Speak from day 1?

One on the most debated topics in language learning is if we should speak from day 1, or if it's better to wait and build up our vocabulary first. In this post, I am going to break down the pros and cons of each, as well as my personal take on things.


Speak from day 1


The idea behind speaking from day 1, is that in order to get good at speaking a language, we have to speak a lot. There is no way around that. And too many of us wait until we are "ready" to start speaking. If we find a nice tutor or partner online, and equip ourselves with a good dictionary along with google translate, we can start speaking right from the very first day. The idea is to get out there, and make as many mistakes as possible in order to learn and use the language right from the start.




The first major advantage to this is that it gets you over the hump straight away. A lot of people are scared when it comes to speaking a foreign language, apprehensive they aren't ready or don't have enough words, that they are going to make mistakes and make a fool of themselves. Of course, this is always much worse in our heads than in reality. Speaking from day 1 gets us over the hump, out of our heads and speaking from the very start. So all that's left is to keep practicing and gradually improve.

Another major advantage point, is that in order to speak about yourself, you are going to look up and learn the words that are most useful to you straight away. Instead of just learning from a textbook, you are learning words that are relevant to your life and you can use straight away.

Another point is that if we are speaking on a regular basis, especially as a beginner, we can easily see and track our improvement. If on day 1 we can barely get out a few words, then after a month if you able to have basic conversations, this is extremely motivating. You can feel a real sense of progress and accomplishment. And this in turn will breed more success and more motivation.

Speaking also helps identify the gaps in your knowledge, and it helps you to notice. You are more likely to remember a pattern in your listening and reading if you have used it before in conversation or has someone corrected you. This can help you target your weak areas and give you a more directed approach to learning as opposed to working your way through a textbook with no real game plan.




The major disadvantage to speaking at day 1 is that it can be very frustrating and difficult. With next to zero known words and an extremely bad comprehension of the language, everything your teacher or partner will say, will just sound like a bunch of random sounds. Most tutors in this position will switch to English and try and teach you the language instead of just speaking with you, and this is an incredibly inefficient way to learn.

Because you will be straining your  brain, struggling to think of words or understand anything, this could give you very negative associations with the language you are trying to speak and the first few weeks could be demotivating. Unless you are one of those people that can just slog through, then this can be very disheartening and in the worst case could just make you give up all together before you even really started.

Another major danger of this approach is ingraining bad habits. You will be making so many mistakes when you first start out, your teacher won't be correcting everything you say and will be doing all they can in order to keep the conversation going. Because of this, you are likely to make the same mistakes over and over again, and this could become ingrained and result in you having to put in extra work to "unlearn" these things later down the line.


Waiting to speak

The whole point behind this approach is simple, when we first start learning a new language we don't have enough words to speak. Speaking from the start is unnecessarily difficult, and even if we can string a few sentences together, we won't be able to understand what the other person is saying. Therefore, the number one priority when starting a new language should be to build up your listening comprehension.




The main advantage of this is that not speaking from the start allows you to focus all of your attention on comprehension. You can spend all of your time listening & reading, building up your passive vocabulary and comprehension of the language. This means that when we finally do get around to speaking, we understand a lot more of what the person is saying and have a significantly higher chance of engaging in a successful conversation.

Also, because there is an enormous emphasis on input, this means that when we do finally speak, we would of absorbed and got used to the sounds of the language. This means that we are much more likely to have good pronunciation when we start speaking. Not only that, it also gives our brain time to get used to all the new structures and patterns in the language making you more likely to speak with correct grammar and less likely to fossilize mistakes from speaking too early.

Also, because your passive vocabulary will be relatively large when you start to speak, all you need to do is activate the words you can already understand. As a result of this your speaking ability will improve much much faster than if you simply spoke from the beginning.




The main disadvantage of waiting to speak is that if you keep on waiting until you are "ready", you may never start. The majority of the time, we don't feel ready or confident until we start to actually speak and practice, and putting this off can encourage you to keep doing so and end up never actually speaking at all.

Also, if you are not speaking the language yet, and an opportunity comes up for you to practice, you will most likely squander it. Whenever you first start speaking a new language, no matter how good your comprehension is, it is going to be hard. And unless you are used to speaking, then if an opportunity presents itself you will mostly likely just waste the opportunity and end up not saying much if anything at all.

Another major disadvantage is without some form of output, it becomes much harder to identify where your gaps are. You won't learn words and phrases that are relevant to you at the start, and you will mostly likely just miss out incredibly common words that just happened to not be in the particular book or course you chose to study with.

In addition, output helps us to notice. If we make a mistake and get corrected on it, or hear our tutor/partner use it in conversation, next time it comes up in our listening and reading we are much more likely to pick up on and pay attention to it. This cycle of hearing it, using it then hearing it in context over and over again is an incredibly powerful way to learn new words.


My Approach

Now I have covered what I think are the main drawbacks and benefits of each approach, I will go over my solution. The main drawback from speaking from day 1 is that you simply don't have enough exposure or words to carry out a successful conversation. You won't understand what they say, and you will most likely ingrain bad habits. The main drawback of waiting, is that unless you set a target, you may keep waiting until you feel "ready" to start speaking and never get round to it.

Therefore, I think it is best to start speaking early on, but not from day 1. Set a goal for when you want to start speaking. For me, I usually set the goal of 1 month after I start learning a new language, and leading up to that point all of my energy and effort goes into building up my comprehension and understanding of the language. If you don't want to set the goalpost in time,  you can set a goal to speak when you reach a certain number of known words if you are using a  system like LingQ, or if you are sentence mining on a flashcards app like Anki you can set the goal of speaking when you reach a certain number of sentences in your deck.

Whatever you decide, by setting a goal you are removing the danger of waiting until you feel ready, while still allowing you to focus on building up your comprehension and understanding of the language in your initial stages.

When I do start speaking I typically do 2-3 one hour sessions on italki a week to compliment my normal study, however the main focus still is on listening and reading in order to build up my comprehension of the language.




I think this offers the best balance of both sides. You are speaking early and will get in the practice at speaking and learning words relevant to you but not so early that you can't even contribute to the most basic conversation.

Speaking 2-3 times a week on italki, is long enough to get serious practice and improve, but it is short enough as to not take over your other study and to maintain doing it as part of a sustainable routine over the long term.

Weather you speak on day 1 or wait, or if you follow my approach, the main focus is still on building up comprehension and speaking is only to supplement that.

Follow the fun, if you enjoy speaking from day 1 and makes you feel a sense of progression and accomplishment then do it. If you are not comfortable then build up your comprehension first, but remember not to wait too long and set a goal of when you will start to speak.

What do you think do you speak from day 1 or are you more comfortable with waiting and building up your passive vocab first?