Finding my voice

A language learner’s reflections on developing speaking skills

“Are you always so shy?)

I replied honestly. “Only when I have to speak German.”

This was the truth! I am not at all shy! I don’t have to be the centre of attention but I usually have a lot to say and I usually manage to articulate myself in English.

However, a number of years ago I found myself in a room with a group of German speakers, who were also my friends, and I barely said anything. This annoyed me for several reasons.

Firstly, I understood everything that was being said but by the time I’d constructed the perfect sentence in my head, the conversation had moved on. Secondly I couldn’t be myself. Language is not just about translating words. We use our choice of words, our rate of speech, our use of humour and our intonation to communicate our personality and this is a skill that has to be learned in another language. I was not doing myself justice. Thirdly it annoyed me because I thought everyone would go away thinking I was a completely different person … shy, timid, without a voice. There is nothing wrong with being shy, but if you’re not naturally like that, you can feel trapped in a personality which doesn’t belong to you.

Since then, I have learned a lot. The friendship didn’t suffer and as I used German more and more, I grew in confidence. I learned to build sentences as quickly as I needed to speak them. My vocabulary grew, which meant that I could express my ideas without hunting for words. Ok I still make mistakes, but I don’t feel a sense of dread when I have to pick up the telephone and call someone.

I learned that communicating one-to-one is easier than communicating in big groups. I learned that most people don’t laugh about mistakes and if someone does, it’s more of a reflection on them than on the person who made the mistakes. I learned that making mistakes is part of growing.

Now I speak German most days with my friends and customers and it feels natural.

Last year, with a Turkish friend with whom I was speaking German:

“Let’s speak Turkish now!)

To which I replied:
“No, I can’t! Let’s speak German. It’s easier!”

He knew that I could have spoken Turkish but his German is much better than my Turkish so he let me have my way and on this occasion we spoke German.

It seems that I have to go through this same process with each new language and although I understand why I’m reluctant to speak, learning the second language isn’t any easier. If I can’t communicate well, I’d rather be quiet. I’d rather wait until I can say exactly what I want to say. This is my default reaction and of course I try to challenge it and put myself in situations where I have to speak – but it doesn’t come naturally to me.

I read somewhere that there is a scale with fluency at one end and accuracy at the other. Some people are fluent and they can get their ideas across well, but they make many mistakes and their use of language is not accurate. Others are at the other end of the scale – what they say is usually of a high standard grammatically because they are overly concerned with accuracy, but this can also have a negative effect because they either say less than they would like to or their speaking skills develop very late. I identify with the latter group!

I know what I have to do and although this post sounds somewhat negative, I don’t feel discouraged because I firmly believe that one day I will be able to speak fluent Turkish. I invest a lot of time in working on my language skills, listening to a lot of original material, reading articles, doing translations, writing texts, taking part in language groups, writing messages in Turkish on social media … and … when it can’t be avoided, speaking Turkish.

Is it good for a teacher to make such an open confession? Maybe, maybe not. However although I’m an English teacher, I’m also a German and Turkish learner. My experiences with German have shown me what’s possible and what I can do. This gives me hope in relation to my Turkish speaking skills. Yes the inhibitions are annoying and I should just get over them and start speaking. However having these
inhibitions also means that I understand how some of my students feel about speaking English and I believe that one-to-one lessons are a great way to start overcoming those barriers. My Turkish teacher is one of the few people with whom I have less inhibitions about speaking. I hope that I can provide some of my students with the same opportunity to overcome some of their fears in a positive and “safe” learning environment.


4 Comments on “Finding my voice”

  1. Tanja says:

    Oh yes… That’s something I know too well… Well, I’m mostly a more quiet person – doesn’t depend on whether I’m speaking in German or in English or even in Spanish – but to me it is much more challenging to find my words (in time!) when talking in English…. I feel somewhat embarrassed because I think the way i’m talking sounds strange – when I’m writing in English I find it easier – because I can look at the word order I have written – if you are talking you only can control yourself to a limited part. That’s also mostly the reason why I’m very nervous about going to England in September – although I’m really looking forward to it.

  2. Hi Tanja,
    You’re not alone! I think that many people feel that writing is easier than speaking because you have more time to check your sentences and correct them if you need to. I certainly do and a few years ago I used to write long emails to people so that I could avoid picking up the telephone and calling them!I don’t do this any more but I think I would face the same situation if I had to sort something out in Turkish.
    However, the best way to solve this problem is to do the thing that makes us shy and this is exactly what you’re going to do in September :)
    I hope you have a really good time here in England and that as you speak more, you grow in confidence as speaking English begins to feel more natural.

  3. Tanja says:

    Oh yes….. I know this feeling – even in German I have to admit. Earlier I refused to do telephone calls because I felt so insecure (even in German, my mother tongue). I had to learn not to go for example to the doctor to order a prescription but to do the phone call…. Wasn’t easy – and today I feel very shy when I try to talk in English….. I still don’t like the telephone very much – but I do telephone calls – but for example doing a conversation on Skype for me is really difficult…. I need very much confidence in the people with who (?) I want to do them to be sure they won’t laugh at me (doesn’t matter in English or in German….)

  4. “with whom”
    There are no quick fixes to this problem but the most important thing is that you keep trying.
    Although you admit that it’s not easy, you put yourself in situations where you have to carry out activities which you find difficult, such as making phone calls..
    I believe this effort will be rewarded and that the tasks will become easier as you practise the necessary skills and become more confident.


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