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3C: Speaking Troubleshooting

We asked our community what kinds of speaking problems they were struggling with and compiled the most common issues into this guide.

Mindset

Your goal for Stage 3C is not to achieve 100% mastery of the language. You're aiming for B2 proficiency. That means you’re able to have casual conversations about your life and topics that you're interested in using relatively simple, but completely correct, language.

Don’t worry about trying to sound smart or eloquent. Speak simply. Use words and phrases you are confident in. Try not to guess how to say things if you can avoid it. When you do guess, pay attention to what's a guess and what isn't. This will help you avoid solidifying bad habits.

Your goal is to get your thoughts across in a way that feels natural and correct. Once you’ve mastered the domain of casual conversation, you can move on to Stage 4 where you will focus on getting more precise and creative with your speech.

Motivation Issues

Slow Output Development

If you feel like your output ability is developing slower than you expected, you may need to adjust your expectations. You’re not going to be a perfect speaker by the end of Stage 3. Don’t forget to look back at your previous ability (writings or recordings) to fully appreciate how far you’ve come.

If that’s not a satisfying answer to you, then you can artificially accelerate your output ability by narrowing the focus of your first output domain. Identify a few specific topics and situations (mini-domains) you want to feel comfortable in and focus all your immersion and output practice on those mini-domains. Master this smaller subset before expanding outward.

Comprehension-Output Gap

If you are frustrated that you can understand way more than you can speak, then I have some bad news for you. This is simply a reality of language. It’s true in your NL as well: most native English speakers can read Hemingway, but few can write like him.

You can narrow this gap more quickly by focusing on mini-domains. For example, if you are a food fanatic and love talking about food, then narrow your immersion to food-related content and your output practice to food-related conversations.

Competence Issues

Fundamentally, all competence issues are solved the same way: more input. However, depending on the type of error, there are a few small tweaks and hacks that can help make the process faster and less painful.

Repeated Grammar Mistakes

If you are frequently using a grammar pattern incorrectly, then you probably have not fully acquired it yet. If so, when you think about how to use this pattern, it may feel fuzzy and unclear.

This is solved by getting more input. In particular, extensive reading (i.e. reading lots of books that are on your level) can help expose your brain to many examples of the grammar pattern and acquire it faster.

In the meantime, you can learn the grammar rule through deliberate grammar study, consciously monitor your output, and correct yourself when needed. Keep in mind that this is a temporary crutch and will not fix the underlying issue; only immersion can do that.

Finding the Wrong Words

If you can only think of the wrong way to say something, that’s usually a sign of interference from your NL.

Oftentimes, an idea you want to express will be associated with the specific way it’s phrased in your NL. This makes it so that when you try to express the idea in your TL, all that comes to mind is a direct translation from your NL.

The key to getting around this is asking yourself the right question. Instead of asking, “How do I say this?”, ask yourself “What would a native speaker say in this situation?”. This subtle reframing of the question will often produce completely different results from your subconscious.

To help make this more concrete, here’s an anecdote we once heard from someone learning Russian.

This learner was speaking with her conversation partner and said “I want to go to Florida to see the sun” in Russian. Her partner was confused; in Russian, they don’t say that.

In English, if you live somewhere with lots of bad weather, it’s common to say “I want to see the sun”. The true meaning behind this expression is “I want to experience nice weather”.

Instead of asking “How do I say ‘I want to see the sun’?”, this learner should have asked, “How would a native speaker say that they want to experience nice weather?” This might have allowed her to express the same idea in a natural way.

Nothing Comes to Mind

If you are trying to express an idea but can’t find the words for it, try asking yourself if there are any different, but similar, ideas that you do know how to express.

Different languages express different ideas, so sometimes there simply won’t be a natural way to express the particular idea you had in mind. As explained in the previous section, internally reframing the question is often key to sidestepping the patterns of your NL.

Quickly Filling Competence Gaps

There may be situations in which you’re under pressure to fill a gap in your competence as quickly as possible. For example, maybe someone at work asks you to give a talk in your target language and you need to get up to speed before the presentation.

In cases like this, we recommend dropping all other practice and doing an input binge. Watch, read, and listen to every piece of content you can find in the particular mini-domain until you acquire it.

Uncertain Language While Speaking

When you’re writing and aren’t certain about a piece of language, you can verify through native feedback, Twitter, or or Google. When speaking, you can confirm anything you’re uncertain about by asking the native you’re conversing with.

If you have multiple possibilities in your head, you can provide all the possibilities to your partner in the moment and have them confirm which is correct.

However, this will generally interrupt the conversation. Sometimes it’s best to simply make a mental note and look out for it in your immersion later.

Performance Issues

Overthinking During Conversation

Some people get stuck in their head when trying to speak. They are so worried about saying the wrong thing that they end up saying nothing instead.

To overcome this mental barrier, practice continuous monologuing. This means speaking for a full minute without pausing and without worrying about mistakes. Choose a topic that you’re comfortable with and just start talking. Use a timer and speak continuously until the timer goes off.

Another option is to narrow the focus of your output and build full comfort within a mini-domain. Becoming comfortable in one area can catalyze comfort in other areas.

Activation During Conversation Is Too Slow

If you’ve been immersing for a long time but are new to output, you will have a huge pool of acquired language that needs to be activated. Activating this language during a conversation can be frustrating because of how slow the process is. It takes extra time for you to find the right mental query, get the available pieces, and put them together in a coherent manner.

This is why writing can be a good way to activate acquired language. The lack of time pressure frees you up to go at your own pace.

If you’re already comfortable with writing in the form of text conversations but are still struggling with activation, try long-form writing. Long-form writing on a topic will help you activate the language for that topic and make it more available for use during conversation. You can further activate that language by monologuing on the same topic.

Try to write a one-page article on the topic you want to activate, then try to summarize it verbally in your own words without looking at the article. That should activate the language for conversation.

Persistent Bad Habits

Sometimes, a piece of grammar or vocabulary will get acquired and activated incorrectly. Once the bad habit is solidified, it can be difficult to change.

If you only have a few bad habits, then we recommend using a conscious monitor to check yourself whenever you try to use that piece of language. As long as you continue getting input, eventually, the habit should fade away or your conscious monitor will become adept enough to immediately override the habit.

However, if you come from a traditional learning background where you were encouraged to output very early, then you may have solidified a large number of bad habits. In this case, we recommend going through a silent period to reset your output.

Stop outputting for 3-6 months and get as much input as possible. This should reprogram your subconscious and eliminate the bad habits that have formed.

Pronunciation Issues

Persistent Pronunciation Errors

If you can hear that you’re mispronouncing something, that’s often enough for the issue to go away naturally. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. The inability to mimic the pronunciation of a specific word or sound has two main causes:

1) You have the wrong mental audio.

Your expectation of how something sounds affects the way you hear it. If you learned a flawed mental model of a sound early on, it may have affected the way you heard that sound for the rest of your immersion.

To fix this, use a tool like YouGlish or an audio dictionary to listen to many different examples of the sound. Try to change your internal subvocalization of the sound to match these examples. Do a shadowing exercise with the audio that you find to repeatedly practice the sound until you can say it correctly. You may not be able to correct it on your first try, so for persistent issues, practice this every day.

It’s important to note that the pronunciation of specific words or sounds can change depending on the context. You may have learned one of those pronunciations correctly and then tried to apply it to every situation. Pronunciation guides can actually exacerbate this issue by dumbing down their explanations to only account for the most common cases.

2) You can’t make the correct mouth movement.

You may not fully understand how to arrange your mouth to make a given sound. Pronunciation diagrams can help, but they suffer from the same oversimplification problem described above.

Use the diagrams as a guide, and practice using the same shadowing exercises described in case #1.

NL Accent bleeds through

If your NL accent bleeds through when speaking your TL, then the various pronunciation practice exercises listed in 3B: Pronunciation should help you.

You may want to also avoid speaking your NL for an extended period of time so that your mouth fully adjusts to your TL.

If you still aren’t happy with your accent after exhausting every exercise listed throughout Stage 3, consider hiring a professional accent coach who can give you customized advice.