understand Italian but I can’t speak

“I can understand Italian but I can’t speak.” What to do?

You’ve been learning Italian for years. Diving into grammar and course books every day and every night. But the problem is still the same: you can understand it pretty well, but you can’t speak. How come?

It should be automatic, right? First, you learn and then you speak. But that is not how it works, and I’m pleased to tell you that, if you cannot speak Italian after years of study it’s not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you.

You simply didn’t know how to start doing it. And in this article, we’re going to see how.

How to start speaking Italian

Speaking doesn’t come automatically. And, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t come out after just listening for ages to the language. You need to start taking your words out, and it’s exactly what we’re going to see in the next few lines.

What do you already know?

First of all, let me ask you a question: what do you already know?

Really, which words do you already know? Which phrases do you already know? Which grammar features do you already know? What you know is an important first step. Because it’s thanks to your background knowledge that you’ll get to learn new things. And it’s the same type of knowledge that you can start to take out and bring to life in your conversations in Italian.

So, before choosing any topic that you want to talk about, make sure that you know the words and phrases that you will need to use to talk about that specific topic.

can understand Italian but I can't speak

Techniques

Let’s now see some techniques to help you take your words out and start speaking Italian. These are just a few techniques that you can use even without a teacher.

Sure, if you choose to work with a teacher, you can get valuable feedback and support, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot do a good job even by yourself or with the support of someone else that you trust.

Now, without any further ado, here are some techniques to help you start speaking Italian.

Read aloud

Choose a passage to read. Read the first sentence silently, then raise your head and repeat it out loud without looking at the page. Do the same thing with the second, third, and following sentences. You can even do it with a friend and have fun telling each other what you’re reading.

Remember that I said that background knowledge matters? Well, it’s true for this activity too. So, choose a passage that you already know well or that you can read easily without having to check your dictionary every two seconds.

Listen and repeat

Choose a conversation that comes with a transcript. Listen to it once entirely, then listen to it line by line. Pause the audio track after each line and repeat what you heard. Do this until you know the conversation by heart.

Memorizing sentences will help you have them ready when you have to speak in real life.

can understand Italian but I can't speak

Write

Take some time to think about what you want to say and then write it down. It will give you the time to think more deeply and go beyond your usual set of words and phrases.

You can also write dialogues with new words or expressions that you have learned. This way, you will remember your new words better. And you can even exchange text messages with a friend.

Don’t forget to read your dialogue out loud and practice it to get ready for real-life conversations.

Prepare yourself

Prepare a short presentation. You can write everything down and read it out loud, but if you want to become more independent from your script, you can just write some key points and maybe some useful phrases that you would like to use. After that, you practice your presentation. Even ten minutes of preparation can be enough, and they will also help you speak more fluently and with more complex sentences.

You can also imagine you’re having a conversation with a real person that you can picture in your mind. You can speak in your mind but also out loud (that actually would be even better). This technique is great because you get the chance to change your sentences as many times as you want until you’re happy with them.

can understand Italian but I can’t speak

If you want to take your words from your head to your mouth, as I like to say, you can also try and retell a story that you read or listened to. This way, you won’t have to think too much about which words to choose because you’ll already have them and you will work on something that you already know. In other words, less pressure on you.

Do some fluency practice

Do you remember the 4/3/2 technique that I mentioned in a previous post? Well, don’t forget to include it in your practice. If you make your words become more automatic, it will be easier for you to use them when you have to speak Italian in real-life conversations.

Start small

You might be scared at the idea of speaking Italian, and that is ok. If you’ve never done it before, it can indeed be scary. So, if you want to practice with someone, start with a situation where you feel more comfortable and less pressured. Maybe talk with a friend or someone that you trust. Once you feel comfortable in that situation, you can move on to a more challenging one, as I explained here. Just remember to be honest with yourself and to go with something that is a good fit for you.

To sum up…

So, if you ever find yourself saying “I can understand Italian but I can’t speak”, remember that peaking doesn’t come automatically. You need to take your words out. And some techniques to do it are:

  • Reading aloud
  • Listening and repeating
  • Writing
  • Using some preparation time
  • Adding some fluency practice
  • Starting small

Always remember what you already know and start from there. Start with what you know and then take it out.

Over to you, which technique are you going to try first? Let me know.

References

Lethaby Carol, Mayne Russell, Harries Patricia, An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom – Theory and Practice, Pavilion ELT, 2021

Nathan Ducker, Oral communication practice for students who read too much in presentations, The Language Teacher – Issue 35.5; September 2011, Available at https://jalt-publications.org/tlt/departments/myshare/articles/1143-oral-communication-practice-students-who-read-too-much-present

Nation Paul, Newton Jonathan, Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking, Routledge, 2009

Nation Paul, What do you need to know to learn a foreign language? School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand, 2014

Oakley Barbara, Rogowsky Beth, Sejnowski Terrence Joseph, Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn, TarcherPerigee, 2021

Thornbury Scott, How to Teach Speaking, Pearson Education ESL, 2005

Thornbury Scott, S is for Speaking (1), An A-Z of ELT, Scott Thornbury’s blog, available at https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/s-is-for-speaking/

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