How to Become a Fluent Speaker of a Foreign Language


Chris Parker[interview video below]

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.

Beijing panorama

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!

Chris Parker is a Chinese-English simultaneous interpreter and translator currently based in Beijing. He gives learning tips and teaches Mandarin on his blogYouTube channel and through Facebook.

15 thoughts on “How to Become a Fluent Speaker of a Foreign Language”

  1. Excellent idea for post-beginners! It really is hard to start expanding your speaking skills from answering simple questions in short sentences to actually, you know, speaking.

    In actual fact, I’m going to use these same topics for reactivating a dormant language (French) where I’ve found I can understand well but the words aren’t flowing any more. Thanks, Chris!

    One essential point that was touched on in the video, was making sure that you’re able to ask questions on these topics. If you get a chance to talk about these things in conversation, don’t let it be one-sided!

    1. Thanks for the comment Ruth! Wow, how long had you been learning French for before? If you ever need any help or you have any questions, feel free to let me know (French is my native tongue).

      I also wrote a guest post a little while ago on Luca Lampariello’s blog, The Polyglot Dream, where I compare Quebec and Metropolitan French. Have a quick look at it if you’re ever interested in discovering Quebec French! The link is as follow:

      And are you still working hard on your Vietnamese? Did you manage to meet a few Vietnamese in the UK where you can practice the language?


      1. Well, I have a long history with French. Family holidays, self-study as a kid, 7 years of classes, fortnight-long exchange with school… Back in 2005 I was super happy with my level but I’d had enough of classes so I studied a science degree instead. If only language blogs were around then, I might have realised I needed to maintain it!

        It’s really strange trying to learn it again as my understanding is surprisingly high but I have difficulty using it, which is never usually a problem with me. I know most of it is still there under the surface, it’s just a question of getting it back out. Thanks for the offer of help, I’ll let you know!

        That’s really interesting! We learnt a bit about la Francophonie in school, but they never looked at language differences, only telling us weird facts. I’ll check out your article once I’ve got back on my feet!

        It’s hard to balance two languages. I thought about trying to get back my French while I was in Vietnam but I didn’t want to take any focus away from Vietnamese. As such, I’ll be keeping Vietnamese in maintenance mode for a few more weeks!

        1. Alexander Krasnov

          Hi Ruth,
          I can completely relate with French. I have the same experience, where if I watch a movie or a TV series in French, I have no problems understand around 80-90% of it. But once someone asks me something in French, I freeze and suddenly all knowledge escapes. Possibly I didn’t do enough of the mental rehearsal in French as Chris Parker suggested 🙂
          One event that kind of made my happy was when I was asked in the school I work in to assess the spoken French level of an interviewee of ours who was applying for a Chinese teacher’s position. I was a bit nervous at first, but after I entered the room, I started talking to her in French, interviewing her and generally communicating. As I’ve been studying this language for around 7 years now (actively/passively), I was pretty happy with the fact that I didn’t crash in it.

          Also, I wanted to ask what resources do/did you use to study Vietnamese outside of Vietnam? This might be my next language to study after Mongolian.

          1. Exactly! You’re right that it does come back quite quickly when you need it. Impressive you could do an interview! I find one minute I come out with a great sentence and the next I completely blank on a word I need. I’ll get there!

            As for Vietnamese, I started with a phrasebook immediately before I went there then learnt the rest in country. I have a huge resources list on my blog though. I haven’t taken a look at them personally yet – I’d love to find a library that stocks them so I can evaluate how good they are!

  2. Alexander Krasnov

    I can completely relate with the Mandarin Chinese. I have been studying it for 8 years myself. The nice thing is that unlike other languages that I started later, I didn’t know how to study languages, so the process included mixing different approaches and different sources together. Somehow eventually this resulted in being able to not only understand, but also speak Chinese. With Spanish and French, for example, I have the problem of understanding everything but being able to say nothing, which is what this article discusses partly.

    I am not a big fan of starting to speak from an early stage with foreigners as well, so the point of simulating conversations in my head is a very attractive idea to me, and this is what develops speaking ability later on, I think. It definitely happened like this with Italian to me, when I watched a huge amount of engaging videos that I enjoyed, and eventually noticed that I’m starting to think more and more in Italian. It’s been a while since I’ve talked in Italian however, so now unfortunately my Italian is a bit worse.

    My Mandarin, needless to say, is getting better and better, considering the fact that I also live in Beijing, with my girlfriend being Chinese and most of my coworkers being Chinese. I speak the language most of the day (together with English of course with the students or my Austrian boss)

    1. That’s great Alexander!

      My sister actually lives in Beijing at the moment, and I’d love to visit China in the near future (I’m learning Mandarin at the moment). What made you decide to learn Chinese? And how is life in Beijing like?

      1. Alexander Krasnov

        Well, I originally arrived here for a scholarship to study for half a year. I met my girlfriend here and decided to come back, which I did last year in August. Now, as you remember we talked before, I work here for a Mandarin school, so we’ve had quite a few students who started Chinese after studying some other languages, like Spanish, French or others. Benny was also here during last year’s Summer and Richard Simcott studied a bit with one of our teachers 🙂
        As for Beijing itself, it’s pretty good. Quite sunny today!

        What does your sister do in Beijing?

        1. Wow, great story! Yes I do remember us talking about Live the Language and I remember Benny dropped by!

          My sister is doing her M.A. there. I had the chance to visit Hong Kong and Macau last winter but unfortunately I didn’t make it to the mainland!

          1. Alexander Krasnov

            Then you are welcome to come visit me (and your sister of course) here in Beijing! You’ll find that this place is pretty good for practicing your language, as people here are very patient with Chinese-studying foreigners 🙂

  3. This is a great idea to help learn a new language. I’ve heard similar if not the same kind of thing before and it really seems to work! Before I’ve seen a tip of basically talking to yourself in your head(or maybe even out loud sometimes) throughout the day and get yourself into the habit of thinking in the foreign language. With enough practice you can find yourself understanding without translating in your head! I’ve had that happen once or twice and it was an exciting experience. I’m trying out social networking myself on interpals in an attempt to make friends and practice my German. It’s quite enjoyable 🙂

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