Improving Your Speaking Skills - The Complete Guide
So, you’re enthusiastically working your way through the textbook, course or app. You’re excited about learning a new language and the possibilities it will bring. You’re finally in a situation where you can try out some of what you have learned and open your mouth….
..but nothing comes out! You stumble over words, and when put on the spot phrases you know seem to just disappear!
Speaking is one of the most daunting skills for language learners, but it doesn’t have to be. Learning how to practice this essential skill is the key to unlocking your language progress and making conversations fun instead of something to fear.
In this article you’ll learn the steps you need to start speaking your new language with confidence.
1: Pronunciation - Making the right sounds
2: Learn to talk to yourself
3: Practicing with a partner
- Finding a partner
- How to practice
- Getting over fear
4: Real world speaking practice
How to use this guide
The four steps in this article are not meant to be strictly sequential. Each stage will help you break down any fear or confidence issues you might have and prepare you for the next, but each can, and should still be done after you move on to the next.
1. Pronunciation - Making the right sounds
This may seem pretty basic, but it’s often a step that doesn’t get enough attention. When you start out in a new language there are likely many sounds that just don’t exist in your native language.
Spending some time tuning your ears and tongue to these new sounds will pay off down the road. Think of it as building the foundations to your language house.
The aim of this step isn’t to have perfect pronunciation. It’s ok to still have an accent. This is something that will come with time, so don’t get too bogged down on this step before moving on.
There are two main aims here:
To be understood. There’s nothing more disheartening than building up the courage to put your new language skills into practice, just for the other person to look at you blankly.
To get comfortable with the sounds and rhythm of the language, so you can say them fluidly and confidently, without stumbling.
How to do this
Do plenty of listening
Even if you can’t understand it, it’s essential to listen to the language to get used to the sounds and flow. There are lots of ways you can do this for free. Try the fantastic Radio Garden to find radio stations anywhere in the world, or find music in your language on Spotify or YouTube. You can try copying what you hear, even if you don’t understand it.
It’s easy to make this part of your regular daily schedule.
Identify the difficult sounds
Find a good pronunciation guide and drill the new sounds until they feel more familiar in your mouth. Your tongue is a muscle doing something new and needs to develop new muscle memory, this comes from repetition.
It can be difficult to differentiate between words that are very similar if the sounds are new to you. Words that change by only a single sound are called minimal pairs e.g. can and con.
Compile a list of minimal pair words in your language and practice saying each one back and forth, to internalize the difference.
Try the following searches on Google to find these difficult word pairs and compile your own list to practice.
<your language> minimal pairs
confusing words in <your language>
difficult to pronounce <your language> words
similar word pairs in <your language>
You can use Forvo to listen to native pronunciations of these words.
Almost all phones have a voice recording facility now. Record yourself to identify areas to work on. This also creates a log of your progress which is great to look back on.
Make sure to learn word stress as well as sounds
In many languages getting the stress in the wrong place doesn’t just sound weird, it could mean saying a totally different word!
Read out loud
Whenever you study, always read what you’re learning out loud. This not only trains your mouth, but has been shown in recent studies to increase your memory of new information.
2. Learn to talk to yourself
They say that speaking to yourself is the first sign of madness - but not when it comes to language learning!
Saying what you’re learning out loud is an essential step to internalize the information, as well as getting your brain and mouth used to what it will need to do in the real world.
It’s a great first step in order to get your more comfortable before practicing with real people, but can also be used beyond that as everyday practice, whatever your level.
Talking to yourself in your new language has many benefits:
- Make the most of your time. You probably have many more hours available without someone to practice with, so turn this into practice time.
- No fear of making mistakes. You should try to not worry about making mistakes anyway, but when talking to yourself you can really let go and try anything without inhibitions.
- Train your tongue. Getting your mouth around new sounds and words is largely a matter of training and repetition until they are second nature. There’s no point spending valuable practice time with a partner saying drills.
- Pre-practice what you want to practice in your live speaking session. Speaking with a person will be easier and less stressful if you have drilled the essentials of what you want to say beforehand.
How to do this
Here are some ideas for practicing speaking skills by yourself. Find ways of doing these daily. A little each day is better than doing one big practice session a week.
Say what you see
As you go about your normal day, name objects as you see them. Extend this to what you see and read online to practice more than just household items. This has the added advantage of practicing words related to your interests, which is important for motivation.
Narrate your life
Take it a step further by narrating your life. Instead of just saying words, describe what you’re doing. I’m getting out of bed, I need to have a shower, I’m hungry, what shall I have for breakfast, etc
This is a tip I got from Olly Richards’ language learning podcast. It takes the last tip further still by inventing scenarios around what you are doing.
For example, when taking a shower instead of just saying what you are doing you could say:
Excuse me, the shower isn’t working.
I can only get cold water from the shower.
I would have taken a shower, but there was no hot water.
You can get as advanced as you like, adding in whatever tenses and grammar you are working on.
3. Practicing with a partner
This is where you will start to make real gains, and it can’t be stressed enough...
To improve your speaking skills, you need to get plenty of real conversation practice!
But don’t worry, we’re not jumping in at the deep end just yet. Building from the previous sections the next step is to find a partner to practice with in a controlled environment.
Unlike real life situations, these practice sessions will take place with someone who knows you are a learner, who is patient and there to help you, and using topics that you are familiar and comfortable with.
This reduces most of the difficulties and stresses of speaking to someone in the wild.
Finding a practice partner
For the best progress I recommend using the website italki, which is a paid service, but still very affordable. If you require a free option I have listed some below, though they won’t be quite as convenient or effective.
This is the best resource I know of for improving your speaking skills and gaining confidence. italki is a site offering live one-to-one video lessons with native tutors from anywhere in the world.
Tutors set their own prices, and can either be professional tutors (who have some sort of professional teaching qualification), or community tutors (who may be experienced tutors but don’t have a professional qualification.
Prices start from as little as $5 an hour, with trial lessons from just $1 (the average is roughly $10-20) - making it a very affordable option to get speaking practice no matter where you are.
There are different ways of using italki depending on your level and goals. You can have full language lessons structured by the teacher, or just use the time for informal speaking practice.
Advantages of italki over other options:
- Professional help
- Make the most of your time. Schedule lessons for when they suit you. No travel time involved
- Learn any language
- Native speakers
- Very good value for what you get
Full disclosure, we are an affiliate for italki, which means that if you choose to take a lesson, we get a small commission. This comes at no additional cost to you. Please note that we only recommend products that we use and love ourselves.
Here’s a walk through of italki, and some tips on how to choose a teacher (starting at 8:35).
Bonus tip - BaseLang for unlimited Spanish lessons
Are you learning Spanish, and want a more intensive learning schedule? BaseLang is an alternative to italki that gives you UNLIMITED one-to-one lessons each month for a set fee. If you’re planning on doing two or more lessons per week, it’s worth checking it out.
Free alternatives for finding speaking partners
If you’re on a tight budget and want a free option, then don’t think that’s an excuse to not start your speaking practice!
The best alternative is to use language exchanges where you practice with a native speaker who is also learning your native language, and you spend half the session time on each.
The main disadvantages are that it won't be as efficient a use of your time, and you won’t be getting professional help, but it is still valuable practice time.
Here are some places to find language exchanges.
Meetup.com - This is a site for finding social groups in your area, based around interests. Most cities will have in person exchanges for the most common languages. The social aspect is a great way to keep the learning process fun, and you might meet someone who wants to do more regular one-to-one exchanges.
Craigslist / Gumtree - Classified ad sites such as these usually have a community section where you can make a request for language partners. Being one-to-one you can schedule sessions for time that suits you, and you can have your conversations via Skype if you wish.
italki language exchange - As well as private lessons, italki has a range of free community features, including a language exchange. This is good for less common languages that are harder to find locally. The same disadvantages apply, in that you will not be getting professional feedback and guidance compared to the tutored sessions.
When meeting people online be sure to always stay safe, never give out more personal information than is necessary, and only agree to meet face-to-face in public places. Most people you meet will be great, but you never know..
How to use your practice time
Now you’ve booked a session with a teacher or a practice partner, how do you get the most from your practice session?
Before the session
For most people you’ll mainly be learning a language outside of your practice session (instead of the lesson being your primary learning source itself). In this case you should base each session around what you are currently learning, and let the teacher know this is what you want to focus on.
The idea here is to:
- Start speaking in a more accessible and controlled way
- Reinforce your learning in context
Write down all the topics, grammar points and vocabulary you have learnt that week and give them to your teacher. If you are working on a certain module in a textbook you can send over a copy of that section ahead of your lesson.
They can then lead the session in a way that reinforces exactly what you need, rather than letting it become an unstructured chat, or having the teacher lead you into other topics.
Make sure to let your teacher know that your primary focus with them is to practice speaking.
If you want your teacher to lead you in a more fully structured syllabus then that’s fine, but to make the most of your practice time (and money) you should still aim to do any learning in between the lessons, and then use the session for practice.
During your session
Your teacher should be happy prompting you, within the context of what you want to focus on. If you are practicing with an exchange partner then you might have to be a bit more mindful yourself to keep things on topic.
It can help to be prepared with a cheat sheet based around your topic. Write down any phrases and pointers to refer to if needed to keep the flow going. You don’t want to just be reading off a script, but at the same time, it’s ok to have a bit of a crutch to get things going.
It’s also useful to have some get out of jail phrases written down if you're a beginner. These are things you can use to keep the conversation going if you don’t understand something, rather than resorting to your native language.
How do you say…?
I don’t understand
Can you repeat that please
… and you?
Can you speak more slowly?
The site Omniglot has a database of phrases in many languages that you can use.
At the end of the session
Get your teacher or partner to write down your mistakes and things to work on for next time. Most good teachers on italki will be happy to do this for you.
If using an exchange partner you can either do this for each other or save some time to discuss this at the end and write it down yourself.
Still hesitant to take the leap? Try these tips to get over the fear of your first speaking sessions
Being nervous about your first speaking session is common, but there’s really nothing to be scared about, which you’ll discover once you have your first one.
The best way to get over any hesitation is to take an easy first step towards it while your motivation is high, and worry about the actual lesson later.
If you’re reading this it means you’re motivated to improve your speaking, so do this right now...
Go to italki, sign up, then in the drop down menu in the top right go to Buy Credits (or Finance on mobile), and make a deposit of $10 into your account. This will sit in your account until you are ready to use it on a lesson.
This easy step makes you committed to taking further action before you can change your mind.
Still feeling motivated? Browse the tutors and schedule a lesson! It’s just a few more clicks - you can always cancel it ;)
If you’re still nervous, here are some tips:
- Start speaking to yourself early on. The sooner you start doing this the more comfortable you will feel about it.
- Don’t feel embarrassed about mistakes. The less you let them worry you the more progress you’ll make.
- Be prepared. Real life conversations could go in any direction but in your practice session you are in control. Practice what it is you want to focus on beforehand, so you are more comfortable with it.
- If you’re still too nervous about having a video lesson you can ask your teacher to start with just an audio session, or even text only instant messaging, and then build up from there.
4. Real world speaking practice
Now your speaking skills have been honed in a controlled environment, you’re ready to be released into the wild. This is the ultimate goal, to communicate with the public in a free and open ended way.
Outside of a structured lesson, you don’t know what’s coming, you must be prepared to not understand everything, but that’s ok, and is expected. The preceding sections should give you the confidence to not worry about that.
How to do this
The best and most fulfilling way will be to spend time in a country that speaks your target language.
If this is not possible, it might seem impossible to get real world speaking practice, but there are ways. Many of these will depend on your target language and where you live.
Language exchanges and italki
These are still excellent resources, but now conversations should be free flowing, not just restricted to what you know and what you are working on. At this stage free exchanges can be just as beneficial as teachers.
Shops and restaurants
Restaurants and shops serving national cuisine are a great place to meet native speakers who often work in them. You might not be able to get into lengthy conversations, but if it’s somewhere you go to regularly it will add up.
Keep your ear out about town
Foreign people don’t only work in the typical restaurants of their nationality. Keep your ear out for accents in other shops, bars and restaurants and start a friendly conversation. I’ve met people from Italy, France and Colombia working in bars and shops close me.
Festivals and events
Most cities will have cultural events throughout the year where you can hang out and chat with native speakers. In cities I’ve lived in I’ve been to: Mexican Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo (no, that’s not the same thing!), burrito festivals, taco festivals, French film festivals, Bastille Day, German food festivals, Oktoberfest, Greek culture festival, Russian food festival...
Couchsurfing is a site where hosts offer a free stay to travellers passing through their city. This might be on a sofa, spare bed, or whatever they have available. It’s a community driven site for people who like meeting new people from around the world. In your profile you can specify that you particularly want to meet people who speak a certain language . They also run social meetups in many cities.
Get a shortcut to the best teachers on italki
How do you find the best teachers and practice partners on italki from the hundreds available?
The best teacher is the one who keeps you learning! We've curated a list of the teachers with the best student retention rates, who are most likely to keep you motivated.