Can’t Speak a Foreign Language? Why Speaking is So Hard

Learning a foreign language is difficult in general. But while reading, listening, and writing have their own challenges, speaking is by the far the most difficult skill to master.

When I was in language school, we had to take a proficiency test before graduation. Almost everyone scored lower on the speaking portion than on the reading and listening portions. (In the rare cases that someone scored as high on the speaking portion, it was because he or she had low scores across the board.)

Why is speaking so hard? Well, there are a few reasons.

You have to be able to listen

The pattern of a conversation is simple: one person says something, the other person replies, and then the first person replies to the reply. Repeat.

In order for you to keep up in this pattern, you have to be able to understand what the other person is saying. So if your listening comprehension skills aren’t up to the task, you’re out of luck.

This is one of the fundamental problems with phrase books. When I first arrived in Germany, I asked a passerby, “Where is the movie theater?” She gave me directions and I had absolutely no idea what she said. I just nodded, thanked her, and wandered around lost.

You have to recall vocabulary quickly

When you’re trying to express an idea out loud, you have to be able to say your idea quickly. Most people aren’t talking to you to gauge your language ability. They’re actually trying to have a conversation. So since they’re waiting to hear what you have to say, you’re not in a position where you can take 15 seconds to remember that one vocabulary word on the tip of your tongue.

Mnemonics and other memory tricks are great for initially learning vocabulary words. Eventually, though, you have to know your words so well that you can spit them out instantly. That means you need lots and lots of repetitions and repeated exposure to words before they’re usable in conversation. The best comparison I can think of: It’s like learning how to multiply versus memorizing multiplication tables. At the beginning, you are slow to recall that 7×7 is 49. But after drills, drills, and more drills, you can spit out “49!” without consciously thinking about it.

Can you learn 200 new words a day? Yes, most people can. Unfortunately, at that pace you won’t be learning the words well enough to reproduce them instantly.

You have to recall grammar quickly

You don’t need to have perfect grammar to participate in a conversation, but there is a minimum amount of grammar you need to have if you want to be understood.

If someone learning English said, “Yesterday I goes to the store and buys grocery,” you can easily figure out the idea even though the grammar is messed up. But it gets a lot trickier if the person says, “Yesterday have I to store goes grocery buys.”

So to keep up in conversation, you have to quickly figure out how to form sentences with enough grammar to be understandable.

The muscles of your mouth and diaphragm have to make unfamiliar sounds

Every language has its own sounds and sound patterns. For instance, my neighbor is always correcting my pronunciation of the German “ch” because English doesn’t have an equivalent, and my mouth isn’t used to forming the sound. It takes a while for your mouth muscles to “learn,” in a kinesthetic sense, how to pronounce unfamiliar sounds.

Also, languages have their own rhythms. Your diaphragm has to get used to pushing out air differently to match these rhythms. A language with long, flowing sounds taxes your diaphragm differently from one with staccato utterances.

You have to say the right things

The art of conversation is difficult, even if the conversation is in your native language. You’re trying to say things that are:

  • Relevant to the topic
  • Interesting
  • Appropriate for the context and audience
  • Accurate (or maybe inaccurate, if that’s your intent)
  • Persuasive

None of that changes when you’re speaking in a foreign language. In fact, it might even be intensified.

Wrapping Up

If you consider all of the reasons why speaking is hard, you can see what an accomplishment it is even to utter a single sentence in a foreign language. You’re asking your brain, mouth, and diaphgram to do quite a bit.

Fortunately, much of language acquisition is a subconscious process. With time and exposure, all of this comes together and then suddenly, almost like magic, you’re speaking and keeping up with conversations.

It’s just very important not to become discouraged before you hit that point. If you don’t give up, you can absolutely learn to speak another language, just as millions of people before you have done so.

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