Language Learning, Article 7: Your Goal is Excellence! By David Bolton
Learn a Foreign Language by speaking




Your Goal is Excellence!

    To communicate with others in a foreign language doesn't really require perfection. Even if you speak Spanish, for example, with a heavy North American accent, can only use the simple present form of the verbs, and mix up the word order in practically every sentence, many people will still be able to understand you. But be honest: if you go to all the trouble of learning Spanish, do you really want to end up speaking it horribly? Of course not!

    Back in the '80's, I was co-owner of a music school in Germany. We usually hired young Americans who had studied piano in the U.S., had had at least a couple of years of college German, and who wanted to spend a year or two in Germany teaching music. When a new group of teachers arrived at the beginning of each summer, they knew a lot of German grammar, and a fair amount of vocabulary, but were practically unable to speak German at all. No matter. I gave them intensive classes during June, July and August, and by September all were prepared to start teaching in their new language.

    During those years, I had the chance to make careful observation of the differences in the way people learn another language. Two of the teachers who began one year were a married couple, whose personalities were quite different (opposites attract, as they say). He was quiet, reserved, and intellectually inclined; she was extraverted, lively, and intelligent, without being especially analytical. After only a month or two, she was talking to everybody she met in German. She had learned quickly, since she had few inhibitions, and didn't care if the sentences she uttered were totally correct or not; the main thing was, for her, communication. He, on the other hand, took considerably longer to be able to speak as much as she could. But months later, when he finally could, his German was much better than hers. For he, being a perfectionist, first wanted to learn everything with great precision before using it extensively. As a result, his grammar was, in the end, correct, and his pronunciation very good. Although she had no trouble whatsoever communicating, her grammar remained faulty, and her pronunciation wasn't as good as it could have been.

This shows the value of taking the time to learn the basics well from the very beginning. When you don't learn the elementary elements of a language well from the start, it is extremely difficult to perfect your skills later.

    If, however, you make sure to speak as perfectly as possible from the beginning (even if this means speaking very slowly), you will be building a much more solid foundation.

    That's why I advise my pupils to strive for EXCELLENCE. Don't settle for merely being able to form the simplest of sentences. Try instead to refine the thoughts you wish to express, and form your sentences accordingly. When speaking, attempt to say each word the way a native speaker would. Naturally, this won't be possible in every situation. If you are trying to explain something to somebody, perhaps time won't permit you to take twice as long to say it, simply for the sake of an improved pronunciation. But whenever possible, do try to achieve precise pronunciation, at least when talking to friends (assuming that you have friends willing to be patient with you!)

    Of course, this will be frustrating for you occasionally. When you want to say something in your target language, it is hard enough to come up with the right words, forming them into correct sentences, without having to concentrate on saying them perfectly as well. But believe me, this is worth the effort. The first few weeks may be exasperating, but after that, you will be used to using good pronunciation, and not long thereafter, it will have become second nature: you will be doing it automatically. As is so often the case, patience, discipline and perseverance will be your staunchest allies where pronunciation is concerned, as well.

    Even if you have achieved a decent pronunciation, I recommend that you make frequent use of a recording device to monitor your progress. Record yourself reading a text in your new language,
for example, a page from a book. Read slowly, enunciating well. Then, when you listen to the recording, ask yourself if what you're hearing sounds like a native speaker. If not, ask yourself why not. Are there certain words that you didn't pronounce well enough? Or could it be that each word was pronounced well, yet the sentence didn't "flow" well enough? Or perhaps you stressed words that a native speaker would not have accented in such a way.

    If your teacher is a native speaker, request that he/she read the page while you record. Then listen to this recording a few times until you get the "hang" of the way the sentences should be read. Next, record yourself reading the page again, imitating the way your teacher read it. This method is one of the best there is to ensure that your speaking skills will improve rapidly. Strive for excellence, using efficient methods such as this one, and it won't be long before you will be speaking your new language with confidence. And don't be surprised if, in the not-too-distant future, native speakers of that tongue occasionally ask you how you managed to learn their language so well!


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