Speaking Practice Redefined: why you should Talk to Yourself

In order to practice speaking even without a teacher or a conversation partner, turn virtually any study time into speaking practice.


Stefano Lodola


Learn to communicate through communication

If you don’t have a conversation partner, you can still talk with yourself
If you don’t have a conversation partner, talking with yourself still counts as speaking practice

Most language learners want to be able to communicate in real life.
However, their study time is often skewed towards grammar and translation, with little or no speaking practice. Typically, speaking is the most overlooked skill in their study schedule, be it because of lack of time or money to take lessons or do language tandems, or because they fear that it’s “too early to speak with people before I study up to a certain level”.

Too early to practice speaking?

Eat your veggies
Eat your veggies

A common advice you hear from polyglots is that you should speak from day 1. This is the one that separates successful from unsuccessful learners. You have to speak it from day One. You can’t wait until you’re ‘ready’ because that ready day will never come.

Traditionally, we imagine learning a language for years and then finally being ‘ready’ after learning so many words and rules. That day will never come. On the contrary, it is by practicing speaking that you learn how to speak. And it also improves other important skills like listening, reading, and writing.

If you have been studying a language for longer than a year and you haven’t gotten around speaking with a native yet (because of fear, insecurity, shyness, or else), I would thoroughly encourage you to make the small step necessary to make it happen.

As in a healthy diet you should eat plenty of vegetables, so should you base your study routine on speaking.

Practice your speaking
Practice your speaking

Speaking practice? Can’t I just read and listen silently?

Uh? What did I just translate?
Uh? What did I just translate?

I told you that I do translations. Well, I confess that I rarely remember the new words that I find in the documents I translate. I save them in the term base of the software I use to translate, but I don’t memorize them myself. That’s because I’m not reading them aloud (and also because they’re very boring documents). Reading aloud requires more involvement than silent reading and activates your brain in a way that silent reading doesn’t.

Likewise, passive activities like listening or watching only are much less effective than speaking practice in becoming fluent. If I am to read to learn a language, I always read aloud, even if it’s not required in the exercise or in the situation (tip: speaking to someone works even better. Go and pest someone with your new words! 😉

For this reason, you should always study where you’re allowed to talk. That’s why I’d never study a language in a library or in a common study room at school. For the same reason, I rarely listen to music or watch movies with the purpose of learning a language unless I can repeat what I hear.

Okay, but whom should I practice speaking with?

Find teachers and language exchange partners on in Italki for your speaking practice

Even if you can’t find people to practice your target language around you, you can still Skype a native speaker and speak to them to practice your language from the comfort of your home. You can actually learn to speak a language very well by doing it entirely via Skype.

That’s what I usually do myself. The vast majority of my lessons were with teachers I’ve found via Italki, in the largest pool of teachers possible. You’ll find that all the major languages are covered with a lot of teachers and exchange partners to choose between, and some minor ones have a couple of teachers.

If you have money to spend, go for professional paid classes on Skype. Else, you can still find a native speaker in the language you’re studying who learns your native language and teach each other on Skype.

The best place to find native speakers and teachers is Italki. Italki is an online language learning website which connects language learners and teachers through video chat. The site allows students to find online teachers for 1-on-1 tutoring, and teachers to earn money as freelance tutors. Italki connects over 2 million language learners and teachers worldwide for 1-on-1 lessons in any language, anytime, anywhere. With over 1000 teachers and 2000 community tutors teaching over 75 languages, Italki makes becoming fluent in any language easy, fun, and personal!
Once you find those people to practice with and learn from via Skype, then you have no excuse to not make progress as quickly as possible, with your speed depending on how many spoken sessions you get and how intensively you are learning.

How can I practice speaking if I’m alone?

Turn all your study time into speaking practice
Turn all your study time into speaking practice

In order to practice speaking even without a teacher or a conversation partner, I suggest that you turn virtually any study time into speaking practice. For example, by reading aloud everything you read, write, or hear.

Reading: whether you’re reading an article online, a novel, a textbook, or your own homework, read everything aloud. Some language learning apps like Duolingo or Babbel show you sample sentences but don’t prompt you to read them aloud, so people silently go through the drills and end up complaining that they forgot everything. The fault lies not in the learning resource, but in how they use it.

Writing: making sentences and short essays in your target language is very useful to elaborate the words and grammar patterns you studied and reflect about the language in general. However, to get the most out of it, never fail to read aloud while you’re writing, and read everything after you’re done writing. If you have a chance to have your homework corrected, also read aloud the correct version.

Listening: whenever you listen to music or the news, watch a documentary or a movie, make new words stick to your mind by repeating after the speaker, and possibly taking notes. Take your time to pause the music/video/audio if necessary. Don’t let those words come in from one ear and go out from the other. A Korean friend of mine would turn on the radio on an English-speaking channel and do stuff in the house. I’ve never heard her utter a sentence in English, and she has never made any progress. I experimented that myself.

“Turn all your study time into speaking practice”

You should also understand most of what you read or hear. When I was in Italy, while driving, I’d listen to a CD of children’s song in Chinese that I bought in Taiwan. I realized that didn’t improve my Chinese at all, because I couldn’t understand most of it. I could remember the melody, but not the lyrics. I had to read the lyrics, understand them and sing along to finally learn and remember. That’s because speaking practice (even alone) works much better than silent reading/watching by activating different areas of your brain. So, enjoy your audio/video entertainment, but if you want those lyrics/scripts to stick into your brain, understand most of what they say and sing/speak along.

Listening to Chinese children songs on the highway in Italy
Listening to Chinese children songs on the highway in Italy

Since the act of speaking gives a deeper impulse to your brain, adding speech to every study activity (reading, writing, and listening) also boosts the other skills involved, for example helping to memorize new vocabulary.

Can I seriously improve my speaking skills with no guidance?

Even if you’re alone, you can still have guidance! In fact, there’s plenty of audio courses that train your speaking skills. I personally recommend three courses that share a focus on speaking practice and teach through listening and repeating sample sentences: Pimsleur, Glossika, and Ripeti Con Me.

These courses are all based more or less loosely on the principle of spaced repetition, which means that you’re prompted to listen and repeat certain words and patterns at certain intervals. They’re all very intuitive, even too simple to be true: they show you how to say things. Linguists call this “comprehensible input”.

A hilarious example of learning through comprehensible input comes from a video game from the 90’s called Monkey Island. At one stage of the game, the main character, a young pirate, faces various veteran pirates in a singular duel. You win your opponent not by fencing, but by insulting him in a witty way and answering their insults in an even wittier way. In the beginning, you’re just at a loss as what to say and quickly lose the first fights. However, once you heard a witty line, you can use it against your next opponent. If he answers correctly you still lose, but at the same time, you also learn how you should answer next time. This way, you rapidly expand your repertoire until you’re able to outwit all your opponents. Replace insults with normal words in a foreign language, and pirates with native speakers, and you get the game of learning a language.

Pirate’s wit
Pirate’s wit

Conclusion: be crazy, talk to yourself

In conclusion, by broadening the meaning of “speaking practice” from “conversation with someone” to “just saying something in the target language”, we find out that there’s actually plenty of chances to practice speaking.

So, don’t care about what people might think of you talking to yourself in your room, in the street, or in the subway. Yes, you’re crazy, but only about languages.

Stefano Lodola

Meet your language coach

As a language learner, I was raised speaking only Italian, but now I speak nine foreign languages.

As a teacher, I’ve taught Italian to adults in language schools and universities.

I’ve lectured in polyglot clubs and coached students on their way to fluency.

I’m eager to share my secrets with you.

Stefano Lodola


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