How many times have you heard someone tell you that you just have to speak in order to learn another language? That we’re supposed to learn just like little kids do, and need to just speak for it to come naturally? It is a piece of advice that is repeated constantly in the language learning world, but this philosophy is flawed. Adults naturally apply their structural understanding of their mother tongue to learning a second language, and thereby make a lot of errors when starting out. In spite of mistakes, and although they’ll never be mistaken for a native speaker, with a little extra work most people can become at least conversational, if not fluent, speakers of a new language.
So, is the best way to learn by speaking? Obviously you will never really learn a language if you don’t speak with other people, and the mistakes that someone learning a language makes is simply part of the process, but it’s important to remember that speech is a form of imitation and the very best way to imitate is to both listen (to what is being said, in addition to how it’s being said) and to read what has been written in your target language.
Reading is actually one of the best ways to incorporate vocabulary while digesting new grammatical structures that will help you to not only understand some of the nuances of the culture you’re studying, but it will fill in the holes in your understanding and give you with new ways to express how you think and feel. The more you read and incorporate this information, the more confident you will begin to feel. Anybody who has been in an immersion environment knows how frustrating it is to try to speak but not feel like they are able to really just be themselves!
Read about what interests you. This way you can accomplish not only your language goals, but you can learn about the things that impassion you at the same time. Personal engagement is one of the best known predictors for success in a foreign language, so choosing the things that spark your mind will mean that your interest won’t just dry up after reading so many boring passages that are irrelevant to your life. Ultimately when you are able to speak with more confidence you’ll already have the vernacular you need to talk about the things you care about!
Never be shy about speaking, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Speaking will actually help to expose the areas you need to work on with vocabulary and grammar, and can be a hugely motivating experience. However, if you find that verbal communication is painfully difficult, if you stutter and stop and become completely flustered in trying to find the right word it’s ok to back off your “talk training” and go get more input. Continuing to speak may simply reinforce bad habits, unless you're talking with a trained professional who can and will correct you! If you decide to take a break and go back to reading and listening, the new input will furnish you will the increased vocabulary and understanding of how real natives actually talk that will actively help to improve your working grammar. Don’t forget to write in your target language! Reading, writing, and listening are the cornerstones to building the successful foundation of a language that many fantastic conversations may be built upon.