Have you ever wanted to speak to someone in a language you’re learning but didn’t feel very confident? Maybe you suddenly ran out of words? Or perhaps you made a blunder, used the wrong word and embarrassed yourself? Anyone who is learning a foreign language has surely found themselves in a similar situation at least once. But, how do you handle it so that your first conversation with a native speaker goes smoothly? Fortunately, there are a few tricks I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone:
1. If you get the chance to talk to a stranger in the language you’re learning, try the method of American polyglot Moses McCormick. Moses is known for striking up conversations often on the street with people he can practice a given language with. During such talks, he noticed that foreigners usually ask about the same things: Where did you learn the language? Why are you learning it? Have you ever been to their country? So, the first piece of advice is as follows: Prepare for a conversation about the language you’re learning. You’ll find the following sentences useful: “This language is very beautiful,” “I want to visit this city,” “I am learning the language by myself”, “I have a good teacher”, “I’m learning the language every day”, “I’m learning the language at school”, etc..
2. Boris Shekhtman goes a bit further than Moses McCormick, providing several practical tips in his excellent book “How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately” that enable quick advancement to a higher level of communication in a given language. Boris, among other things, claims that speaking a foreign language requires effort, similar to swimming in the deep ocean. To succeed, we must occasionally gather strength, meaning we need to reach an island where we can rest. Therefore, we should create islands for ourselves, which are well-practiced topics that we can talk about without any problem. Such an island could be a conversation about our job, our country, our hobbies, etc. Whenever we have trouble keeping the conversation going smoothly, we just need to cleverly change the topic and “swim” to one of our islands.
3. When the conversation isn’t flowing because we’re missing words, let’s try to take the initiative and ask questions. It doesn’t matter whether we’ll be fully able to understand everything our interlocutor says, but at least we’ll make a good impression and have a moment to gather our thoughts and prepare for the next part of the conversation. While listening to our interlocutor’s response, let’s look for keywords around which we can prepare the next part of the conversation. For example, if we ask them, “What’s the weather like in your country?” and they start telling us at length that it’s always raining there, it’s enough for us to catch the word “rain” to understand the context and relate to it, saying, for instance, “When it rains, I like to stay at home and read books.” This will give us a chance to change the topic to one where we feel more confident.
4. Master a few useful structures well that will make your sentences richer. Some of them will allow you to build fluent statements without the need to learn complicated grammatical conjugations. This is primarily about automating:
- verbs: “can”, “must, “want”. In many languages, they combine with infinitive verbs, so if you forget how to conjugate a verb, you can simply pair it with one of them. For instance, if you don’t remember how to say “I will buy a book,” you can say “I want to buy a book,” and that’s it.
- structures that strengthen the statement, such as: “I think that…”, “I am sure that…”, “I don’t know if…”, etc.
5. We often get discouraged by the fact that someone corrects our mistakes or finishes the sentences we started, not giving us time to think about the next word. If our interlocutor does this, especially if they are a teacher, it’s best to ask them to remember our mistakes and discuss them with us after we finish speaking. This way, we will receive feedback, but our speech won’t be constantly interrupted, which helps us maintain our confidence in speaking.
6. Don’t force yourself to speak. Try to feel when the moment comes to start conversations with foreigners. Some of you, like Irish polyglot Benny Lewis, will want to speak in a given language from day one; others – like me – will prefer to first learn the basics and practice the language on their own before starting conversations with others. Both approaches are good. You just have to find the one in which you feel best.
The most important thing, however, is to believe in yourself and your abilities. Making mistakes is part of the process and we have to accept them.
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Article originally published at sekretypoliglotow.pl in Polish. You can find it here.