This is a great question to answer for someone that’s learning a language for the first time, even someone with limited experience might not have a complete answer. My answer to this question has certainly evolved with time.
Nothing has had a bigger effect on my answer to this question than learning Mandarin Chinese.
Mandarin has such a distant vocabulary and writing system from the languages that I already know that it is taking a much greater amount of input for me to develop an active vocabulary.
What I mean by this is that, for instance, with Spanish I sometimes only need to see a word 3 times or less before I can confidently say that I know it in a given context. A big part of this is being able to recognize cognates related to words in Portuguese.
When it comes to Chinese I feel as though I need to see a character or set of characters 20 times or more while reading on LingQ before I can confidently say I know that character, there are occasional exceptions to this.
Once you know a word you then need to learn how to use it in conversation or speaking, but if your vocabulary is limited then maybe you don’t know enough words to formulate a wide enough variety of sentences to be able to hold a conversation.
In the case of my first foreign language, German, I didn’t make a serious effort to speak the language until several years after I began learning it. I took a lot of German courses at university, enough to add the subject as an additional major to my degree, but my opportunities to speak in class were limited and the discussion in class was not nearly as natural as it would be on a platform like italki.
My first German course started in August 2013 and my first italki class was in August 2018. This first class on italki was rough, I stumbled my entire way through the class. I was constantly thinking about grammar and whether or not I was using it correctly, but after a few lessons my speaking had clear improvements.
Practice was the key to improving my speaking in this case. In hindsight I clearly could have begun speaking earlier. If that’s the case, when should I have begun speaking?
Considering I didn’t know that italki or any platform like it existed in the first several years I studied German, it’s difficult to answer that question from a historical perspective.
For starters I would have done a better job taking advantage of the opportunities I had to practice. I did a 6-week study abroad in Germany in the summer of 2016 and I would have tried to engage more with the local people there if I were to do it again.
If I were to answer the question from present-day and compare it to the other languages that I speak I would put it somewhere in between the experience that I had with Portuguese and the experience I am having now with Chinese.
With Portuguese I began genuinely trying to speak the language roughly a month after I had started studying. I had been studying consistently for 30 minutes to an hour a day and my vocabulary was growing at a satisfying rate, but I think a month was too soon. It often happened that I didn’t have the vocabulary to communicate in Portuguese even when trying to express something in a creative way. Two months would have been a more appropriate time to start speaking.
However, this brings up an important point that if speaking is a more urgent necessity, then you could start speaking as soon as possible. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to communicate significantly though.
Speaking practice will make you more comfortable but it likely won’t increase your vocabulary to a large degree and it probably will have a minimal effect on your listening skills in a short period of time.
The reason I tried speaking Portuguese so quickly was partly because I had a trip to Brazil scheduled 3 months after I began studying the language. It helps you learn to engage with speakers of your target language, but for me it took me several more months to fluidly communicate with native speakers.
It’s also important to note that when I say speaking practice, I am exclusively talking about a conversation class.
Booking a class with a teacher to learn grammar or do basic exercises to introduce yourself to a language can sometimes be a great way to keep you motivated, however, I think this depends on your learning preferences.
I took some courses with a Portuguese teacher two weeks after I began studying the language but began taking speaking lessons a month into my time with Portuguese. That distinction should be clear.
If the recommendation to start speaking Portuguese is 3 months, then what is my recommendation for other languages?
For an American English native speaker, I would recommend the same for all other romance languages if you don’t already know one. If you already know one, then I suggest you start speaking much sooner.
I began learning Spanish in early June of 2021 and started taking classes on italki with a tutor a week into my journey with Spanish, within 2 weeks I was holding some degree of conversation. My recommendation in this case would be to wait a month to start speaking.
Circumstances can be different with closely related languages, given the overlap it’s easier to begin speaking sooner. If speaking a new language is something you really enjoy or you feel that you’re in a situation where it’s more urgent then by all means begin speaking when you have the desire for it.
And what about German? Being a Germanic language that’s become somewhat distant from English with time, it’s appropriate to wait a bit more time to start speaking German with a tutor. My recommendation is to wait 4 months before beginning to speak.
German syntax and grammar along with the more challenging vocabulary, once you hit the intermediate level, make it more difficult to build up confidence for speaking.
In my German university courses, the professors in the German department seemed to put much less emphasis on speaking and presentations compared to departments of romance languages, and more emphasis on writing. This makes sense to me as it’s much easier to become accustomed to a language’s grammatical structure through writing.
It’s difficult to give a recommendation as to when someone should start speaking Mandarin because I don’t feel that I have hit that point yet and may not for some time. I have already taken a few Mandarin classes on italki to help with my pronunciation and general knowledge of the language. At the time that I took them, I could utter a couple basic sentences without much thought. This was after several months of studying daily.
From a more positive perspective, I am seeing growth in my vocabulary with time. Learning new words is the most time-consuming part of learning a new language. With a language like Mandarin, for a native English speaker, patience is critical.
According to a study by the Foreign Language Institute it takes 2,200 hours of study time to reach a “general professional proficiency” in Mandarin Chinese. (You can find a link to the study here.) This is roughly four times as long as the time estimated to reach the same proficiency level in Portuguese.
If you take the recommended time before speaking Portuguese and multiple it by 4, you get 12 months or a year. Based on my knowledge of both Portuguese and Mandarin, a year seems like a fair estimate. A year before I will start practicing conversation in the language.
Summary of Recommendations:
These recommendations are under the assumption that you’re studying the language 30 minutes a day. This is recommended for anyone that wants to make serious progress in a language. These recommendations are from the point of view of an American English native speaker and are meant to be used as a general guide.
German –> start speaking after 4 months
Portuguese –> start speaking after 3 months
Spanish (with knowledge of Portuguese) –> start speaking after 1 month
Mandarin Chinese –> start speaking after 12 months
Some people find speaking to be the most difficult of learning a language. It’s easy to be nervous speaking a new foreign language for the first time, even for experienced polyglots. Knowing when you’re ready to start speaking can not only make for a more positive experience but also may save you time and resources.
In the end though, speaking and connecting with new people is one of the greatest joys of language learning. Don’t be afraid to try speaking your target language if you come across an opportunity. You will make mistakes, embrace them.