When to attempt your first conversations in a second language?

Hello everyone,


I am learning to speak Mandarin, though presently my vocabulary is only about 400 words.  To provide a little context, I live in an English-speaking country (Australia).  I do not have any Mandarin-speaking friends, however there are many Mandarin speakers in my local area.


Recently I have been reading blog posts by polyglots who recommend strongly that a learner try to speak as early as possible, and speak in the real world.  I have tried this on many occasions.  Here is the pattern for every attempt so far:

Me: Hello, how are you today?

Other: Something, something, something, something.

Me: I am sorry, I do not understand.


It does not matter what is my opening question.  My follow-up sentence is invariably, "I am sorry, I do not understand."


I told my local tutor about my experience.  Her advice was that I should not yet be attempting to speak to others.  My vocabulary is far too limited, so there's no chance I will understand an answer.  She intimated that I must wait years, not months, before trying to speak to others.


I understand the logic behind both recommendations.  Talk early, because learning to listen is as important as learning to speak.  Talk late, because you need a large vocabulory before you can possibly understand what others are saying.


I would be very grateful to anyone who can provide their own recommendation, based on their own experience: learn a little and talk early, or learn a lot and talk late?


(I know this must be an extremely common question.  However, I simply could not find any existing discussion of this topic on

Aug 4, 2014 11:16 PM
Comments · 53

And then there was that one time in Quebec.


I passed a man in a park and he said something in French. I didn't understand him, so I whooped my standby phrase on him. He smiled and said something that I didn't catch, so he repeated it a few times. He finally smiled and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. About 3 minutes later it dawned on me what he was saying: "You speak a little French, but do you UNDERSTAND a little French." 



I had a good laugh at myself that afternoon!  :-D

August 5, 2014

I understand your dilemma. My biggest problem with learning Spanish was getting used to making out the words of the conversations in normal speed. I think that I eventually got over the hump when I increased the amount of spoken Spanish I was exposed to on a daily basis and began speaking the language. Although listening to the language that you’re learning for an extended period of time will be uncomfortable at first, it will eventually feel natural. I used to get what almost felt like headaches when listening to Spanish for more than an hour. That was usually my cue to take a break. Now, I can have a tutoring session, watch a couple shows in Spanish, and talk to a language partner all in the same day without much mental strain. Personally, I believe that dealing with a lot of input in a second language is essential to becoming a better speaker. The more words you learn and are exposed to, the better chance you will understand a conversation.

Looking back at my language learning experience over the years, I wish that I would have begun speaking a lot earlier. I think speaking early can be extremely helpful for people learning a new language. Speaking is not only good practice, but it also helps to identify common words that you should learn and practice as much as possible. In my experience with Sandrah, who is an excellent Spanish italki tutor, having conversations really help the vocabulary to stick.

August 7, 2014

I agree with Dorothy

I'm not trying to discourage you. If you goal is to one day have a 10 minute conversation, then you are more than half way there. I just think if you ever want to reach fluency, you have to learn to read. Learning Chinese is not rocket science ... there are more than a 1.3 billion people who have learned to read these characters and trust me but they are not all geniuses.


On the day, I decided to learn characters, I spent 30 minutes trying to learn the definition and pronunciation of 25 characters. The next day, I tested how many I could remember and I remembered 90% of them. I once learned 90 characters in a day simply just looking at the character, repeating the defiinition and sound and moving to the next character. The next day, I tested myself and remembered 80% of those characters


<address>I have a great website that you can use to help you learn chinese radicals 部首. </address><address> </address><address></address><address> </address><address>Sign up, it's free. </address><address> </address><address></address><address> </address><address>Check out there youtube video. I found this method really helpful and trying to learn to read.</address>



August 5, 2014

Well Alister, those are 400 bizarro sounds that you can have fun playing with when hanging out with a new Chinese friend! 


They will explain how messed up it all is and you can laugh about it together. I think I spend half my time laughing at myself while trying to speak Mandarin! I mean that seriously. One night I just couldn't stop laughing and had to hang up because I couldn't contain how funny I thought I sounded!  


My friend is kind and has video set up so I can see her mouth and the horrified look on her face when I say something that is obviously awful. :) We have a rating system where she holds up fingers to score my pronunciation so I know when I'm getting better or worse. She's so sweet. When I am relaxed about knowing nothing and sounding so silly then she can relax and try to work on her L and R sounds and not feel bad. 


There is so much good will and willingness to help though that it is very motivating. There is no better feeling in the world than finding someone on the other side of the world that you really like and WANT to learn how to talk to. It might be years before I can have any kind of real conversation in Mandarin, but all along the way it's going to be enjoyable because I have my friend. 


to be continued....



August 5, 2014

I'm just starting Mandarin. I mean really, just beginning. I'm learning pinyin and have just a couple of words I can say, but I already use them! That's because I have a LANGUAGE PARTNER here at Italki that understands that I don't understand. 


I highly suggest you get a language partner here Alister. Almost all Mandarin speakers here have even a tiny bit of English. My language partner knows more vocabulary than she is able to speak so I can type out things to her in English. 


Make a list of the words you know in Mandarin and send them to your partner and then they will know what you will understand and what you won't. 


Then you will have someone telling you if your pronunciation is correct, but mostly, it's just such a hoot to make those BIZARRO sounds and have someone understand them! 


I suggest you speak right from the first words, but do it with someone who understands that you are just starting and is learning too so they will be patient. That's what Italki is just perfect for!


The great thing about Mandarin is that there are hundreds of people here that would LOVE to practice with you! Just make sure that you tell them that you don't need them to teach you, that you want a friend to practice with so that they will relax. I found that Chinese folks take studying and the idea of being responsible for your learning way seriously. If you let them know that you just have a list that you want to practice, I'm sure that you will have people lining up for you to speak with.


Good luck!  

August 5, 2014
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Language Skills
Chinese (Mandarin), English
Learning Language
Chinese (Mandarin)