One exercise you can do to build up fluency in Chinese is practising on your own by grabbing a voice recorder or your phone, and recording yourself talking about different topics.
It may sound strange to 'talk to yourself', but it gives you a great 'controlled environment' to make mistakes and get more disciplined at speaking for longer, even if you don't have native speakers of the language around you who you can practise with.
It's a great exercise to choose a different topic each time and challenge yourself to speak in Chinese about it for a couple of minutes.
There are two ways you can go about this:
1) Try to speak directly in Chinese if you feel you already have some speaking ability in the language.
or 2) Record yourself talking for a few minutes about a topic in English or your native language and then play it back and try to say everything out loud in Chinese, pausing frequently to give yourself time to think. You can go through once pausing to look up words and then try to go through a second and third time without looking things up.
It's a good idea to do some preparation before you start speaking, by thinking through what you might want to say and looking up specific words or phrases that you don't know.
If you don't feel confident about saying complex things or longer sentences then just try to keep it simple and say the basic things about the topic.
This is important, because if you are learning a language from a book or a course, you'll probably be learning 'standard vocabulary' and phrases, which might not relate to your life.
Because many of us are not 'a student' or 'a teacher' or 'a businessman' or one of the standard things listed in the textbook…
You'll need to fill in the gaps in your knowledge by learning the phrases and vocabulary that are personal to you.
Just to give you an example, I like to play the drums and percussion, and that's not something you'll normally find in a Chinese lesson. But you can be sure that I've practised talking about it before, and the vocab relating to it.
Some of the topics you can pick include:
Your job, your position and responsibilities and describing exactly what it is that you do at work.
Why are you interested in Chinese/China? What got you motivated?
What aspects of Chinese culture are you interested in?
How long have you been studying the language? What is easy or difficult about it?
How have you been learning it and with who?
What travelling have you done in the country and what places would you like to go to?
Where you come from, what places you like to hang out and what you do there in your spare time.
Your life at home, studies, family etc..
What hobbies you have – learn to talk about each of them
Any places you might have travelled to and travel experiences.
Talking about what you did today, or yesterday
Life plans and what you want to do in the future
These are all really standard topics that people will ask you about in conversation that come up all the time.
It's just that most people don't have the discipline to think through all these topics and practise talking about them before they get into a real-life speaking situation and then they find themselves lost for words, and start to feel discouraged.
If you have practised most of these topics before, you'll actually find that when you start talking to native speakers more often, you'll actually have quite a lot you can say and it will come much more naturally.
Each time you do this exercise, try to speak constantly for 2-5 minutes in Chinese or the foreign language, even though it might seem very difficult at the beginning.
Nobody is going to be listening apart from you, so you don't need to be nervous and it's a good way to start practising.
You can then listen to the recording you made and try to analyse what you did wrong or what you didn't do so well.
It's very painful to listen to yourself speaking at the beginning, because you're probably not used to it, but when you listen back you'll notice many mistakes that you weren't aware of while you were speaking, because you were busy thinking about other things.
Pay attention to:
The sounds you were not pronouncing very well
The specific problems with tenses and sentence structures that you had
The specific words you were unable to say
You might have not known a word for something, so you had to say it in English or you had to make a guess and it was wrong.
You can now go and look up the words that you didn't know in the dictionary and then the next time you'll know them.
You can put the new words into your vocabulary software and continue to practice this vocabulary that you didn't know before.
Think about what kind of mistakes you were making and write down what the mistakes were, then the next time try to pay a bit more attention.
If you continue to make these recordings and to reflect on your mistakes and listen back then you can really get a lot of practice and improve very quickly.
Another thing that you can do is find a friend, a teacher or a native speaker to help you to listen to the recording and point out some mistakes.
It might be very difficult to listen to their criticism at the beginning, but this can really help you. If you don't have access to native speakers you can also find a friend who is studying with you and you can help to analyse each other's work and to listen to each other's mistakes and then you can learn from each other.
It's very important to be confident when you're speaking a foreign language and have things to say, because when you're speaking to a native speaker you might get more nervous or you might find it more difficult at the beginning. This technique can help you to build up confidence and get you ready for real-life speaking situations.
This process of actively trying to think through everything in Chinese, practising out loud, looking up loads of words and example sentences and then analysing and getting feedback was one of the key things that really helped me make a breakthrough with my Chinese speaking, and if you go about it the right way, you'll be able to make great progress with it too!