“I understand everything, but I can’t speak”

General discussion about learning languages
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Jean-Luc
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Re: “I understand everything, but I can’t speak”

Postby Jean-Luc » Wed Dec 01, 2021 12:23 pm

I fully understand the statement...

The way you are learning could be the reason you can't speak. In order to speak the language, I usually refrain from "learning" and use two "tools". The first is an immersion, with a stay in a country where the language is spoken. The second one is joining a conversation group online or in a café with a teacher/tutor (some courses include a group conversation too). In that case, it makes you start to speak with the right support and the brotherhood of the other learners. I have recently tried group conversations in Russian and Chinese, and it works very well to take the plunge !
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cito
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Re: “I understand everything, but I can’t speak”

Postby cito » Wed Dec 01, 2021 10:08 pm

Cainntear wrote:
I've heard of cases where children have been silent for years and then start talking in fully-formed sentences from their first words. It may be that a similar phenomenon occurs with bilingual kids, but it's certainly not something I've heard of happening


Not sure where I saw it, but I remember Stephen Krashen talking about this. He talked about teaching English to a young Japanese student, and that he would be able to say things to her in English for months and she would slowly understand, yet when he tried to get her to talk (I think his example was with saying "ball") she would be silent as a church mouse. It was only after months of teaching the language began to slowly come out of her and he, unfortunately, left Japan right as she began to speak and become more acquainted with outputting the language. Not exactly the same but still... very interesting.
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Cainntear
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Re: “I understand everything, but I can’t speak”

Postby Cainntear » Thu Dec 02, 2021 7:23 am

cito wrote:
Cainntear wrote:
I've heard of cases where children have been silent for years and then start talking in fully-formed sentences from their first words. It may be that a similar phenomenon occurs with bilingual kids, but it's certainly not something I've heard of happening


Not sure where I saw it, but I remember Stephen Krashen talking about this. He talked about teaching English to a young Japanese student, and that he would be able to say things to her in English for months and she would slowly understand, yet when he tried to get her to talk (I think his example was with saying "ball") she would be silent as a church mouse. It was only after months of teaching the language began to slowly come out of her and he, unfortunately, left Japan right as she began to speak and become more acquainted with outputting the language. Not exactly the same but still... very interesting.

To me, that sounds like just another example of Krashen giving an anecdote that doesn't prove him right and implying it does.

A lot of teachers I met in the 00s had taken from Krashenite thinking and ideas like the "Silent Way" that were floating around in his heyday that input only until the language is "acquired" means the student makes no errors, and that forced output early leads to errors. (I don't think I've seen this hardline a position from Krashen himself, though.) I still haven't heard of a single case of a learner who spontaneously starts speaking without errors (non-native-like forms) though, and I know people who made plenty of early mistakes and went on to be good enough to be mistaken for native speakers for reasonable lengths of time.
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kelvin921019
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Re: “I understand everything, but I can’t speak”

Postby kelvin921019 » Thu Dec 02, 2021 8:18 am

I think it depends on the definition of "I can't speak". I would say it's entirely possible that one can understand (almost) everything but can barely form a coherent sentence, or require a lot of effort in speaking. This is probably due to the very imbalanced training of the language (a lot of input exercise but little output / oral exercise).

About 10 years ago I had my IELTS exam and I obtained the highest band score in listening and reading but struggled with writing and was classified basic user in terms of speaking. This is largely due to the English training / exposure I received back then was largely input and written output. I could enjoy most native English content without subtitles but struggled a lot when it comes to writing and speaking. I did better in writing because I can take time to form the grammatically correct sentence but when it comes to speaking my brain was pretty much a mess. I can only communicate in very simple SVO sentences.

It really took me a lot of extra training on spoken English to become a decent (not fluent) speaker as I am right now.
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BeaP
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Re: “I understand everything, but I can’t speak”

Postby BeaP » Thu Dec 02, 2021 9:54 am

Imbalanced training certainly leads to a gap between skills. But it's not just that. People who have a better general knowledge of the world, are better listeners in their native language, can fill bigger gaps of understanding. My experience is that input in itself can't result in good speaking. In order to speak you have to train speaking. However, if you have already achieved a high level of comprehension, it takes a lot less time to develop speaking, because the passive knowledge of vocabulary and the basic familiarity with structures is better than nothing. I favour the approach when the four skills are trained at the same time, but speaking doesn't always need to be 'free' (especially not in the beginning), it can also be based on chunks, drills and repetition.

Not understanding everything is completely normal, though, we experience it all the time in our native language as well. A lot of things we listen to are badly formed grammatically or not pronounced well. The level of journalism is in continuous descent, both in written and spoken form, books containing total stupidities or senseless sentences get published all the time. If you watch TV in company I'm sure it's common experience that you ask your partner: 'What was that about?'. I do it all the time. In spite of this no-one has questioned yet my speaking skills in Hungarian. So it's not just about filling the gaps. It has to be highlighted that a lot of the things you hear or read are not formed well linguistically.
I'm sure there are also a lot of misunderstandings in our everyday life as well, so situations when you think you understand something, but in reality you don't, either because the speaker couldn't put across their message, or because you didn't understand it. Even here in the forum people sometimes take things as offence, because they misunderstand something. Understanding something doesn't only mean the recognition of words or elements.

I'd say that I understand virtually any type of text in English and Spanish. I certainly wouldn't say that I understand everything that exists, but I don't understand very scientific or technical texts in Hungarian either, mainly because understanding them requires a knowledge of the world I don't have. However, I do understand fully those academic texts in English and Spanish that are related to literature. And for me academic text is one type of text.
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