Do Students Need to Practice Speaking?

When students/parents think about language learning, they often think about students “practicing” certain skills. They imagine students listening to recorded dialogues to “practice” listening. Or they might picture students standing up in front of a classroom to give a presentation to “practice” speaking. Knowing a language, however, is not skill that we can learn and practice, like knitting. It is much more complicated and abstract than that. In Mandarin Chinese language schools and programs, the speech contest is often an important event of the year. It can be nice to have a goal to work towards, but speaking practice for this type of presentation does very little to help students learn.

In the beginning stages of language acquisition, students can always understand more than they say. We know this is true for children. They understand what the people around them say far sooner (years sooner!) than they start uttering their first words. Yet in language classes, students (or their parents) often expect to start speaking in full sentences from the first ten minutes of class!

photo of child holding microphone speaking
This little guy is probably wasting his time practicing for a speech contest.

Why Students Want Speaking Practice

Most students who want to “practice” speaking want to do so to make sure that they are not making any mistakes. They assume that if they say something incorrectly, they will hear helpful feedback and then not make the mistake again. This is not really an effective way to learn a second language. It is also not really how language learning works. To make this case, let’s look at an extreme example of a class oriented towards giving students speaking practice. In this class, students have to speak in the Chinese as much as they can, and every time they make a mistake, the teacher will correct them. How will students know what to say? They can memorize lists of words and try to fit them into grammar structures that they try to remember from a textbook. Of course they will make loads of mistakes and hear a constant stream of correction from the teacher. This sounds like a nightmare class, right? Only the very most motivated students will want to stick around.

We Learn to Speak from Hearing Input, Not From “Speaking Practice”

Hearing lots of corrections is not how you learned your native language either. You didn’t learn your first language by hearing a constant stream of correction for every mistake that you made. Also, you probably did not make that many mistakes either. You heard lots of input from your environment. Then, after a long time, you started to speak and did generally a pretty good job of it. You learned grammar without really learning it.

Think about it, what is a shorter way to say “she is not”? “She isn’t” probably came into your head pretty quickly. What is a shorter way to say “they are not”? “They aren’t” also probably occurred to you pretty quickly. Can you say “I amn’t” instead of “I am not”? No, we don’t say that in Standard English. Did anyone ever sit you down and teach you that rule? My guess is probably not. Furthermore, you did not have to make this mistake, hear a correction and then “practice” the structure in order to get it right. The human brain does all the work without us even noticing!

Be Patient! True Speaking Fluency Takes Time

In a beginner language class, students need to hear lots of input before they can significant speaking in class. If students do end up speaking a lot  in class, such as by practicing dialogues, they are not really speaking. They are memorizing chunks of language and parroting them back. This may be useful in a narrow set of circumstances, but it is not the type of true, deep, language acquisition that we want.

Beginner students need to listen much, much more than they need to talk. They need all that good input in Mandarin Chinese before they can speak it with a similar ease and fluency as their native language. Speaking can still have a roll in the classroom, however. Even from the very beginning, students can answer simple yes/no or true/false questions in class. This helps to convince them that they are leaning and also keeps them awake :). I will also often ask students to translate a short burst of speech into English. This helps me to verify that they understand what we are doing. Comprehension is an essential part of language learning. Speaking practice, in and of itself however, does not really help students acquire a new language.

More on how language learning works:

Do you need to learn grammar?

Why Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning Different

Do you disagree with this post? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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