Speak! You Need To Speak!

Speak! You Need To Speak!

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Have you ever been in a foreign language class in which the instructor was covering 12 pages of content (24 pages, front and back), teaching no less than 7 grammatical constructions, and reviewing 50 vocabulary words that were only just introduced the day before?


You had wanted to master the 50 vocabulary words from the day before, but you had also decided to learn the 50 new words that were going to be covered in class today. So, you had spent five hours studying 100 intricate characters made up of shapes, curves, circles, and lines that made absolutely no sense to you.


On top of that, you were supposed to remember how to write the characters; how to speak them – with the correct tones, of course; and what their meanings were.


So, here you are, in class. You and two dozen other students who never learned to speak the sounds of the language correctly, in the first place, and each of you with your own distinct interpretations of the sounds of this new language. There is Indian-Chinese, German-Chinese, Spanish-Chinese, Polish-Chinese, and American-Chinese. Each student thinks that all of the other students in the class sound “really strange,” when the fact of the matter is that no native Chinese speaker would be too fond of any of your pronunciation abilities.


Now, you have been zoned out a bit, doing your best to review those 100 vocabulary words. Suddenly, your teacher demands your undivided attention. You didn’t hear the entire sentence, but you did hear one word in particular: speak.


You want to be an amazing student. You want to make yourself proud and you want to please the teacher. You want all of your hard work to come to fruition in some meaningful fashion. However, your brain doesn’t quite know where to start. How much brain power should go to correct pronunciation, tones, word order, using the correct vocabulary…? You studied hard all day yesterday and all night last night, and yet your brain isn’t producing the information the way that your teacher wants it to.


Jason just strung together a few dozen utterances in Chinese, but nothing that he said sounded anything like the same language that you had been studying in class over the past few months. Your teacher smiles at him and says, “Very good, Jason. Nicely done.”


Then, she turns her attention to the rest of the classroom. One by one, she demands that you all speak. Each and every one of you must speak. She says that it’s good for you. She says that you need to do it. Don’t worry about making mistakes or developing poor habits because those things will work themselves out over time.


After all, she has been speaking English for well over 20 years and her English is….



Wait a minute! At best, we can say that her English is…well…questionable. Meaning, every single time that she says something in English, I have to look within the recesses of my soul and question what I have just heard. I can’t just use my brain. No, I have to think about what she is saying, the way that she is saying it, and I have to think about the context of the situation. What could she possibly have meant? Yes, boys and girls. For this type of interaction, I have to consult with every part of myself. Then, and only then, can I come up with a few possible choices. All of that happens in the blink of an eye. I settle in on one of the choices and move on.


As a native speaker, I have to make adjustments for English sounds and English grammar, as I know them, in order to understand my foreign language teacher. Granted, there are certain patterns that will be repeated with pronunciation, verb tenses, missing articles, misused prepositions and things like that. So, those types of mistakes do not require as much thought after awhile. However, for example, in moments when she is trying to present a hypothetical situation to the class, instead of using the “if-then” construction, she simply uses the simple present tense. The Chinese languages does not use the “if-then” construction. So, my teacher never picked up on how important this simple grammatical pattern is for native English speakers .


And the confusion begins. Is she telling me to do something? Is she telling me a story about something that usually happens? Is she trying to present a situation that expresses something like “when ABC happens we should do XYZ?


It might take me a few moments to get an answer to the question. However, in those few moments, I am not learning the foreign language that I signed up for. No. Instead, I am learning how to interpret my teacher’s English. It really is not such a big deal for a single moment here or there, but that is never the end of the story. To get a more accurate feel for the situation, you would have to multiply that incident by thirty, forty, or even fifty – depending on the length of the class. (And let’s just say that for those day-long seminar like classes that last 6-8 hours, you should secure your thinking cap tightly.)


If you have ever been in this kind of situation, perhaps you can relate to my frustration; and perhaps you can understand why I have absolutely refused to have conversations in Chinese over the past three years. Sure, I’ll do the one-liners here and there, and I write copious amounts of Chinese with my teachers every day of the week. However, I have declined speaking practice.


Until now!


After three years of studying Chinese, I am finally going to start conversational practice. Everyone that I know would say that I am crazy. But I tell you what – I speak the same amount of Chinese as a native 3-year-old, and with relatively the same accuracy. Now, I do have more grammar in my head than a 3-year-old Chinese child, but I want to be more confident about using it. Unlike Chinese children, I am not surrounded by native Chinese speakers on a daily basis – and taking the risk of developing incorrect habits, that take two to three times as long to correct as they did to develop in the first place, is not, at all, of interest to me.


See, here we go. I, Miracle L. Smith, The Rogue Linguist, am finally going to start speaking Chinese. I feel confident. My vocabulary is decent. My pronunciation is clear. My listening is improving. I have stored tons of Chinese in the old noggin.


In short, there are so many things to feel confident about at this point of my language learning. My brain is not overwhelmed. And, probably most importantly, at least for me, is that I am in a place where I can isolate my mistakes. I can make a mental note of the differences between my sentences and my tutor’s, and learn from those differences. My brain is ready, and so am I.


So, let the conversational classes begin! (I’ll keep you updated.)

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