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.
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