cold corrections
How do you feel when someone puts you on the spot with a question?

Have you ever found that the words and phrases you’ve worked hard to learn disappear when you need them?

A question. You hear it. Perhaps you understand some of it, but haven’t got a full translation. There’s no sound coming from your lips. Your brain stretches to find the right words, but finds nothing. Time passes. Your cheeks begin to redden.

You feel like a novice.

It isn’t fair, you’ve worked hard

All that time sat behind your desk. The audiobooks you listen to in the car. The TV programmes you watch even though most of the time you’re not entirely sure what’s happening. You’ve done the studying, practiced the grammar, learnt your set phrases and yet, faced with a native speaker, you have nothing to say.

Well, it’s not just you

Speaking often comes up as a top cause of anxiety – even with people speaking in their own language. The biggest reason for this is that people believe that others are going to see them shaking, nervous and incoherent and think, what a fool.

Furthermore, when you’re speaking in a language you’re learning, you’re guaranteed to make mistakes, and unless your culture is greatly different from the British attitude that making mistakes is embarrassing, then you’re going to be uncomfortable with that reality.

You don’t need to apologise

Native English speakers tend to be insecure about speaking foreign languages. The truth is we rarely need to do it. In business, English is often the language of choice, and for the unsure tourist, many restaurants, hotels and tour guides cater specifically for the English-speaking market. Us native speakers have it easy.

The moment you apologise for speaking imperfect English, you’re bound to hear a hurried reassurance. Your English is probably much better than the native speaker’s ability to speak any language other than their own.

When I tell people their English is good, what I often mean is that it’s better than my French.

In classrooms, there’s often more emphasis on grammar than speaking

And if your English reading and writing is better than your speaking, you start to feel a gap. Not surprisingly, this makes you feel more frustrated every time you speak. What’s more, you’re acutely aware of grammatical mistakes because this has been what you’ve focused on.

Now grammar’s important. Things like articles, prepositions and tenses are necessary for sounding fluent. However, if you don’t say anything, you won’t get any message across.

In teaching, there’s a technique of using hot or cold corrections

A hot correction is made the instant the mistake is heard. You’d be stopped by the teacher and have to correct your speech there and then. This style of making corrections is useful for rehearsing a set speech, or making progress in grammatical correctness.

A cold correction happens later. The emphasis is put on letting the student speak, and continue speaking. Making corrections like this is the best way to encourage fluency.

How can you internalise this technique?

First, decide for yourself that you’re going to use cold corrections. Make sure you recognise that your goal is flowing speech, not perfect speech. Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

When you’re speaking, don’t seek out correction. If someone seems overly concerned with correcting you every time you forget an article or mispronounce a word, politely ask them to remember your biggest mistakes and tell you once you’ve finished speaking. If necessary, explain that you’re trying to focus on flow. Or that their corrections make it difficult for you to think.

Perhaps it sounds counter-intuitive to avoid corrections

But by putting taking the pressure off speaking perfectly, you’re getting more words said. By speaking quickly, even if what you end up saying doesn’t make sense, you’re saying words which must be better than silent blushing. It’s also going to sound and feel more natural.

As an experiment, listen to what goes on in your brain when you’re having a conversation in your own language. You aren’t second guessing yourself are you? And the words that you speak, I bet they’re not said with perfect grammar. Mine certainly aren’t.

To summarise:

  1. Speaking is terrifying for many people. Even people speaking in their own language. When we’re speaking we tend to worry about making mistakes and looking silly.
  2. When teaching spoken English there are two types of correction that can be make: hot and cold corrections. Teaching your internal critic to use cold corrections will improve your fluency.
  3. By taking the pressure off to be perfect, you can say more. Even if what comes out isn’t grammatically correct, or quite understood, it’s progress on saying nothing at all.

But just so you know, it’s not just you. I’ve had conversations in French where I’ve been lost after one question (a question like ‘do you like France’) and said nothing at all. Yet on other occasions I’ve managed to explain travelling to Egypt to a room full of French people without correctly conjugating a single verb.

Both scenarios left me feeling flustered. But the second left me more confident too.

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Article written by Catherine Oughtibridge.

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