Autonomous Learning in Action Series #3 – Active Speaking Practice

The Problem

I’ve been quite the language learning slacker for the past few weeks.


Sure, I can make excuses. I got a new job. It was holiday time. We had friends visit from abroad. My French class was on break anyway. I’ve got loads of excuses. But I don’t want excuses. I want proficiency in French!

However, when my French class started up again after 3 weeks break, I started making more excuses. There were two new students in my class, and when they introduced themselves, the rest of us looked at each other in surprise at how these newbies were speaking with such ease when we all still struggle to answer the most basic questions. Surely they’ve been placed in the wrong class! Well, they work with French people, so they have opportunity to practice. This teacher doesn’t give us enough time in class to practice. Oh how easily excuses roll off the tongue!

But again, I don’t want excuses. I want French rolling off my tongue!


So I have to tell myself the truth. My new job doesn’t take up that much of my day, I had plenty of time during the holidays, friends weren’t with me 24/7, and a break in class shouldn’t mean a break in learning. Also, those new students in my French class simply practiced more, I have plenty of opportunity to speak (maybe not with native speakers, but with a recorder or a mirror), and the teacher only has so much time in a lesson. It is expected that students practice outside of class. Let’s face facts. I was a slacker. Now I’m envious. So I kicked myself into gear. Nothing wrong with a little competition.

tongue tied


This speaking practice was a lot harder than I thought it would be. When I do the listening practice, it’s fairly simple. I just keep listening until I understand. But this speaking bit – this really surprised me! I thought if I listened enough, I would be able to speak, but that isn’t true. If I am a passive learner, I don’t listen carefully enough to learn those subtle aspects of pronunciation that really make a difference between being understood or not being understood, and I am not gaining the skills I’ll need to speak out loud.  I’ve listened to the chapter 12 times, and still when I try to repeat just one sentence, it’s really HARD!  It doesn’t matter what I THINK I can do in my head. When I actively use my vocal chords to speak, my brain gets all mixed up, my tongue seems tied in knots, and the French R?? Yeah, right. Even just trying to read aloud, I can’t seem to do it, especially when I try to read as fast as the reader.  So here’s what I did to give me practice, as well enough success to maintain my dignity and motivation.

The Strategy

I chose a short passage out of the same audio book I am currently listening to: Crime à Cannes by Christian Lause, and I am concentrating on that short section. When I do my listening practice, I listen to the whole chapter, but that proved to be too much for speaking practice. Here’s what I did with the passage.

Step One

audacity pic

I recorded just the section I wanted in Audacity and exported it as an MP3 (Audacity is a free audio-editor and recorder for both Mac and PC). The quality is not great, as I simply played the book in iTunes and recorded it using the built-in speaker on the computer, but that doesn’t matter. If I can hear it, it’s good enough.

For anyone who is interested, this is the script:

  • Allô, Nina?
  • Oui, bonjour Alex. Ça va?
  • Ça va, ça va…
  • Dis-moi: quel est le problème?
  • Eh ben voilà, en fait, on a besoin de toi ici, à Cannes?
  • Qu’est-ce qu’il se passe?
  • Le problème, c’est que non seulement on doit faire des interviews mais en plus on doit enquêter sur en meurtre.
  • Je suis désolée pour vous mais tu sais bien que je suis en vacances.
  • Mais Nina, quelqu’un est mort et Dulac nous demande de faire une enquête. C’est très sérieux!
  • Ah, vous les hommes, vous paniquez vite. Bon, d’accord: je vous donnerai un coup de main. Dites-moi où vous logez.

Step Two

Next, I played the MP3 while I recorded myself with Audacity repeating what the reader was saying. I paused the MP3 after each sentence so I could repeat it.

Here’s my example. The audio isn’t very good. That isn’t the point. The point is the practice.

Step Three

Practice! Practice! Practice! If you listened to my example, you couldn’t help but notice that I’m not very repeat buttongood – YET. So I kept practicing. Repetition is the key. Keep practicing until you feel like you sound fairly close to the MP3. I probably practiced each sentence 40 or 50 times before I attempted to record again. I had to listen over and over again to try to train my mouth to say it the way the reader did.

Step Four

I played the MP3 straight through without pausing and recorded myself trying to keep up with the reader.

Here’s my example.

I know. I know. I’m still not very good, BUT I am getting better! This is the thing, I practiced and listened and repeated multiple times, and still, I’m hesitant and don’t sound very French. So imagine if I’m not practicing like this! How would I EVER get good? If I only practice in class, I won’t be repeating something 50 times. I’ll say it once or twice. Clearly, this skill is up to me and it’s far too important to be left to chance.

Learn Practice Improve Words 3 Red DiceThis is why it is so challenging for those of us who are learning languages in countries where the language we study is not the language that is spoken. We don’t get enough opportunity to be ACTIVE learners and USE the language. So we have to fake it. With an audible book and Audacity, we can simulate real conversation. That way, we will be FAR more prepared for the real thing when the chance comes along, AND we will make better use of our class time because we will be more likely to speak, make mistakes, get feedback, and more quickly become the confident speakers we dream to be!

No more excuses. I’m off to practice.

If you’re interested in trying this strategy, I gave links to a few free English audible books at the bottom of my last post, which you can find here.


About the Author
Lori Michele Kelley

Lori has Master’s degree in TESL and has taught English and Intercultural Communication in the United States, Turkey, South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand. She also develops and conducts teacher development workshops for both pre- and in-service teachers. Riding pillion on backroads with her husband Michael Kelley in the tropics and wherever else there are good roadside coffee shops is one of her favorite things to do. She’s also quite fond of the water and made her husband promise they could live on a houseboat someday.