We all know the struggle.
We study our foreign language in our language classes and we follow the rules of the textbook, we listen to prepared dialogues and we try to recite the dialogues. We pour our energy into studying for tests on the grammar and vocabulary. However, when we actually go up to meet a native speaker to try and practice our language from the textbooks we've been learning in classrooms the end result is almost always.... (you guessed it!) FAILURE!
Now why could that be the case that you sound so stilted when you practice your Spanish with a Spanish-speaking friend that speaks the language only for that friend to correct you mercilessly and say "HEY! YOU'RE SAYING "¡ALOHA! ¡ME LLAMO ES ALEX!" IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE "¡HOLA! ¡ME LLAMO ALEX!" FOR THE 15TH TIME!!!"? Well, probably it's not as extreme as that example (hopefully???).
One of the major problems of the classroom environment in language learning is we rely way too much on formal, standard language. Now this DOESN'T mean we need to use a lot of slang in our language, and from my personal experience, I'd recommend against that in most situations. Native speakers would generally see that as rude. However I'm talking more about just sounding natural and relaxed in whichever foreign language you learn, whether it's English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or another language. The big dilemma of a language learner: You want to sound articulate yet not so formal and stiff and not like a hip teenager either!
You shouldn't have to have perfect pronunciation (no language learner does absolutely, including myself!), but you can strive to speak fluently with an accent or with only hardly any accent at all. The reason why you don't need to sound like a textbook is because getting it done is more important than getting it perfect.
Important tools for Sounding Natural in a Foreign Language:
1. Analyze the language being spoken: Listen attentively to what a native speaker says, and make sure to notice the following:
a. Which sounds blend?
b. Do any words sound the same?
c. Are there any letters that are pronounced differently from what you thought? How did they sound?
d. Does your language have silent letters?
2. Pronunciation: I can't emphasize this aspect enough. It's important to identify what kinds of sounds make up the words in your language. You don't have to sound 100% correct, but you should have a basic idea of how these sounds are formed.
Focus on your problem areas, identify the sounds you struggle with, and focus on those. Don't focus on the easier sounds until you've taken on the problem areas. I definitely made sure of this when I first learned German and figured out with the help of my exchange student how to properly pronounce "ä","ö", "ü", "ch", "r", and "eu/äu". I did the same when I first learned Chinese and spent about a month working on Pinyin romanization before my first Chinese class, learning how to produce challenging sounds such as "sh", "zh", "ch", "r", "q", "x", "j", "q", and "ü". After focusing on the problem aspects of my pronunciation the rest of my pronunciation gradually improved over time as I kept on practicing with native German and Chinese speakers.
3. Intonation: The intonation is extremely important in both words and sentences and the key to this area is listening and repeating. Go to Google Translate, Forvo, or YouTube to focus first on the intonation of individual sound combinations, then words, and then sentences. Listen to the intonations of the sounds about 3 to 5 times a day at least for about 15-20 minutes a day before you start your language to get used to the rhythm of the language. The rhythm is crucial.
4. Conversation Connectors and Filler Words: You don't want to have a lot of awkward pauses in your conversation, do you? Filler words are words that are used in the middle of pauses when we're about to say something, such as "um", "hmm", like", "well", "you know", "so". Conversation connectors on the other hand are phrases that connect thoughts, phrases that you can use to react to what someone said, and phrases that express how you're feeling.
5. Even Native Speakers Make Mistakes: When I was learning German I at first thought that Germans perfectly declined nouns and conjugated verbs all the time, but realized when I actually hung around my German exchange student and German friends that they even get noun cases and verb tenses wrong while just continuing to effortlessly get their point across. What was I doing wrong? I had studied everything in the book and insisted on following every grammar rule! That's fine for writing, but not for speaking. When I was learning Spanish, I made sure to make as many mistakes as possible and even finally became comfortable with making grammatical errors as long as I smoothed out 80 percent of them later on. Portuguese was the first language I didn't really study (well I did, but because I already could speak Spanish I didn't have to put a whole lot of effort into it and picked it up rather quickly) and I just used what I learned from Spanish with Brazilians on Skype and literally spoke from day 1 (kudos to Benny Lewis!). Coming back to German I used what I learned from Spanish and Portuguese and each time I practice with a native, I make as many mistakes as possible and write down short phrases from what they say for later! Very handy and it takes a lot of pressure off of having to sound correct all the time!
In conclusion, I advise you to analyze the spoken language, focus on your problem areas of pronunciation and intonation and practice those especially when you start, add conversation connectors and filler words to spice up your conversations, and make lots and lots of mistakes!!! Getting it done is more important than getting it perfect!
So what is your experience with utilizing your language in conversation? Have you generally used more textbook language or informal language? Which do you generally prefer? How natural do you feel you sound (or have people told you you sound) in the language(s) you speak or use? Let me know in the comments below!
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