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I'm about to ask a question that's been on my mind since the day I started learning Russian. It has nothing to do with Russian in particular though.

When is the right time to start to talk to native speakers / people that speak the target language fluently?

I know that this question might not be easy to answer. Maybe not even possibly. But let me explain.

I started learning Russian at university about 4 years ago and made little to no progress since then because I never really committed. I took classes and made good progress, that I focused on my major again, stopped learning and so on and so forth. Now recently I started again and I'm still bothering with the typical "A1-stuff", such as "I have a sister, her name is...", "Do you have a dog?", "What's your name?".

So long story short, when I talk to a native, I might be able to talk to him for one or two minutes, but then we leave the ground of what I am capable of.

So - in your own personal experience - when will one be able to hold a basic conversation? Is it when you completed A2? Or is that still too basic? I need that for my motivation it seems...

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    If I understand your problem correctly, you are looking for a way how to improve your speaking skills from trivial A1-level conversations to higher-level, which would be more interesting to you, and to your partners. Am I right? – Peter M. Feb 25 '18 at 2:58
  • @Philip It seems you are asking two questions. My answer to the title question is "now" or "the sooner, the better." If you can find a native speaker to speak with, there are only upsides to doing that. As for when basic conversation will get easy: In Russian, likely not for awhile. There are simply so many variables in that particular language that even after about 5 years of serious study, including months of immersion, I am still unsure about how correctly I have said basic things. Although I am not an extremely gifted linguist, this is definitely not true for me with other languages – SAH Mar 13 '18 at 3:22
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I would estimate my Danish speaking skills to be around level A2, and I have had some basic conversations completely in Danish. It requires some cooperation from the other person; if they use too long sentences or speak too fast, then I will not be able to understand them.

In general, the question seems to be a bit backward. You don't first check if you have a certain level of proficiency, and then deduce whether you can complete a certain task or not.

The proficiency level you receive by testing or self-evaluation is an abstraction of what you can and can not do. A reasonable question would be "Can I have A2 proficiency in a language without being able to hold a conversation?", rather than "At what proficiency level can I have a conversation?".

To see a clear example of why the second question above is not so well formulated, consider the case of a native speaker who is illiterate (for whatever reason). They can hold a conversation at a native level, but what would be their European language framework level? It requires skills at reading and writing, also, so maybe the illiterate person would not even qualify for A1 level. Similar less extreme versions are easy to imagine. I know of mathematicians who can fluently read mathematics papers in French, German or Russian, but who have no capability to speak the language, for another example. Saying that they do not qualify for A1 level does not describe their skills particularly well.

  • I partly agree. Though I have to say that we're not talking about six year old kids or so. We're talking about learners and I think it's common to believe that you can tell when they will be ready to talk by distinguishing their language levels. So I think from that perspective it's valid to formulate the question like I did. Or do you disagree? However, you made a good point. Next time I'll keep it in mind! – Philip Feb 25 '18 at 16:03
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    I can already read newspapers and books in Danish, though my conversation is basic. I just happen to enjoy reading and do that a lot, so I learn it fast. Other people might enjoy listening to music or watching movies or series, and might improve their listening and oral skills faster. Language levels are a crude approximation. – Tommi Brander Feb 25 '18 at 19:30
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I think the time to start speaking is right now. 4 years is a very long time. You certainly know a lot more than I ever did before speaking ANY language. 38 years ago I was dumped in Croatian family with a vocabulary of 50 words on my side. 4 weeks later I was already able to talk about most household and fishing things. I live now 3 years in Central America and get along very well. Why..I just had to speak. Do it. Don't wait

I have just been told by the moderator that I should be more academic. The problem is that I'm not an academic, I am a simple mechanic and electronics engineer. My personal experience as a mere mortal may not be worth a light . I have no idea whether my English is a1 or z5 for instance. But I do know that I speak 5 languages which does not include the ones I only understand to some point like Serbian or Russian.

Luxembourg or Swiss nationals like Chinese or Indian citizens of Malaysia are very often proficient in 3 languages, not because they study in a different manner but because they speak 3 languages in their normal business.

Here in my daily life in the garage I often have to translate from US English to Spanish, neither is my own language.

And why do they ask me and not the others who have probably a lot more levels? Because I practise every day. Most Spanish students struggle to think about the right from of an irregular verb before they speak. I don't, I make mistakes and I learn. The boss will correct me at times and he will roll his eyes because I am still not very good with verbs. But I have learned so much from him.. and he is just another intelligent mechanic

So my advice would be NEVER miss an opportunity to speak

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    Welcome to Language Learning.SE! Although your message seems to be pretty clear (it is "do it as soon as possible"), the OP clearly mentioned the problem they are facing when talking to native speakers "right away". A good answer should address this point. Also, keep in mind that answers solely based on "common sense" are not very welcome; it is much better to ground your answer on solid academic research than on single person's experience or anecdotal evidence. Consider expanding your answer if possible. – bytebuster Feb 25 '18 at 18:54
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The Irish polyglot Benny Lewis would say that the right time is now. Benny did not speak any foreign languages by the age of 21, even though he had attended language classes (German and Irish) at school. After graduating, he went to Spain, and after "studying" Spanish for six months, his speaking skills still didn't go beyond "Gracias. Por favor. Adios." Then he decided to simply start speaking, and a few weeks later, he noticed he was doing practically everything in Spanish. (See his TEDx talk on Rapid Language Hacking.)

On his blog/website, he points out that

Studying will never help you speak a language, but (as long as you do it right) studying will help you speak a language better.

In order to learn to speak it ... you need to speak it. You need to get over the idea that every conversation you have with a speaker of your target language is a test you need to pass. You also need to get over the idea that you are "almost ready" but not quite yet. In fact, Benny Lewis says that the secret to learning another language quickly is to speak from day 1.

If you studied Russian at university for four years, you are definitely not at day 1. Speaking the language will activate many of the things you have studied. If you are not confident enough to dive in at the deep end, i.e. using your Russian in real-life situations, there are a few options:

  1. finding a tandem partner / language partner (possibly online) and/or
  2. going to a Russian language class and asking the teacher to teach the class entirely in Russian and give lots of conversation exercises.
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As others already pointed out, the time is now.

When starting speaking a new language, it could be difficult to break the ice. I use the following trick... I begin with ordering food in an ethnic restaurant/cafe where the native speakers work. Such approach has the following benefits:

  1. It's a short conversation with a limited scope and length.
  2. It's easy to memorize vocabulary and sentences ahead of time.
  3. It's a repeatable exercise that can be improved over multiple attempts.
  4. I talk to different people and learn variations in their pronunciation
  5. The ordering conversation is often followed by a small chat, which is less predictable. That's when I learn new words and topics.

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