Teacher Diaries: Mr. James – Love Speaking

As an enthusiastic language learner myself, I do my best to learn from my own experiences in order to improve the way I teach English. Just the same as many students, I find that speaking in a foreign language is one of the largest obstacles to overcome, especially when I’m not living in an environment that can allow me to be totally immersed in the language.

I’d like to share with you here an interesting technique that all of my past language instructors have encouraged me to use to start speaking, right from the early stages of learning.

All of my teachers insisted that I started speaking from the very first lesson, even when my vocabulary was extremely limited – even when I knew fewer than 30 words! In particular, I remember that my Chinese tutor regularly told me that the most important thing is communicating an idea, rather than focussing on absolute grammatical perfection, or sophisticated vocabulary. If there was a word which I didn’t know, instead of freezing up, or saying the word in my native language of English, she insisted that it was much better to ‘talk around’ that word – that is, simply to describe that missing word using whatever words I did know. Essentially, the key is flexibility – to use a small amount of words to communicate the largest possible range of ideas.

So, in the classroom or at home, how can we encourage students to overcome their nervousness about speaking and put this method into practice? Let me give an example.

If a student doesn’t know the word ‘doctor’, but is trying to describe a doctor, he/she could perhaps be encouraged to say:

  • ‘Person who works at the hospital’
  • ‘Person who helps you feel better’
  • ‘Person who gives you medicines’

I’ve invariably found that, by finding flexible ways like this to ‘talk around’ unknown vocabulary, students feel more comfortable in their own speaking ability and are more likely to build up confidence in their general English skills. Whatever specific word they lack is also very likely to be brought up naturally by the other speaker in that same conversation, too. Remember – every mistake is a learning experience!

Finally, it is worth emphasising again that it is absolutely vital to start speaking from the very earliest stages of language learning, otherwise students will find it much harder in the future to conquer their fear of speaking. In my experience as both a language learner and a teacher, I have found that using words flexibly is the key to success in speaking confidently.

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