My name is Chris Parker. I started learning Mandarin Chinese for my university degree seven years ago, and I’ve never stopped! I currently live and work in Beijing, and Chinese is completely integrated into my life. My mission now is to make Chinese more accessible to language learners all over the world!
I was inspired by Sam’s post “Thinking in a Foreign Language: How to Do It and Why,” which actually encapsulates a lot of what I believe about foreign language learning, and actually includes some of the points I made in my original video on how to learn Chinese, around two years ago. What Sam said about surrounding yourself with the foreign language in as many ways as you can and making it a part of your life are absolutely spot-on, and in this post I want to expand how you can force yourself to think in a foreign language, and improve your speaking ability beyond a basic beginner’s level.
I’ve Gone Through This Book, Now What?
People often ask me, “I’ve finished my beginner’s course, I’ve got to the end of the book. What do I do now?” I usually say, “listen to the CD a few more times and then pick up a couple more beginner’s courses. One course can’t give you everything. Read through the texts and listen to the CDs multiple times.” But there needs to be something else you can do, to get from being a beginner to somebody who cannot just understand but also speak the language confidently.
It is normal for language learners to excel in their beginner’s classes but then face conversations with native speakers and not know what to say, or to get lost for words. That’s why I take Sam’s principle of practicing speaking on my own first. After all, you wouldn’t go driving through a city without taking lessons or practicing, so why should learning a language be any different? It isn’t very realistic to read a book or two and assume that when you then talk to somebody, the conversation will automatically flow.
How I Do It
Here is my method for getting a beginner more confident at speaking a language:
Take each of the topics below, and mentally think up things to say or answers to the questions in your native language. You will come up with the expressions and vocabulary you are used to using in your own language. Every time you think of a phrase or word you don’t know, look it up in a dictionary, work with the example sentences and preferably write each new word or expression down.
After you have a list written down to help you, go back to the beginning and try to actually say what you have thought of, using the foreign language. This will force you to get speaking, get used to turning your thoughts and expressions in your native language into the foreign language, and what’s more, it will give you practice for real-life conversations. There is no harm in practicing, and rehearsing first, before you do the “real thing.” It is important to speak out loud. Try to make each speech at least 5 minutes long. You can practice it several times, and then record it on your computer or phone. This whole process of learning to express yourself and talking out loud will seem difficult and unnatural at first, but the more practice you do, the more your conversation will start to flow and the better you will get at expressing yourself.
As much of conversation is being curious about the other person, so you can also think about how to ask the questions to somebody else. If you are really good at asking questions, then you will not have awkward pauses when you are talking to native speakers!
Here are the topics:
- Your job – What is your job title? What responsibilities do you have? What projects do you work on? How did you get into the job? Where else have you worked? What interests you most about it?
- Your interest in the country/language – When did you start learning XX language? Why did you start learning it? How did you learn it? Who taught you? What do you like about the language / the country you are learning about? What places have you visited? How many times? Do you have friends from the country? How long have you lived there for? What cultural experiences have you had with the country/ language?
- Hobbies – what are your passions outside work? Prepare a 5 minute talk about each one of your hobbies, how did you get interested in it? What is it about it that you are passionate about? When do you get the chance to practice it? How are you going to develop your hobby in the future?
- Your country/hometown – Where exactly are you from? What is the place like? What do you like/dislike about your country / where you live? Did you move to a new place to work/study? What do you think of it? What places do you like to visit / where do you get out?
- Travel – Do you like to travel? Do you get to travel with your job? What places have you visited / would you like to visit? Describe some of your trips. Describe some memorable experiences.
- Advanced: Social issues – Can you describe a piece of news you have read in the foreign language? Describe an interesting thing that you found out recently. What are the advantages and disadvantages of XX. What do people think about XX, do you agree/disagree, why?
Don’t worry if you don’t start just speaking a language naturally. It’s completely normal that you have to work up to it. Everybody has to go through this process. Good luck!