nice chat with your favourite actor or author? Indeed, giving back to these media is rarely possible.
Another downside to living in such countries is finding practice centers. Most group classes cram too many students, mitigating their conversation time. Hell, it’s hard enough to find a friend who’s willing to talk English. The attempt usually ends up feeling too awkward or too funny to continue. There’s the infrequent foreign traveller or free discussion session, but they don’t allow for a consistent practice routine.
What Can I Do About It?
In order to overcome our fears, we need to accept them first. If anything this post is saying that it’s OK to be scared of speaking a new language. Pretty much everyone who speaks English the way you’d like to, went through something similar at first. Once you come to terms with that, you have two options: give in to fear and let it stop you from learning to speak, or gather your courage and take the necessary steps to go beyond. The choice is up to you.
Soon I’ll write a post about overcoming the fear of speaking. I’ll offer tried and tested methods that can get you talking bit by bit. Till then keep studying and hoping. You’ll need both to succeed.
Do you find speaking hard too? Do the reasons discussed explain why or is it something entirely different? I’d love to know more about reasons I might have missed. Leave a comment and we’ll get to the root of the problem together.