An essential component of language learning is speaking. As difficult as it may be when you are just starting a language, the more you speak the greater your progress. Understanding vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation is one thing but putting them all together into comprehensible speech is a practiced skill. The more you practice the greater the results.
OK, so you want to speak and the communitive language classroom should be the perfect place to start practicing those skills. Unfortunately, your fellow classmates also know the importance of getting their speaking time in. The battle begins. Instructors have a difficult time and often don’t monitor speaking time well. Worse, they too can monopolize the speaking time leaving even less for the students.
This week we had a small class of 4 students at the beginning of the week and just two by the end. This is an excellent size for conversation practice. If only students would cooperate and take their turn appropriately. A young Italian woman, for whom Russian words seem to easily roll off her tongue, took the stage and didn’t give it up until she was forced off by the instructor or another student. It wasn’t that she was saying anything so important, she was just practicing every language combination she knew that fit the particular topic. If asked to make a statement describing her home city she would give 6 or more examples. A great strategy for her, but difficult for the rest of us who struggle to put sentences together.
For some mysterious reason the Italian disappeared from class and only a young French speaking Swiss guy and I were left. This should be even better. The young Swiss, although not shy about speaking, generally didn’t take more than his turn. That was until I was the only competition. The first half hour of class was a one and one back and forth between the Instructor and him. Although I tried to interject into the conversation I was cut off by both. When the instructor finally turned to me, I was to describe what I had done the day before, the Swiss student put up with it for about five minutes before changing the subject, asking the instructor if she had heard of some bar he had found on his phone. The instructor made an effort to direct the conversation back to me but I certainly didn’t get a 30 minute one-on-one practice session.
For those who feel they have little to say, keep in mind that the point isn’t about content, it’s about speaking practice. Say as much as you can whether it is interesting or not. When others are talking, especially during long monologues, ask appropriate questions. Question asking is also an important speaking skill. Don’t leave all the question asking opportunities to the teacher. You may also interject with your own experience. The point is to be engaged and get your practice time in.
In a well-run language classroom there should also be plenty of pair work. Many students discount the importance of working with other students. They feel they will pick up mistakes or, if you don’t have a native speaker listening to you, somehow it doesn’t count as practice. However practice is practice and students generally correct each other more than they pick up mistakes. Think of pair-work as rehearsal, another chance to practice what you know. Try to keep all communication with your partner in the target language. This too is practice. The beauty of pair-work is it gives all the students in the classroom more speaking time. If students only speak with the teacher each student’s speaking time is greatly reduced, especially in larger groups.
Lastly don’t worry too much about making mistakes. It’s embarrassing and hard, I know, but mistakes are part of the learning process. Learn from your mistakes. You can’t possibly book learn your way out of making mistakes. Language learning is a practiced skilled. Like playing the piano, you have to practice to learn.
For links to all the posts in this series see the St Petersburg page.
For more posts on travel in Russia see the Russia page.