Have you ever worked hard to reach a good level in your target language just to lose most of it as soon as you or your tutor take a break?


In this article, I am going to give you some suggestions on how to avoid having this happen.


I started thinking about this topic a few months ago. In April of this year, I was at a lower intermediate level in my Spanish studies. I was taking two sessions a week and was improving slowly and steadily.


Then, my tutor did the unthinkable. He went on holiday for two weeks. Two weeks is not a long time, but if you are a lower intermediate student of languages, it might as well be forever.


By the time he came back, I could barely put a few words together. The fact is that speaking skills, especially if your level is somewhere between beginner and intermediate, are extremely volatile skills.


Hard to acquire, very easy to lose.


Use it or lose it


For the whole time that my tutor was away, I practiced my Spanish daily. I read books, I watched my favourite Spanish sitcom, and I kept my journal in Spanish. In short, of the four skills, speaking, reading, writing, and listening, I practiced all of them except speaking.


When my tutor got back, I realized I had lost the habit of speaking and the confidence it gave me. So, I scheduled more lessons and patiently got back to my previous level. The thing is, I should have found a way to practice speaking, even without my tutor. This happens to my students all the time.


I have lost count of how many students I have had who, after a holiday, realize that they are not able to do more than mutter a few words. Afterwards, they get too discouraged to start over. It can be quite heartbreaking.


Speaking practice can make or break our learning process


Speaking is often the reason why we study a language to start with. It's a complex and tricky skill as it sums up our linguistic capacities, our pronunciation, and our comfort level with using the language.


It's not only about being able to say, “The book is on the table” in another language. It's about getting to the point in which for our brain, saying things like this comes automatically.


By having tutoring sessions, we train ourselves to use a skill which is an odd mixture of knowledge, confidence, and quick-wittedness.


Don't stop speaking altogether


All this has very much been on my mind as, in the last two weeks, I have been moving and I have had to cancel many lessons. I don’t want what happened to me in April to happen to my students.


The activities I gave my regular students to do in order to keep their speaking skills in practice might be helpful for you too. I started by giving them some pictures to describe.


If you are a beginner, take notes in your native language of what you want to say, and then translate those notes. Look up all the words you are not sure of or that are new to you. Then, make a bullet list of what you want to say. Whatever you do, don't make a script.


For instance, if you have a picture of a family eating dinner together, a nice list could be this:



  • table
  • food on the table
  • family around the table,
  • what is the family doing?


Then, with the list before your eyes, practice describing the picture. Say it out loud either to yourself or to a friend/language partner.


Spontaneous speech is so important


You want a list of things to say and not a script because you still want to keep the spontaneous speaking active.


Make sure you keep it short, making it last less than a minute or so. This minute is important. You need to focus on the quality of what you are saying, and that's why you want to keep it relatively short. It is harder to keep that focus for more than one minute. At least, initially.


Repeat your description four or five times. Don't aim at memorizing but at becoming comfortable with what you have to say and how you decide to say it. When you feel you have reached that level of ease, record yourself.


Opportunity to work on pronunciation


At this stage, if you are comfortable with what you are going to say, you can afford to focus on your pronunciation and your intonation.


I am going to recommend using Soundcloud. There are many very good audio editors out there, but Soundcloud gives you the possibility of leaving comments step by step on the track you have recorded.


Why should I get feedback?


So, let's say you are saying “the cat is black,” and you mispronounce the word “cat.” Whoever you share the track with can just put a quick note at the point where you say that word, pointing out what you are doing wrong.


Getting feedback is a very important part of this exercise, but so is the effort you put into the preparation of the track. It is all active language learning in which you are focusing on your output rather than on your input.


Everybody hates their voice


Now, if you are like me, your voice makes you cringe. Everybody hates their voice, but it has nothing to do with how their voice actually sounds. What I really encourage you to do, no matter how much you hate your voice, is to make that recording.


Find strength in the fact that this will improve your language skills ten times over. And remember that whatever you think your voice sounds like, it's just your impression.


Where to get constructive feedback


Once you have finished the recording, you can share the track with your language exchange buddy or your tutor, as long as a native listens to your track and corrects it for you.


If you are feeling more daring, you can share your recording on a Facebook group where they study your target language. And then, when you get the feedback, make sure you study your mistakes very carefully and work on them.


Preserving the skills you have acquired is very important


So, don't wait for your tutor to get back from a break to realize you have become more hesitant in the language into which you have poured hours, energy, and money.


Protect your investment, so to speak, by preserving your efforts. And what better way to preserve it than practicing your target language?


You might even pick up a new word or two in the process. But most of all, you will be saving time so that when your tutor gets back, you can pick up where you started and keep on progressing.


This is just one way to keep your language in practice. What do you do to keep your skills honed when your tutor or language exchange partner is away?


Image Sources

Hero Image by B Rosen (CC BY-ND 2.0)