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CHAPTER 5: Speaking from Day One

Start speaking a new language right away with easy-to-follow “cheats” for when you don’t know the words you want to say.

We have finally arrived at the most important advice I give anyone who is serious about learning to speak a language: you have to speak it from day one.

Studying for eons until some vague “I’m ready” day is not the way to go about it. Speaking the language out loud with a real human being, whether in person or online, every single day is the best way by far to zoom forward toward a conversational language level and onward to fluency.

If you really think about it, what’s the biggest mistake you can possibly make with a language? Using the wrong word? Making a grammatical error? No. The biggest mistake is not getting your message across. Since the goal of a language is communication, your top priority should not be to sound perfect, but to make yourself understood. Even if you know only a couple of words, you will be far more effective using those few words than you ever will be remaining silent.

This advice to start speaking the language right now prompts many language learners to list all the reasons why it is not possible to do so, but I hope this chapter convinces you that it’s not only possible, it’s so easy you’d have to be crazy not to give it a try.

How to Speak When You Don’t Have the Words Yet

The first thing someone might say when I suggest speaking from day one is “I haven’t learned any words yet!” How can you speak when you are starting with absolutely nothing? Surely you should study for a while first and then speak when you’re “ready.” Well, there’s no such thing as “ready” in language learning. There will simply never be a day when you are 100 percent ready. You just have to use whatever you know, even if you have only been studying for a few hours.

You are not actually starting a new language from absolutely nothing. As explained in chapter 6, there are always cognates and common words you have when you start off. And we each have decades of experience with context, body language, and other social cues.

Speaking during the first hours of your very first one-on-one conversation is not about spitting out thousands of words, but about knowing just enough words to ask and answer a couple of questions, hearing the first instances of the language used naturally, and challenging yourself to try to understand a little bit more the next time. You learn by doing—by trying to speak, making mistakes, and learning from them so the next time you make fewer mistakes.

You always have enough words for some level of communication with people. The trick is being okay with the fact that you can’t have any deep conversations just yet and working through the simpler conversations first, so you can get to those more interesting chats sooner.

The First Hours

What exactly will you do during those first hours? Keep in mind that you are going to have only a basic question-and-answer first exchange with someone.

Make a Plan for Your First Conversation

Decide that you will walk up to someone you have heard speaking your target language or you know would be a good partner for language practice, or e-mail someone through a social networking site and set a specific time for a coffee meet-up, or set up a language exchange online via Skype.

Now that you have scheduled your first conversation, you have a deadline in place to work toward. This makes it much more real than learning random words and grammar rules that you may need “someday.”

Spend a Couple of Hours Preparing

You can find a pretty good selection of premade phrases in travel phrase books. These books also come with a pronunciation guide, so you don’t have to worry about the phonetics of the language yet.

Learn some phrases through free online courses or free phrase or language books from your local library.

Phrases to start with:

“How are you?”

“What’s your name?”

“My name is . . .”

“I don’t understand.”

“Could you repeat that?” (Or the shorter “Again, please.”)

“Can you speak slower please?”

“What does [fill in the blank] mean?” (Or “What does that mean?”)

Use the keyword method for individual words or set phrases like “Yes,” “No,” “Please,” “Thank you,” “Hello,” and “Good-bye,” although it’s very likely you know some, if not all of these already!

This isn’t such a huge demand on your first day of learning a language. No conjugation tables, no lists of the top thousand most frequently used words, no memorizing every possible sequence of sentences—just a few phrases and words for a very limited first exchange. Even if you claim to be a terrible language learner, you can manage this, especially if you apply some of my memorization suggestions or an alternative you prefer.

Your First Conversation

The time comes and you have an opportunity to speak in the mother tongue of your conversation partner for the first time! The curtains open, the spotlight focuses on you, and all you have to do is say . . . “Hello.”

The person replies with “Hello.” You return a “How are you?” which may be followed by “Fine, and you?” Just take it one phrase at a time.

Perhaps you are able to follow three or four entire question-and-answer exchanges based on the phrases you think are likely to come up, or maybe it’s just two exchanges before the person says something you don’t understand. This is not the point when you give up, but the point when you say, “I don’t understand. Could you repeat that?” See if you can extrapolate from what is said next.

Rather than feel like you failed if you have to stop at some point, think of these early exchanges as your first successful conversations in a foreign language. Maybe the exchange lasts twenty seconds, or maybe just ten. The point is that you are at a very different stage now compared to where you were before this conversation.

Appreciate this moment, even if you have to switch to English or another language.

Cheating When You Don’t Know a Word

Okay, so you’ve survived the first few moments of your first conversation. After that, even if the exchanges last no more than ten seconds before you decide to switch to English or say good-bye to the native speaker, you can go back to your books or notes and refresh your memory with what you thought you knew or wanted to say but couldn’t remember. Add these phrases to a flash card deck and make sure to study them.

From here, you simply repeat the process and learn more phrases and words. You will find you can expand those ten seconds to twenty or thirty, and eventually to an entire minute.

Early conversations may always be the same. Give yourself a little momentum. In fact, try to learn the first ten seconds—both your side and a few likely replies—by heart, because starting off well is essential, and this part of any first conversation is incredibly predictable.

Generally, during my first conversations, I find I cannot cram for all the possible words and phrases I might want to say. It’s just too much to process in too little time, no matter how good my memory techniques are, especially since the techniques are better suited to long-term recall rather than short-term cramming. Because of this, I “cheat” a little and carry some notes with me.

If I am Skyping someone for my first conversation, I’ll leave open a text file with a list of things I want to say and some tough words I haven’t learned well enough yet, like “engineer” and “writer.” If I am sitting with someone in a café, say, I’ll have a little sheet of notes I can glance at for reference. This person will already be well aware that I’m a beginning learner so he or she won’t be surprised or offended when I’m in need of “training wheels.” My notes will also include some words that might come up on the spot, or I might bring along my phrase book and use the dictionary in the back to quickly look something up. If I’m on a computer using Skype, I’ll use Google Translate or an online dictionary specific to that language. This way I’m not limited by my active memory, which at the very start of this process may have a couple dozen words ready at best.

Keep It Simple, Stupid: Rephrasing to Keep the Flow

One thing you will quickly learn at this beginner stage is to phrase what you want to say in your mother tongue before you “translate” it into the target language. Translating as a long-term strategy is a bad idea if you want real fluency, as this extra step will slow you down too much. But you will be speaking slowly as a beginner, so it’s okay to think of what you want to say in English first and then translate it.

Let’s say, for instance, that the conversation veers toward your future plans, and initially you decide you want to say, “I will travel to Spain in July for a two-week vacation.” But then you realize you don’t know how to use the future tense (“will”) confidently enough yet, you have forgotten the verb for “to travel,” and you can’t even remember the words for “July” or “vacation.” A traditional language learner would probably give up at this point, resigned that he or she is not “ready” yet, and switch to English or avoid the topic entirely. But someone focused on communication, rather than saying precisely the right thing, will look at ways to rephrase with different words so what is used effectively conveys the same meaning.

Rather than worry about future verb-tense conjugations, many languages have a handy feature of sticking to infinitive verb forms after modal verbs. In less complex language, this means that if you use words like “want,” “need,” “would like,” “should,” “may,” “can (able to)” in their standard present-tense conjugation with, say, “I” (“I want,” “I can”), you can follow them up with the dictionary (infinitive) form of the important verb you wish to use, such as “to travel.” When you think of it, the essential difference between “I want to travel” and “I will travel,” while important, is not significant when you want to convey a simple meaning.

To keep it simple, I’d recommend you learn just “I want,” “you want,” “I can,” and “you can” to begin with, especially if your exchanges are directly with one person (since the he/she/it/they pronouns will be less relevant in that situation). The word “want” can be an okay replacement for the future tense (“want to speak” instead of “will speak”). “Can” is good to use in many direct questions, so rather than “Do you speak Italian?” I would go for “Can you speak Italian?” The point of doing this is to use the standard dictionary form of the word “speak” (parlare in Italian) without needing to conjugate (change) it. “Need” (or “have to”) is good for any kind of obligation. So rather than “I start work at nine,” I might say, “I need to start work at nine.” The meaning isn’t precisely the same but it’s close enough.

This isn’t pharmaceutical science or bridge-building engineering, where a tiny mistake could cost lives. This method will be used in a casual first conversation with a native speaker who is aware of the fact you are still learning. Always go for “close enough” and search your mind for words that have similar meanings, even if they aren’t necessarily synonymous.

So moving on with my original example phrase, the next word I wanted to say was “travel,” but it’s still day one or two and I may not know this word yet. Although, I have learned “to go,” so I can use that instead! “To go to Spain” and “to travel to Spain” are essentially the same thing.

In terms of having more conversations earlier in your learning process, simple all-encompassing verbs and adjectives will get you much further than a wide scope of vocabulary will. So “very good” for a beginner is a fine alternative in most contexts to “wonderful,” “delicious,” “nice,” “great,” “admirable,” “talented,” “friendly,” and so many other words. It isn’t a great alternative, but it will do. Later you can convey your thoughts precisely, but for now focus on saying something. Besides, saying that a meal is “very good” is infinitely better than absolutely needing to use the word “delicious” but not remembering it and instead saying nothing.

Whenever I can’t remember a word I want, I pause and quickly try to think of alternatives. What’s another way to say it in English, and, most important, do I know that word in this language yet?

With that in mind, “to go” will do fine for “to travel” for beginners.

With “July,” try to think of anything vaguely similar. Let’s say you happen to know the word for “summer.” It doesn’t mean the same thing as “July,” but it’s close enough. If not, you could also say “in two months” or “soon” or “later” or “when I can” or a host of other alternatives that convey your general meaning while also keeping the conversation flowing.

For “vacation,” I could say that I want “to be a tourist.” This isn’t quite something I would say in English regularly, but the meaning is clear enough, and the word for “tourist” is similar in many languages.

So we have just turned “I will travel to Spain in July for a two-week vacation” into “I want to go to Spain this summer to be a tourist for two weeks.” There is essentially no difference in these two phrases, except that the second may be much easier for you to say if you already know these words in your target language.

Keep it simple, as I said, and always remember that you can convey the meaning of what you want to say as long as you are flexible about how you say it. Not using precisely the right words is a temporary sacrifice so that you can find your flow in the language and reach an intermediate stage much faster. Then you will be able to start using those more precise words. Go through this slightly frustrating stage of using simpler words for a short time, and you will sound much more articulate sooner!

The First Days

This doesn’t mean that you will only talk about something as mundane as the weather during these first exchanges. I personally don’t care much for discussing the weather, in any language, including English. For me, it’s more interesting to find out what the person did that day or if that person has plans, and then to talk about my plans for the day. At this stage, a phrase book starts to become less helpful, even though it still has plenty of useful nuggets.

Speaking incorrectly is fine. I may say something like “This morning I wake up at eight A.M.” (rather than “woke up”) or go full-out Tarzan mode and say “Tomorrow dance.” You will start to feel minor successes when you get a look or reply that implies you were understood.

If you are in a more formal learning environment, such as a language exchange or an affordable private lesson, then your teacher might correct you. Make a note of it so you get it right the next time. And this is the trick: feedback is essential when you start inventing your own phrases.

Continue to expand your conversation skills, repeating things you said in a previous spoken session, but this time saying them a little bit more confidently. If you find that particular phrases come up often, script out a predictable exchange and memorize it. This way you can get that entire first minute down, and then move on to the second minute.

When new material comes up, add it to the script. Relying on predictable patterns is not a good long-term strategy at all, but remember, you need to change your strategy as you progress in a language. Most things I discuss in this chapter are not applicable to anyone working on moving from conversational level to fluency, and later toward getting confused for a native speaker, which I discuss in later chapters.

What will happen in these first days, though, is that you’ll get so used to saying particular phrases, they start to seem natural, and you can experiment with using new words and combining them with your previous sentences, replacing other, simpler words.

When you are talking with someone who is there specifically to help you improve your language skills, that person will be more than patient and will work with you on these basic conversations, adding a little more to what you can do each day and hopefully challenging you with new words and new concepts. Build on what you are confident about—through both actual practice and solid memorization between spoken sessions—and add to that over time. This way you’ll start to get a foundation in the language.

Apply a Triage System to What You Learn

Constant conversation practice is the core of what I would recommend to people with a spoken-communication focus in their language, as opposed to those who are learning a language to pass an exam or to read it well. All of your study attempts should be about making that next spoken session a little bit better.

This gives you a more immediate experience, and you can work on your language skills more directly. This is vastly superior to taking generic courses that try to prepare you to speak a language fluently “someday” instead of right away. Despite this, I recommend sometimes returning to a traditional language course, especially if you find one more appropriate to your needs than those with a spoken focus (such as Teach Yourself, Colloquial, and Assimil courses), and go through the course recommendations alone or with a teacher, as long as you solve your biggest spoken issues first. This way you are working on your day-to-day issues in tandem with the more general issues and topics you need to cover in this language.

When you come to an aspect in your course that you don’t feel is super relevant to you right now, skip it. This might be, say, a grammar feature you don’t see as fitting your “triage” system. Good courses tend to have relevant information pop up at the right times, but when a course is very tourist focused, it may include something like how to ask for directions, which would not be a priority for you if you’re preparing for a Skype lesson and would prefer to ask your conversation partner what he or she did that day.

Concentrating on a triage system of learning requires a much more active effort on the part of the learner. Take an active role in your language learning story and you’ll go much further.

But I Can’t Understand the Reply!

Up to now, I’ve been focusing on what you want to say. There is another person in the equation, however, and that person may not come up with the replies you were expecting—and therefore the dialogue you have studied.

Most things you will hear at the start of your language learning adventure will seem incomprehensible. It is essential to accept this and not be so surprised by it. Other people will be hard to understand—especially at first. Audio lessons associated with courses tend to be recorded in soundproof rooms with people speaking unnaturally slowly and clearly. Audio files that you can pause and replay are quite different from what someone less experienced teaching foreigners might say, even if that person is technically saying the same phrase.

This is why I don’t try to understand an entire phrase in the early stages.

Listen for any particular words or segments of a person’s speech that you can understand, and extrapolate what is being said from that. We do this all the time, even in our native languages. If I were to talk to you over a bad telephone connection and you heard me say “ . . . dinner . . . six P.M. . . . think?” with everything else drowned out by noise or static, it would be reasonable for you to extrapolate that I’m inviting you out for dinner and I perhaps ended with “What do you think?” I consider my progress in language learning comprehension to be nothing but a constant attempt to improve the quality of this telephone call. It’s very fuzzy at first and gets clearer with time. I may start with only understanding one word out of every one hundred, but after a few days, I pick up two or three more words, then ten, and so on.

So rather than thinking I don’t understand, imagining that what you just heard could be anything, realize that it can’t be anything; it has to be related to what you were just talking about, within reason. What is this person likely to be saying in this context, which single word or words did you understand, and based on that, what can you imagine with reasonable confidence was said back to you?

My Two-Hour Polish Experience

When I visited Poland to speak at a conference, I was too preoccupied with my TEDx presentation (in English) to spend time learning the language over the long term as I usually tend to do. I did, however, manage to invest two hours in learning a little of the language, and I was able to use my Polish after such a very short learning period despite its notoriety for being among the hardest languages to learn.

You can learn from my experience. Here’s a step-by-step guide to your own first Skype language session, if you want to give it a try:

Use a phrase book to learn some basic phrases related to your anticipated first conversation, and prepare other phrases using a dictionary. For example:

“I just started learning Polish.”

“I am going to Poland soon.”

Since you’ll be using a computer, look up online words in the dictionary that you think will come up in the conversation with your teacher, knowing that they will be encouraging you to do most of the talking.

Open a text document onscreen to use as a “cheat” for words you aren’t confident you will remember. Have several dozen prepared.

Whenever your teacher says a word you don’t know, ask him or her to type it in the chat window, then copy it and paste it into Google Translate or a better language-specific dictionary (for a list of completely free online dictionaries by language, please see fi3m.com/dict).

When I connected with my teacher via Skype, thanks to my prepared phrases, I managed to keep my side of the conversation going for half an hour. Only Polish came out of my mouth, but of course I was “cheating” with my prepared vocabulary list.

During this half hour, there were many times when I didn’t understand, and I admitted that. There were times when I wanted to say something very simple but didn’t have the words or couldn’t look up the words quickly enough, so I had to try to change the subject. It was far from perfect, but as I keep saying, it will always be far from perfect, just less so with time.

Next, I had another half hour to improve on what I had done during the first conversation plus prepare specific questions for a friend, Goshka, whom I was meeting in a mall.

I wanted to record this first-ever in-person interaction in Polish on camera, so the first question I asked her when we met was “Is it okay if I record this conversation?” Of course I couldn’t find this phrase in my dictionary, so I just went with “Problem with camera?” and pointed at it, fully aware that my grammar was way off. But she understood me and said, “No.” I went on to ask her what she was doing today, even though I already knew what she was doing—I had already invited her out for a coffee and to meet up with some readers of my blog. So when she said that, I can only confidently say that I understood “coffee,” “blog,” and “Benny” (as in Benny’s blog), but based on those words coming up and the question I had asked, I understood what the entire phrase was likely to have been. Whenever I didn’t understand what she or any other Polish speaker said, I smiled and laughed a little at my own silliness to help the other person feel more at ease, rather than switch to another language. It worked. The conversations stayed entirely in Polish in both my Skype exchange and my time with Goshka, minus the rare clarifications, even though I had just started to learn the language.

As I progress in a language and understand more of what is being said to me, I have to rely less and less on extrapolation and what I call contextese. I’ll never stop using these entirely, but I will eventually rely on them almost as infrequently as I do in English.

I have a strange suggestion for you: spend two weeks learning Esperanto. A study in Sweden found that students who had been learning French for two years were outperformed by those who had learned Esperanto for one year and then French for just one year. They had ultimately learned less French but actually did better in French exams!

You don’t need a whole year, though; keep in mind that you are not in an academic environment, using traditional study methods and only for a couple of hours each week. I find that with an efficient learning approach and working at it intensively for just two weeks (or longer, if you can’t do it so intensively), you can make a lot of progress in a language. The reason I’m suggesting Esperanto is that it was intentionally designed to be the easiest language you could possibly learn. It was artificially created in the nineteenth century and has gained a lot of support with a very strong community behind it. As such, you can easily find someone willing to have a practice chat with you in Esperanto!

One of the best resources for this I’ve found is Lernu.net. The forums and chat rooms will have other people to practice with, and the site has a detailed (and completely free) course to teach you the language. Because it’s so straightforward, you won’t have much grammar to drag you down, and the vocabulary is very easy to learn.

Since Esperanto is so easy, you can get much further in it in a very short period and focus on using the language, rather than studying complex grammar or vocabulary tables. This means you can conquer that hard aspect of language learning: simply getting used to communicating in a language that isn’t your own. This shift in mentality can be applied to your next language, and I have found that you can potentially shave months off your learning period for any other language with just this two-week investment. Thanks to Esperanto, you can remove this setback of not being confident about using any foreign language.

Also, the Esperanto community is incredibly welcoming, friendly, and provides one of the best introductions you could have to the language learning world. I have many lifelong friends thanks to this language! For much more information about Esperanto, including videos of me speaking it, please check out fi3m.com/esperanto.

Keep It All in That Language ASAP

Your conversations in the target language, even at the very start, must be just in that language. No English! This is the core of a truly communicative learning approach.

A traditional academic way to learn a language, on the other hand, teaches you how the language works in your mother tongue. Your teacher essentially speaks in the wrong language—English—for the entire session as you dissect the target language’s grammar and vocabulary, just as you might a frog in a biology class.

Don’t treat your language like a collection of facts you have to learn, as if it were a history or mathematics lesson or a set of rules to follow. You can’t learn a language efficiently this way. Language is a means to communicate and should be learned and used as such from the start.

That’s precisely why I promote a speak-from-day-one approach. You genuinely speak in that language and hear that language spoken back to you from day one. This means that you must eliminate, or at least drastically reduce, any other language use during the time you are focused on your target language.

Everything coming out of your mouth should be in the right language.

While I was able to do this with Polish, when I started learning Arabic, it took me about two weeks to keep my side of the conversation all in Arabic. I did use some Arabic in my first lesson, but I kept switching back to English. It wasn’t because Arabic was more difficult for me; it was that I doubted myself and lacked the courage to take the leap.

When I finally did, I realized that I could have done this much earlier, and should have, to force myself to progress quickly. But it’s hard. It’s embarrassing, frustrating, annoying, and exhausting. (In my earlier learning stages, I felt like my brain was melting after a good spoken session.) You must pass through this if you want to get to the more fun bit. Keeping your sessions mostly in the wrong language will do nothing but slow your progress. This is why it can take years to learn a language; if you spend years not actually using it, of course, you can’t have even the simplest of conversations.

Once you make the decision to keep your conversation in the right language—your target language—do not under any circumstances allow yourself to break from that resolution. Look up a word if you don’t know it, or use simple language work-arounds with words you do know. You may think that saying the precise word you want to use in English instead of the target language helps the conversation, but it hinders your language learning progress.

The trick is to make this decision as soon as possible. You can do it on day one, as long as you are okay with long pauses while you look up words (and you can tell your teacher or other speaker that he or she should translate or spell words for you to look up, to help you with understanding them), but it’s very frustrating. This is all about mind over matter and just accepting the frustration. Once you do, you can get through it much faster.

What If the Person Replies in English?

When I’m an absolute beginner with a language, I still prefer a person to reply to me in the language I’m learning, but I may sometimes allow that person to say words in English because even if the person tried to explain them to me in my target language, it may be beyond my capabilities to understand the explanation. Individual words in English are okay, or a sentence, if necessary, but most of the time you should be hearing just the target language. You need to get used to thinking in that language, and relying on translations the entire time is not useful for this.

If you are paying for a teacher, explain very clearly and sternly that you are paying that person to speak your target language, not your native language. The teacher has to work to maintain the right language and be imaginative with how it’s done. If I say this to a teacher and the person keeps switching back to English for too long, I am wasting my money and don’t request any further lessons. Because of this, when I start to learn a language, I may go through several teachers, eliminating the “worst” based mostly on their inability to help me progress using just (or at least 99 percent of the time) that language. For me, the mark of a good teacher is how imaginative he or she is while making sure that English is only ever used as a last resort.

If you are in a language exchange, the same rules apply. You are helping someone during the twenty- or thirty-minute segment of the exchange that is in your language. That time is for the other person to learn. But when it’s your turn, he or she needs to be patient and helpful with you and not make the switch. If the person doesn’t try hard enough, then once again consider whether or not this is the best person to do an exchange with you.

There are plenty of paid teachers and language exchanges online, so you are well within your rights to shop around until you find someone you can genuinely learn with. When you give something in exchange (money or your teaching), this person is wasting your time by not keeping in the right language.

Let’s say you meet someone who speaks your target language, and you ask this person in that language “How are you?” or say some other phrase to start a conversation, but the person replies in English. Don’t lose hope. In my experience, this is not meant as an insult regarding your level in the language or a refusal to help you. The person may instead not be aware how serious you are about practicing. If you say (again, in that language) how very interested you are in learning this beautiful language and how much you would really appreciate any help, even with just a couple of minutes’ practice, most of time you’ll find this person appreciates your passion and will stay in the right language.

It’s a lot to ask of a stranger, to listen to an absolute beginner for a very long period, so just request two to five minutes for some quick practice, in a case like this. Unless this person is busy, it’s hardly a major inconvenience, and in most cultures and for most people, I have found them to be overjoyed by a learner’s enthusiasm and willing to stick to the right language. They may even offer to meet up with you later or gladly keep helping you for much longer than a couple of minutes.

If you face any reluctance, offer something in exchange. Rather than payment, though, you can make the conversation interesting for them in many other ways:

I travel a lot, and in my initial years, people would ask me how on earth I managed to travel so much without being super rich. What I had to say was something they were very interested in hearing. Because of this, I found that they listened attentively and helped me enthusiastically with their language. They were interested in my explanations of how I found cheaper flights, haggled apartment prices down, and discovered other ways to afford my travels—and this was despite being at a beginning or slow conversation level and making lots of mistakes.

Explain the many ways that non-English speakers can get free English practice, such as where they can find a local expat community or the best websites for meeting up with English speakers to get online practice, and give them other language learning tips . . . but do it all in their language. This way you can feel that you’ve been way more helpful in return, more than giving them just a few minutes of English practice, and can get them in touch with those who would be very happy to speak English with them, if you would personally prefer not to.

Finally, if someone insists on using English with you, and you are in that person’s country, it’s important to point out that you are the one who has moved across the planet to learn a new language, so it’s unfair of this person to insist on speaking English. If nothing is coming out of the conversation, you may have to simply move on to someone else.

When I made the tough decision to change my entire life routine (at the time) and speak only Spanish, I discovered to my disappointment that many Spaniards were only hanging out with me to get free English practice. I lost several friends when I stuck to my guns about this decision, but I also made many new friends, not just in Spain but elsewhere over the many years since I’ve been able to speak Spanish. I’m very glad I didn’t give in when others insisted I switch to English with them; it’s a decision that has paid for itself thousands of times over.

The Jack Sparrow Method

Another issue you will deal with as a beginning learner is the amount of time you will likely spend hesitating during those first conversations in a new language. You might feel incredibly stupid if you’re forced to pause, offering nothing but an “umm . . .” or “eehhh . . .” to the conversation.

This can make you feel uncomfortable, but it can also make the other person feel uncomfortable. It is one of the major reasons a conversation partner switches to your mother tongue with you; he or she does it out of kindness to “spare” you this discomfort.

If possible, such hesitations should be reduced or avoided. But this is much easier said than done! I remember someone writing a comment on YouTube about one of my videos—my first-ever attempt to use a language—telling me to “stop hesitating,” as if it’s as easy as that.

Hesitations are going to happen. We need this time to gather our thoughts, translate what we are thinking, remember a mnemonic or the word we want to say that’s on the tip of our tongues, etc. Beginners are slower to speak, and that’s just a fact of life; they will hesitate between saying the words they know. No one can just stop hesitating in this early stage.

But this doesn’t mean that the awkwardness associated with the hesitation has to remain there. I have found that by hesitating in a different manner, I can remove some of the tension and awkwardness of the moment and make sure the person I’m speaking to feels comfortable, so our conversation can progress sufficiently.

A trick that has worked well, at least for my personality, is to add a little drama to these otherwise dull initial conversations. I remember the first time I saw the movie Pirates of the Caribbean and how Captain Jack Sparrow had an effective way of being dramatic through body language without saying a single word. It’s an interesting concept; you maintain a person’s attention by doing this. For instance, let’s say you want to say a simple sentence like “I want to go to the supermarket,” and you say “I want to go . . .” and the translation of “supermarket” just isn’t coming to you in that instant. You need to think for a moment to remember what it is. What you could do then is hold up your index finger, look the person you’re speaking to in the eye, to grab his or her attention, and then point off into the distance and stare there with a pensive look on your face. You will then have the undivided attention of that person, because you could be saying you want to go to . . . the airport, the desert, the dark side of the moon, the depths of the ocean, because you look like you are ready to go on a quest. With a bit of practice, you can get these dramatic pauses down to an art and do them automatically, while your mind races to think of what you would have otherwise been thinking—such as the elusive word for “supermarket.” You don’t even have to be dramatic about it. Many orators make special use of pauses as they speak, which can actually make their speeches much more interesting. You don’t have to produce a constant stream of words to hold a person’s attention, but remember that by appearing nervous you may actually make the other person feel nervous. It’s far better to try to enjoy yourself, or at least look like you’re enjoying yourself, and then there will be no awkward pauses.

I remember hearing an “I’m too shy” excuse from a German woman I met in a bar in Berlin. I told her I had developed a wonderful technique to get over shyness called the glass-clink trick. I had piqued her curiosity and she wanted to know how it worked, so I walked toward the Americans she wanted to practice English with and told her to walk with me while I explained the complexity of how this advanced social technique worked. She was very interested indeed! I said, “The first step involves redistributing the blood around your body by raising your arm a little,” and I grabbed the wrist of her hand holding a glass of Coke. She continued to listen attentively to this strange technique I was explaining, but by now we were moving just behind the Americans, and I took this chance of controlling her arm to extend it toward them to clink one of their glasses . . . and then I ran away! The Americans then turned around, saw an intriguing lady, waited for her to say something, and she mustered out a “Hello . . .” and a wonderful conversation began. Two hours later, she told me she had spent the whole evening practicing English with the Americans and was so proud of herself.

Of course, I explained to her that there was no special trick to getting over shyness, and my rambling was just to buy time until I had her in the right position to make the initial contact herself. All I did was move her arm muscles for her; the fact that she was in front of a group of native English speakers without any time to think herself out of talking to them meant that she had no choice but to start a conversation.

So next time a chance to use your target language with a native speaker comes up, consider my glass-clink trick—the only trick is to stop thinking yourself into shyness. Just approach the person and say hi. Shoot first and ask questions later, when it comes to talking to strangers. Remember that saying I mentioned in the previous chapter? “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.” When you speak to enough people, especially those who can encourage you in your target language, you start to appreciate how true this is.

Involve Me and I’ll Understand

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.


The best way to ensure progress and success in your language learning project is to be active from the start. Don’t make your language learning all about studying; make it about using your target language.

If you walk up to someone (or use Skype), even if your dialogue lasts only ten seconds, you will have had your first-ever exchange in your target language and used the little you have learned. The next time, make it twenty seconds, then a minute, then five minutes, and so on to keep up this momentum.

Rather than study for some “ready” day that will never come, speak the language today.

Find example sentences online, in a phrase book, or elsewhere and learn them. Just basic first-introduction dialogue is fine. Then use the suggestions in the previous chapter to find someone to practice them with.

Maybe “cheat” by having a piece of paper with some words written on it you didn’t have time yet to learn, or have a text document open if your first practice session is on your computer. Look things up in the middle of a conversation. It’s okay; the person you’re speaking with knows you are still learning.

When you have enough words and phrases to start with, find ways to rephrase what you may want to say with alternative words. Be imaginative.

In your spoken sessions, keep talking despite mistakes, and rather than going through a language course designed to try to teach you “everything,” make your study sessions relevant to your spoken sessions.

Consider dabbling in Esperanto for two weeks, so that you don’t have to worry about exceptions or tough vocabulary, and get used to the feeling of speaking and using a new language, in general, which will give your confidence a boost for your target language. A free Esperanto course is available online at Lernu.net, and much more information about Esperanto is accessible at fi3m.com/esperanto.

Try to keep your conversations in that target language, make inevitable hesitations more fun, and try not to think too much. I like the Lonely Planet’s phrase book motto: “Don’t just stand there, say something!” It’s okay to struggle, as long as you are saying something. Communication is always the point.

For videos, links, and more information relevant to this chapter, see fi3m.com/ch–5.

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