As a language teacher, students often ask me, “Teacher, how can I improve my speaking skills?” The short answer is “Speak more!” Just like any skill we want to improve, we have to practice, practice, practice. But that’s often easier said than done, isn’t it? Especially if you are just beginning your study of a new language and have a limited vocabulary.
If you are studying Chinese in China, there are lots of speaking opportunities right outside your door, even with a limited vocabulary. If you are a perfectionist who wants to wait until you are able to speak in full, grammatically correct sentences, then you’ll be missing out on tons of opportunities! Just pretend that you are 4 or 5 years old again when it comes to speaking Chinese.
In the early stages of your language learning, a lot of your speaking practice is just repeating what the teacher says. At this point, you will be learning some words and phrases, but your ability to put a sentence together will be quite limited. There are some things you can do on your own to help build a foundation for your speaking skills. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be practicing what you know in the community. Remember that it’s still possible to communicate, even if you don’t have all the words.
In the Community
One of the keys to practicing your Chinese in the community is to live your life in a way allows you to interact with local people. Don’t drive a scooter or a car. Instead, walk when you can, or take the bus or subway or taxi. Don’t shop in big self serve supermarkets. Instead, frequent little shops where you have to ask the vendor for things. Don’t eat at McDonald’s or KFC everyday. Instead, find a few little restaurants and/or street vendors where you can eat or buy food, and keep going back.
Is there a little park or seating area near your home? Make a point of hanging out there on a regular basis. Speak to people you see on a regular basis – the security guard at the gate, the granny who sits in the park everyday. That way you’ll get to know people and start building relationships, even if conversation is a bit limited at first.
Although your vocabulary might be limited, get your teacher to teach you some key phrases for shopping. Learn the names of the things you usually buy. Go to a small shop and ask the shopkeeper if they have any of whatever it is. Ask how much it costs. Even if you know where it is, and how much it is, ask! Anything to have a chance to speak.
As you make the effort, even with a few words, you’ll find that some people will complement you on your Chinese. They’re saying it to encourage you, so be encouraged. As your vocabulary grows, and you go back to the same people over and over, they will notice the improvement. They’ll be more and more willing to talk, both because they know you can, and because you have a relationship with them.
Speak, record, listen
Besides the homework your teacher gives you, there are some things you can do on your own to improve your pronunciation and fluency.
In class you repeat after your teacher. Record that part of the class when the teacher speaks, and record your speech. If the teacher offers corrections, record that too. Go home, listen again and repeat, repeat, repeat. Record yourself at home and listen, comparing yourself to the original recording. Most textbooks have recordings of the lessons. Listen to those a bit at a time and do the same thing.
Think in Chinese
Start training your brain to think in Chinese. Spend some time every day trying to think in Chinese. Think about what you’re doing, where you’re going, what you did yesterday, what you had for lunch. How do you say that in Chinese? In the early stages, you may only have a few words, but soon you’ll be able to put sentences together to describe or explain.
One of the keys to fluency is being able to think in Chinese. As you progress in your learning, you’ll find that grammar and sentence structure are very different from your native language. If you continue to think in your native language and translate as you speak to people, it will be a slow process and the resulting sentences will possibly be confusing to the listener. As you start thinking in Chinese about things in your daily life, you’ll translate in your head. But as you progress, you can take that bad translation and apply the grammar rules and sentence order. Record the revised sentences. If your teacher is willing, play them and get him/her to correct them for you. Don’t forget to record the teacher’s sentences for later practice!
As you learn a new grammar structure, don’t just do the assigned homework. Think of things you can say about your daily life or the world around you that use that structure. You can practice silently anywhere, anytime. Sitting on a bus, how would you describe the people around you? What are they doing? How would you say that in Chinese?
Soon you’ll be able to think in Chinese without translating (except maybe for words that you don’t know too well yet), and having more natural conversations with the people around you!