Speaking a second language is one of the most difficult skills to master, and there are many reasons why. Anxiety, lack of practice, lack of practice with a native speaker, and vocabulary barriers can make it difficult to speak fluently and comfortably.
Personally, I’ve studied and dabbled in several languages, but I only feel moderately comfortable speaking freely in one language. I can maybe weasel my way through a survival or small-talk conversation in maybe two or three languages. But as an introvert with limited active vocabulary, speaking is a struggle.
But, as I’ve found, I do enjoy speaking my target language or languages. And I’ve often wondered: How can I transfer comfortably speaking from one language to multiple languages? How did I learn to navigate speech in one language and not the others?
In the process of thinking about this, I’ve devised several exercises I can use depending on my workload and language level. I’ll share them here. But first, let’s go over the suggestions every learner hears when it comes to speaking.
First: Let’s get the usual suspects out of the way
You have discovered that language learning apps are great, but they won’t necessarily help you speak confidently. Not even the best language learning software can ensure you speak well and fluently. For those who generally don’t speak often or don’t like small talk, this can be even more frustrating.
But many of the suggestions for speaking practice focus on immediate interactions or solo speaking. Both of which are good but have their own limits. For example:
- Tandem with a native speaker – Native speakers are incredibly helpful, but having conversations can be incredibly challenging below the A2.2, B1+ levels. Without the background knowledge and vocabulary to communicate, it’s common for language learners to feel like they are wasting their time. It can also create more anxiety around speaking since the learner doesn’t want to say something “stupid,” make a mistake, or switch back to their mother tongue.
- Work with a tutor – Language lessons are perfect. But conversational lessons are, again, better reserved for B1 and above. That said, with a structured language course or dedicated tutor, you might want to slowly increase casual conversation as you grow from A1 to a higher level.
- Recording yourself – This method is great for just getting used to the feeling of speaking and hearing yourself speak. It can grow your confidence and help you recognize vocabulary.
- Speaking out loud to yourself – A language learner can choose to speak whatever they remember from textbook dialogues or even just talk to themselves around the house, the store, or someplace else. This can be useful, but like with recording yourself, there’s no interaction with others. It can also become limiting regarding what you decide to speak about.
- Reading out loud– While this doesn’t sound much like speaking practice, simply reading a text out loud is incredibly helpful for a new language learner. When you’re learning a different language, there may be many new sounds and structures, and reading out loud can help build up muscle memory. Even if you don’t know all the words yet, it can help you to speak without aids later on.
All of these exercises are useful. But there are many more that can help you stretch your target language knowledge without the aid of a native speaker or tutor, which we don’t always have access to. and
6 of the Best Language Learning Exercises for Speaking Practice
1. Screen Capture Explanations
Some background: I work on the computer a lot. And to discuss concepts with remote colleagues, I often use Loom to record my screen and explain information. And so it made sense to be that this could be an excellent mini-lesson when learning a foreign language, too.
For example, you can use the free Screencast-o-Matic app to record up to 15 minutes of your screen. Instead of just talking to yourself using vocab from your most recent lessons, you can choose to explain a work process, react to a video, read text out loud, describe a picture, or do any other activity.
You might also want to record a short explanation about a topic and send it to your tandem partner. This can reduce the anxiety of immediately responding as in real conversation but still give you some preliminary practice. Or, if you’re planning a lesson with a tutor, you can practice a presentation or speech ahead of time and then review your recording.
Another underused but helpful practice, particularly for beginners, is mimicking or shadowing conversations. For example, say you are learning Japanese and plan to watch your favorite movie or anime. Try to speak alongside the actors.
This will require you to go slowly, pause, and listen carefully to get the wording right. It will take several tries. But it can help you improve pronunciation, feel comfortable with natural rhythm, and even pick up new phrases.
3. Question – Answer Practice
One exercise I like to use a lot is a general Q&A platform. This can be used at all levels.
Ideally, look up questions in your target language. You can do this by Googling phrases like “questions for” in your target language. For example, if I Google “fragen für” in German, I get many auto-filled responses, like:
- fragen für kinder
- fragen für wahrheit
- fragen für deep talk
You’ll then get lists of questions based on your query.
Next, record yourself asking a group of questions. Listen to the recording and pause after each question. Give yourself time to answer.
You don’t necessarily have to record yourself, but I find it more helpful than simply answering out loud.
4. The “And Then” Exercise
Rather than try to summarize my week’s lessons verbally, I’ve taken a page from improv classes.
There is a back-and-forth improve the game in which someone begins a skit. The other person then adds “and then” and takes the skit further, often in a different direction.
This is a useful game that you can play with yourself or others. I like to use it as a warm-up.
As a beginner, you may want to start small and essentially recount your day. For example, an A2 Greek learner might say:
- I worked. | Δούλεψα…
- And then I ate a lot… | Και μετά έφαγα πολύ…
- And then I felt sad… Και μετά ένιωσα λυπημένος…
- Because I finished the cake. | Γιατί τελείωσα την τούρτα.
Intermediate and advanced students can, of course, make these sentences more complicated. You can add conflict and discuss annoyances. Make up characters and get more creative.
5. Road Trip Games
If you have just 5-10 minutes, why not use road trip games to boost your vocabulary recall? Some examples are:
- I Spy – This is a great one to work on descriptive words. Try to describe a specific item in front of you without naming that thing.
- Alphabet Games – Start with a category, such as movies, bands, states, or something else. Start with the first letter in your target language’s alphabet and try to think of an item in that category that begins with that letter. Go all the way through the alphabet. This can work just as well with parts of speech, like adjectives, nouns, adverbs, etc. If you want to make this game super-challenging, the second word must start with the letter the last word ended with. So, for example, if you’re labeling US states and say New York, the next word must begin with a K, such as Kentucky or Kansas.
- Word Associations – Say a word. Then list another word that you associate with the first one. For example, if you say किताब (kitaab) in Hindi, you might then think of the formal word, पुस्तक (pustaak). And you may associate that word with the verb “to read,” पढ़ना (pardha). And so on.
6. Boost Fluency Taboo
One of the true indicators of fluency in any language is how well you can talk around the gaps. If you don’t know a word? Describe it. The better you can figure out different wants to discuss a topic or word without mentioning it, the better.
For this reason, you can play taboo. And you can do this to practice either speaking or writing. Simply talk about an item without mentioning its name. In fact, don’t even mention the top 1-3 words you associate with it if you can help it.
This game can be challenging for beginners and is best used during the intermediate level.
What Happens If You Still Struggle to Speak?
No matter how much you practice, there might be something holding you back. It can be helpful to look at the why behind the anxiety, especially if you have a solid understanding of vocabulary and grammar.
Stress and anxiety are the most common factors in my experience. Speaking a new language can be difficult and, at times, embarrassing. We don’t want to make a mistake or look foolish, particularly in a classroom environment. We also don’t want to feel like we are wasting another person’s time, whether that be a teacher, native speaker, or tutor.
It can be difficult to reduce anxiety. Practice helps. So does remembering that no one speaks a language perfectly, especially not in casual conversation. Think about how you and your friends speak in your native language, and you may realize that native speakers make mistakes all the time.
Mistakes are okay, no matter what anyone says. But the more you speak, the more confident you will become, and the less stressed you will be.
One issue with peaking practice is that actual conversation involves speaking and listening. If you can’t understand what the other person is saying, responding meaningfully will be an issue. I pretty much use LingQ and podcasts to help with listening comprehension. But any audio will do.
In particular, finding a series or movie, you really enjoy can help. I remember when I had my first oral exam in German. We were supposed to talk for 10 minutes on a topic that we covered during the semester -but we wouldn’t know which topic until the day of the exam. For the two weeks leading up to the test, I watched Türkish für Anfänger non-stop.
And when the exam finally came, I ended up getting a topic I didn’t know well at all. But because I had listened to the language consistently, I had a better feel for the language. I found it easier not only to respond to my speaking partner and the professor, but I could also speak around the gaps. In the end, I talked for about 20 minutes.
Limited vocabulary and grammar
Not having enough words in your active vocabulary is a serious problem. And it’s a common one.
Being able to recognize a word isn’t enough. You should be able to use it. While language learning apps can introduce you to new vocabulary, you must take the new words from your passive knowledge to active ones through speaking and writing. The same is true of grammar. You need grammar lessons to help you “get” the structure. Memorizing phrases can only get you so far. Eventually, you will need to make your own and understand why they work (or don’t).
It takes time. But the more you can “own” the words you’re learning, the better. And the more words you know, the easier it will be to figure out what to say.
It Takes Time
These speaking-based exercises have made learning a little bit more fun, especially given the fact I usually learn alone and online. A sound language app with spaced repetition, a textbook with grammar lessons, and input from a teacher or native speaker can all help. But at some point, if you want to speak well, you need to activate what you know. No learning tool will do that for you.
But the most important thing to remember is that learning a language takes time, no matter which specific language skill you are working on. And that’s okay. You’ll get there. Just keep pushing forward.