Speaking a foreign language: the complete guide

4th April 2020

How to prepare for your first conversations, find people to practice with and manage nerves and mistakes: everything you need to start speaking a foreign language!

Why do you want to learn a foreign language?‌

You might want to enjoy travelling more, connect with people from other cultures or get closer to friends and family members.

Come to think of it, you probably don’t want to learn it at all. You want to speak a foreign language.

This distinction is important, because most people focus too much on learning the theory, then feel disappointed when they can’t speak the language.

Speaking a foreign language is like swimming. Some theory can improve your technique, but if you want to get better at it, you need to get your feet wet.

This article will help you practice speaking a foreign language. You’ll find step-by-step guides on how to:‌

  • Know where to start and what to say.
  • Remember the most useful words and phrases, so you can start speaking sooner.
  • Stop worrying about making mistakes.
  • Deal with mind blanks - and impress natives at the same time.
  • Practice speaking with (and without) native speakers.
  • Find people to practice with.

Speaking a foreign language: getting started

At the very beginning, you’ll need to learn some basics so you know what to say when you start speaking.

Build a foundation

If you’re starting from zero, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel - get yourself a good beginners’ textbook or online course and start working through it.

When choosing your course, be sure to go for one that teaches you words and phrases that you’ll need in simple conversations. For example, I don’t recommend Duolingo, because the phrases can be quite random, like “you are my horse”. Which you probably won’t need in your first conversation (or hopefully not at all!)

When choosing which materials to use, here are some resources that you might find handy:

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced

The 15 best tools for learning Russian: from beginner to advanced

If your language isn’t there, here’s a general list of courses that focus on language for conversations:

  1. The coffee break languages podcast series (free)
  2. Michel Thomas
  3. Assimil
  4. Pimsleur
  5. Teach yourself
  6. Benny Lewis’s Language hacking series

The key here is not to wait until you know everything perfectly before you try to start speaking.

Theory and practice feed into each other:‌ when you practice speaking, you’ll get a better sense of how to use the things you’ve been learning in conversation - they’ll make more sense to you and you’ll remember them more easily.

Expect lots of moments where you find yourself needing a word or grammar point and thinking “ah I knew this!”

Then either:

1. Remembering it and using it in conversation (yay!)

2. Asking your speaking partner to remind you.

Both are good - forcing yourself to use something in conversation (whether you get it right or not) helps you learn and makes it stick better next time.

Be selective: learn what you want to say

Sometimes language courses tend to focus on lists of words, like sports and animals, that are not useful in the beginning. When was the last time you spoke about volleyball or elephants in a casual conversation with your neighbour?

When it comes to the more practical topics, like nationalities, jobs and family members, you probably still don’t need to learn all of them before you can have a conversation.

For example, it’s useful to know how to talk about your own nationality and job, because they’re normally the first things people ask about. And if you’re married with children, it’ll be handy to know how to say “husband”, “wife”, “son” or “daughter”.

But you probably don’t need words like “Russian” “cousin” and “nurse”, unless you’re from Russia, you’re really close to your cousin or you are a nurse.

You have my full permission to skip over bits of your language course. Take control of your own learning and prioritise words and phrases that you know you’ll need in conversation.

How do you know if a word is worth learning? Use the “tomorrow test” and ask yourself: at my current level, can I imagine myself using this word in conversation?

  • Yes? Go ahead and learn it.
  • No? Leave it for now. It’ll come back around again when you’re ready.

Remember common conversations

Hi, nice to meet you. Where are you from?‌ What do you do for a living?‌

Most conversations, especially with people you first meet, are quite samey. If you can memorise common questions and answers, you’ll be able to have your first simple conversation pretty quickly.

Here are some examples of typical questions that come up in conversations:

  • Where do you live?‌
  • Are you on vacation?‌
  • Do you like it?‌
  • Do you work or are you a student?
  • Why are you learning this language?
  • Are you a … fan? (questions about sports)

But remember, the expert on the kind of conversations that you’re likely to have is you! Personalise your learning to your own situation and focus on the words and phrases that you want to say.

Speaking mission 1: common conversations

Write a list of common conversations questions, and your answers. Then make an effort to memorise them by covering them up and testing yourself regularly (you can also use flashcards)‌.

Pro tip: memorise a short paragraph about yourself, with information such as where you’re from, where you live, your job and anything else important about your life. These things are likely to come up over and over again, and it helps to get them rolling off the tongue.

How can you learn how to say these things?‌ Start with a phrase book, or beginner’s textbook, and a good online dictionary, such as wordreference.com. When you get to the point where you need more specific help, there are a few different tools you can use:

  1. On HiNative, you can post questions and get answers from native speakers.
  2. On Italki, you can ask questions in the answer section, or you can post your whole paragraph to the notebook section, and a native speaker should come along and correct it for you.
Not sure how to say something?‌ On HiNative, you can ask questions and get feedback from native speakers.

These tools are really handy, but nothing quite beats meeting a native speaker to help you translate and correct your questions and answers.

At the end of the post, we’ll show you how to find them.

Deal with mind blanks… and impress native speakers

Why is speaking a foreign language so scary?‌ What’s the worst that could happen?‌

There are 4 things that can go wrong:‌

  1. You don’t know (or forget) how to say something. Cue awkward silence.
  2. You say the wrong thing.
  3. You don’t understand what they said.
  4. You get “Englished” - you try and say a sentence and they reply in English.

You’ll need to make peace with these things because they’re a normal part of learning a foreign language. The good news is, the more you practice, the better you’ll get and the less they’ll happen.

More good news - there are concrete steps you can take to step around these problems and make conversations run more smoothly, right from the start.

Learn phrases to keep the conversation going

The best solution to the conversation stoppers we just mentioned is to learn simple phrases like “how do you say this?”, “what does that mean” or “can you repeat please”?

They’re perfect for your speaking practice because they stop you from going back into English when a communication breakdown happens.

Here are some examples in French, Spanish and Italian:

6 French conversation phrases you need to know

13 Spanish phrases to ace your first conversation

The complete guide to having a conversation in Italian

If the language you’re learning isn’t there, you can ask a native speaker to help you translate these phrases into the language you’re learning. More on how to find native speakers at the end of this article.

Learn the “thinking” sounds

Speaking slowly, epicly long silences… it’s normal to be slow at first while your brain gets used to processing the new information. That’s what learning’s all about! Over time, things will become more automatic.

And even native speakers hesitate sometimes. In fact, spoken language is packed with ums, ahs, and little words like "you know", “so”, “actually”, "I mean", and "right".

These little words, called fillers, don't really change the meaning of the sentence, but they add to the colour and flavour and give the language its characteristic sound.

Consider an answer to the common question: "Where are you from?"

Without filler words, you might say something like this:

"London. A small town close to London. Are you from Paris?"

With filler words, you could say this:

"London... Well, a small town close to London, actually. You're from Paris, right?"

Fillers are often overlooked by language learners, but they’re a great tool because they make your speech sound more natural and buy you some more thinking time.

Here are some examples:

The complete guide to having a conversation in Italian

French filler words: 9 simple ways to sound more French (with French is Beautiful)‌

Spanish filler words: 19 small but powerful words to sound more native.

If the language you’re learning isn’t here, you can pick some up by asking native speakers to translate them for you. Keep in mind that it’s really important to be aware and listen to how they are used in the language you’re learning, because it might not be exactly the same.

The Easy Languages Youtube channels are great for this - the presenters interview people on the streets, so you get to hear lots of natural speech.

Easy German

Easy Spanish

Easy French

Easy Italian

Easy Polish

Easy Greek

Easy Korean

Easy Arabic

Easy Russian

Easy Turkish

And you can find lots of other languages on the Easy Languages Channel

Speaking mission 2: learn these phrases

Try to memorise as many of the words and phrases from this section as you can, but most importantly, practice using them in conversation, as this will make them more memorable. You can even bring them with you to your conversation practice sessions, so that you can get into the habit of using them when you need them - notes are allowed 😃

Stop worrying about your mistakes

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

JK Rowling’s words are perfect for those hoping to speak a foreign language:

It’s impossible to speak a foreign language without making mistakes, unless you’re so cautious that you don’t speak at all, in which case you’ve failed at speaking a foreign language by default.

You’ll make mistakes. Lots of them. And that’s ok.

Make friends with your mistakes

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil to be tolerated. You need them to learn.

They’re part of a feedback loop that works like this:

  1. Try to say something.
  2. Make a mistake.
  3. Get feedback on the right way to say it.
  4. Say it right.

The more mistakes you make, the more this feedback loop happens and the more you learn. Instead of seeing mistakes as something that you need to avoid, put yourself out there and try to make as many as possible - you’ll learn faster.

But won’t it be embarrassing to make mistakes?‌

The embarrassment around speaking a foreign language comes from expectations: how you think you “should” talk and what the person listening expects from you. Here’s a good solution to that…

Involve native speakers in your learning

Lots of people view language learning like a performance. You study the grammar and vocabulary first, then once you’ve got it all perfect, you can step out onto the stage and start having fluent conversations.

But languages don’t work like that. You have to practice, which includes making mistakes and looking a bit silly. You’ll never be able to hide the fact that you’re a learner, so there’s no point in trying.

When you get the chance to practice speaking the language, take the pressure off by lowering expectations. Start by saying that you’re learning and you’d like to try - this way the other person will be expecting mistakes.

A conversation isn’t a performance, it’s a team sport. This is especially true if you practice in a situation that’s set up specifically to help you speak the language, for example, in a conversation exchange or online tutoring. Give yourself permission to be a learner and ask for help and corrections as you go along.

Ask for corrections

The following phrases will help you get feedback in the language so you can check that what you’re saying is correct and learn from your mistakes.

1. Did I say it right?

2. Do you say it like that?

3. How would you say it?‌

4. Did that sound natural?‌

You can even ask your conversation partner to translate these questions for you, so you can say them in the language you’re learning.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Do you ever feel like you make mistakes because you forget things too easily in the language you’re learning?‌ Don’t worry, that’s normal!‌

Most people underestimate how important repetition is for learning a language. Research suggests that kids learning their first language may need to come across a word more than 20 times before it sticks. So if you get a word wrong 19 times, keep going. The 20th could be the winner!

Don’t get disheartened when you forget words and grammar, it’s a natural part of the language learning process. And don’t spend the whole time saying to yourself “I should have known that”. Those kind of self defeating thoughts will impede your progress.

Be patient with yourself, keep going and you’ll get there.

Learn how to laugh at yourself

You’ll probably make some embarrassing mistakes too. That’s all part of it - at least you’ll have a good story to tell.

When you’re learning to speak a foreign language, a good sense of humour is your secret weapon. If you know how to laugh at yourself, you can have some fun with native speakers and get them on your side. If you are laughing, you’re the one in control and those mistakes can’t intimidate you any more.

View this post on Instagram

One of the most important skills for learning a language is the ability to laugh at yourself. It's helped me survive many tricky situations, like that time I told a French man I was naked in London (nue à Londres) when I wanted to say born (née à Londres); Or telling everyone at the dinner table that English people eat penis puré (puré di pisello) instead of mushy peas (puré di piselli); That time I told my future mother in law that something was effing boring (palloso) when I wanted to say obvious (palese). When I have to pause before I say discourage (scoraggiare) so I don't say fart (scorreggiare) by accident. Or arse (cul) instead of neck (cou). Every time I forget numbers, days of the week, the alphabet, and months of the year in languages I'm supposed to speak well. And the hundreds, maybe thousands of times I've tried to say something and been met with an awkward smile because they didn't know what on earth I was on about. Arm yourself with a good sense of humour and let native speakers laugh with you - you'll never struggle to make friends! When was the last time you had to laugh at yourself when learning a language? Share in the comments! 👇

A post shared by Katie • Joy of Languages (@joyoflanguages) on

Speaking mission 3: reframe your mistakes

Write it down, say it aloud, tattoo it on your forehead, whatever you need to do to absorb this idea: mistakes are good. One way to see mistakes as a positive thing is to use them in your practice sessions as a learning tool. Set yourself a goal to make as many mistakes as possible and bring a notebook - write down the corrections and learn them before your next session.

Warm up to speaking a foreign language

The best way to get better at speaking a foreign language is to spend as much time as you can speaking the foreign language.

Simple in theory, but it’s not always easy to find native speakers on your doorstep. And let’s be honest, you’d probably rather keep putting it off, because it’s scary and you don’t feel ready.

The good news is, you don’t have to jump straight into conversations with native speakers. In this section, you’ll learn how to practice speaking in non-intimidating situations first, so that you can warm up for real conversations.

Practice speaking without a native speaker

When you’re making your very first steps in speaking a foreign language, you don’t really need a native speaker. You just need to practice grabbing all that grammar and vocabulary that’s floating around in your head and using it to form sentences. Check out this article for some simple ways to do this.

4 unconventional ways to practice speaking without a native speaker

Start chatting in a language online

Chatting online is a great way to ease yourself into speaking a foreign language. It’s similar to talking in real life, but people can’t see your face (unless you want them too) and the writing format gives you time to think about what you want to say. You can even use an online dictionary to find the right words as you chat.

Here are a few resources you might find handy:

1. HelloTalk

A bit like WhatsApp for language learners, you can use HelloTalk to find native speakers and set up a language exchange via text messages. There are some great tools for learners, such as a translation button to help you understand the messages. Once you get comfortable with texting, you can practice speaking by sending audio messages or meeting your language exchange partner for a video call.

2. Facebook groups

You’ll find lots of groups on Facebook where you can practice chatting with other learners and the moderators in the language you’re learning.

All you have to do to find them is do a quick search on Facebook - you’ll probably be spoilt for choice!

3. Instagram

There are some brilliant language teachers on Instagram who post things in the language and chat with their communities. Why not follow them and practice chatting in the comments?

To find these teachers, you can do a quick google search for “Spanish teacher Instagram” (insert whatever language you’re learning) or look on Instagram for hashtags like #learnspanish #learnarabic #frenchlessons #chineselessons...

Listen and read a lot

It’s difficult to learn how to have meaningful conversations by memorising phrases alone.

You’ll also need to spend lots of time observing how the language works in real life, through reading and listening. This will help you start to absorb common words, phrases and grammatical structures. When you read and listen to the language regularly, you’ll find that things will often “pop into your head” when you need them, helping you speak in a more fluid way.

Here are some tips for reading and listening in a foreign language:

Improve your listening in a foreign language: the ultimate guide

This tool makes reading in a foreign language dead simple

And here’s another link to the resources so that, if we have your language, you can find some good things to read and listen to:

The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced

The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced

The 15 best tools for learning Russian: from beginner to advanced

Speaking mission 4: make it your routine

These things are all good in principle, but to get the benefit you have to make sure that you’re doing them regularly. Take a moment to look back through this section and think of how you can integrate these strategies into your life and routine. For example:

  • If you normally go on Facebook when you’re on the bus, can you use this time to chat in a Facebook group in the language you’re learning?‌
  • If you listen to podcasts on your way to work, can you listen to podcasts or audio for learning the language instead?
  • If you watch TV in the evenings, can you spend a little time watching Youtube videos in the language you’re learning instead?

Speaking a foreign language: how to find native speakers

Time to get started with the (not-so-secret) strategy for learning how to speak a foreign language: hours and hours of awkward conversation practice.

There’s nothing quite like regular conversations, with native speakers, or someone who speaks the language better than you, to help you get better at speaking the language.

Where can you find these people? Let’s chat about that now:

How to find people to practice with

My favourite way to practice speaking a language is with an online conversation tutor. There are lots of advantages to learning a language in this way:

  • Great value: sometimes for less than $10 an hour
  • One-on-one: you get individual attention and lots more practice.
  • Low stress: you’re paying them to help you speak and they know you’re a learner, so mind blanks and mistakes are totally ok.
  • Perfect for busy people:‌ You can do the lesson whenever you want, from wherever you have an internet connection.

I use the platform Italki for conversation lessons, you can learn more about how to do that here:

Italki: the ultimate guide to learning a language with online tutors

If classes are out of budget, you can also use Italki to set up language exchanges. The Italki platform is a bit of a one-stop language learning shop, because you can also use the notebook section to get corrections on your writing and ask questions on the answers page.

Finally, if you prefer real-life contact, you can use websites like conversation exchange to find native speakers in your area and invite them out for a coffee or a beer - you might find you speak the language better after a glass or two!

What to talk about

Remember, it’s all about practice: no one expects you to be perfect already, or even good… yet! When you set up your conversations, you can even take along your notes - actually I’d recommend doing it.

Keep a notebook with your useful phrases and things you’ve learned recently and refer to them during the conversations. You can use the same notebook to write down feedback from your speaking partner or conversation tutor.

As for conversation topics and things to talk about, you’ll find lots of ideas in this post.

Italki: the ultimate guide to learning a language with online tutors

Look for the section conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

Do something now

Enough theory, time for some action - that’s what learning practical skills are all about! What’s one small thing you could do right now to help you start speaking in a foreign language? Scroll back through this article quickly if you need some ideas. Book a lesson, grab a notebook and write some essential phrases, sign up to hellotalk, join a facebook group… pick one small, simple thing and start now. When you’re chatting away in the language you’re learning, you’ll be glad you did!

Anything to add?

Have you tried any of the tips in this article? Do you have any more tips for speaking a foreign language that you think other learners might find useful? Share them in the comments.

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