When does speaking begin?


I’ve said this before, and wish to do so again. The most often asked questions I receive goes something like this, “when will I begin to speak?”


Before I once more offer my thoughts about this, let’s define the word “speak”. What does it mean to be able to speak?


By “speak” I mean the ability to improvise one’s own, unique, simple sentence.


I do not mean being able to offer one or two word questions or responses. I also do not mean practicing a few sentences and reproducing them as needed. To improvise means the words are not ‘pre-thought’ and practiced in one’s mind prior to speaking. In other words, the words appear, and able to be used fluently and fluidly.


For people learning their first language, the average age to begin speaking is 22 months. For young children who move from a Western English speaking country to Thailand, the average seems to be just under 1 year. There are reasons that it takes that long, and the main one is that any single language is a very complex thing. All the same, adults worldwide like to talk about young children as ‘fast’ language learners, and as those who have an advantage over older people.


So I want to say that as an adult, you can do it just as fast and easy as a child – if you don’t change ‘what’ you do in order to get the language! (click on this link if you want to know more about what children do that you can to)


How long someone takes before they begin speaking depends on the person. The point I make is this: Before one can speak, a person must have something to speak ‘from’. Practicing sounds and words that are based on our first language can only give us a new way to say what we already know. Language is not first of all, a speaking skill. That’s one reason why practicing speaking is ineffective.


Words and sentences must come from somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ is experience, and experience is what’s required by our brains to assemble a language. By using your first language, as the basis for learning a second language, you’re building in all the problems that adult, second language students face, pronunciation difficulties, vocabulary difficulties, memory difficulties, and grammar difficulties. There are a couple of things to notice about this:


– Young children don’t suffer from any of these issues. While people have long theorized that adults have lost certain language learning abilities, it seems more obvious that adults have simply gained analytic abilities and try to use them in learning a new language. This doesn’t work so well as evidenced by the results of adult language programs that focus on pronunciation, practice, grammar, and speaking generally (all of them just about). So, what happens when adults simply take in experiences as a child does? They acquire the language and become fluent – in a relatively short time!


– Correcting these issues is what feeds most language programs, so it’s no wonder that language schools aren’t looking for a way that works naturally and actually enables adults to become fluent – just like young children!


Just as it naturally takes a young child who’s newly arrived from a Western country to a place like Thailand about 1 year (of playing with Thais in the soi) before they really start speaking Thai, it takes adults about 800 hours of experiences in Thai, before they’ll begin naturally speaking sentences.


This doesn’t mean that a person cannot communicate until they’ve gained 800 hours of experience. It only means that language is not the best tool for communicating yet! Use non-verbal communication, use pictures that you draw, use objects, and point to convey meaning. This is not only fun and effective, it can bring you closer to your goals in every way – whether that’s to make friends, or get your message across.


I remember the situation my large American friend found himself in while traveling in Korea. He didn’t know how to speak Korean, and wandered out on his own in Seoul. Having eaten something strange, his stomach began to rumble. The only problem was he was constipated as well! What to do? He walked along the sidewalk until he found what looked like a pharmacy. Not knowing what to ask for, he got the attention of the pharmacist and squatted halfway down to the floor, making a face and noise of … (imagine yourself to get this picture). The pharmacist showed immediate recognition and ran behind the counter, grabbed a small packet of medicine. He pointed to the packet, showed putting in his mouth, and then pointing to his watch counted to three. 1, 2, 3 and then acted like he was running to the bathroom! Everyone in the store was watching and began to laugh. There was no one in this conversation who didn’t understand perfectly, what was being said.