Why Practicing Speaking a Foreign Language Will Help You Understand It Better

Modified on by Andrew Cohen

Speak like a native: pronunciation

If you are seriously attempting to learn a foreign language, someone has probably recommended that you watch movies, read books, or listen to music in that language in order to speed up your learning.  Well, if you are already an advanced learner on the brink of proficiency, they are probably right.  But if you are a beginner or intermediate learner, you will be much better served by actually practicing speaking that language, no matter how badly you speak it.

Why Trying to Speak a Language Makes You Learn It

A Natural Way to Self-Assess

Contrary to claims made by popular “total immersion” programs, the trick is to use conversation or translation to help elicit words and phrases from your existing bank of knowledge (or just beyond it).  A live conversation is ideal, as it will challenge you to produce intelligible sentences from scratch, while providing immediate feedback (and hopefully correction) from the native speaker.  Translation, however, can be almost as effective, as it solicits specific phrases in the target language and then gives you automatic feedback when your translation is eventually corrected (either by an instructor, a native speaker, or a language software program such as Brainscape).

Actively producing phrases or sentences in the target language is an effective learning exercise since it prompts learners to “recognize consciously some of their linguistic problems” (Swain, 2005, p. 27). In other words, production, particularly when accompanied by corrective feedback, is useful because it allows you to better assess your own confidence in how well you know each concept, thereby facilitating optimal learning techniques such as confidence-based repetition.

Incremental Feedback

There is a significant body of research supporting the idea that production helps improve metalinguistic analysis and mental refinement of grammatical structure (Toth, 2006; Russell & Spada, 2006). Izumi et al (1999) further illustrate the extent to which production practice leads to improved performance on production-centered post-tests. Participants in their experiment were instructed to generate their own written response to a given prompt, followed by exposure to a model response written by a native speaker. Results suggested that the opportunity to produce one’s own response before exposure to the model leads to significantly greater post-test scores.

Izumi et al.’s (1999) finding is interesting given that participants were provided feedback in only one large chunk (i.e. exposure to the entire passage) rather than incremental corrective feedback for each sentence as it was written. Research by Corbett and Anderson (2001) suggests that the Izumi et al. experiment’s performance enhancements could have been even greater if the learners had been given more frequent feedback on their correctness. The idea of regular feedback has become a standard feature of most modern educational software and video games.

Using Brainscape Can Help

Brainscape is perhaps the most effective tool available to practice such production/feedback in a convenient, modular, mobile fashion.  Although it does not require the user to manually type a translation for each cue, it does essentially provide sentence-by-sentence feedback by revealing the correct sentence construction (and audio supplement) immediately after the learner has attempted to mentally generate it herself.

This is as closely as an autonomous technology can approximate the experience of conversing with that ideal native speaker who provides validation after every sentence uttered. Seeing/hearing immediate feedback, along with a grammatical explanation of the new concept, helps the Brainscape user provide a more accurate confidence assessment and therefore a more optimal interval of time before that concept is reviewed.


Corbett, A.T., & Anderson, J.R. (2001). Locus of feedback control in computer-based tutoring: Impact on learning rate, achievement, and attitudes. Proceedings of ACM CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 245-252.

Izumi, S., Bigelow, M., Fujiwara, M., & Fearnow, S. (1999). Testing the output hypothesis. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 421-452.

Russell, J., & Spada, N. (2006). The effectiveness of corrective feedback for the acquisition of L2 grammar. In Norris, J.D. & Ortega, L. (Eds.), Synthesizing Research on Language Learning And Teaching (pp. 133-164). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Swain, M. (2005). The output hypothesis: Theory and research. In Hinkel, E. (Ed.), Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp.471-484). Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.

Toth, P.D. (2006). Processing instruction and a role for output in second language acquisition. Language Learning, 56(2), 319-385.

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .

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