Quite a few of my friends, colleagues, and even family members (cough, Aaron, cough) can "understand but not speak" a foreign language. I know that learning a language may not be top priority for everyone - and that's fine. But what gets my goat is when such "understanders" attribute their inability to speak to being bad at languages. Yes, I risk sounding like a jock by comparing language learning to weight lifting, but I don't think there is a better analogy to get my point across.
Have you ever seen a guy with a big upper body and skinny legs? If you've been to a gym, California beach, or music festival, chances are the answer is "yes". The reason for this muscular disproportionality stems from over-working one's upper body and neglecting one's legs. This isn't rocket science, it's common-sense.
If this logic is so obvious for weight lifting, why is it so difficult to apply to language learning? Learning a language is comprised of four components: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. One must work at all of them, consistently, without excuse. If you watch a lot of Spanish TV but rarely practice your spoken Spanish, you'll improve your listening skills but stagnate with your speaking.
These are not conjectures or obvious logical conclusions I've come to. While the science is complex, it can be distilled down to one conclusion: if you want to achieve fluency in a language, you must practice language's four components. Still don't believe me? See for yourself. The picture to the left highlights the fact that different parts of the brain -- much like different muscles in your body -- are responsible for language's four components.
When you first start learning a language, forging new neural pathways actually causes your brain to feel heavy and "worked". It hurts. It sucks. It's frustrating. Yet over time, things become easier, your confidence builds, and feelings of endorphins emerge. Learning a language and exercising are also similar in this respect - at the start, working out is hell for an unfit person, but an endorphin-rush heaven for those who do it regularly. This is especially true for language learning's "active" components, speaking and writing. The only way to master them, as Nike would say, is to just do it.
There is an abundance of reading and listening materials on the internet to practice any language. Chinese students can listen to British music, read a book by Australian author Tim Winton, and watch the Big Bang Theory whenever they'd like. Yet up until recently, they face relatively few opportunities to practice their oral English with native speakers. I also face this problem - I can download hundreds of apps to keep my German and Spanish fresh, but I struggle to find native speakers with whom I can practice. For these reasons, we've created NativeTalk. We're sure that NativeTalk will serve as an important tool for students to practice their spoken English. And, selfishly, I hope one day I can practice my German and Spanish on it.