You may have heard me say from time to time that if your highest priority is conversing in your L2, then conversation should be your most valued source for learning. I’m not saying it should be the only source, but pound per pound I believe it’s the best source.
To be fair, I think it does depend on what stage you’re in. Beginners may not have the skills required to do what I’m suggesting. Also, this stage goes by quickly and seems to be handled nicely by the wealth of beginner learning material out there. Advanced learners may already be very good communicators and everyday conversation might not tax them enough. In addition, they are much more likely to use native material to improve. The remainder is the period I’m talking about – the long intermediate slog. That’s when I suggest learners should really focus on conversation.
Here’s an example of what I’m recommending: taking notes during a conversation, writing down items your partner says that you don’t understand, writing down things you didn’t know how to say, and memorizing/reviewing these items before your next conversation. I’ve found this to be my single most effective exercise to improve my vocabulary and grammar in actual conversations.
But what about reading and listening? It probably doesn’t surprise you that I recommend reading transcripts of and listening to actual conversations. I think it’s more effective for improving your conversation than reading and listening to non-conversation items (news, books, TV scripts, text messages, etc). Don’t get me wrong – there is a time and place for reading and listening to those things and they are very helpful. I’m not going to get into the other items here; read and listen to everything but let the core of your method be conversations if your main goal is to improve your conversation.
The problem is – where do you get these conversations? You could have your personal conversations transcribed and recorded so that you could read and listen to them. That’s a good start, but it’s a pretty time-consuming task. Also, vocab/grammar would be limited compared to a conversation between two native speakers, so it may be better suited to the beginner period. And as I said above, the beginner period is handled pretty well with existing beginner materials.
That’s why we’ve created LT Conversations. These are conversations between two native speakers. We use a mixture of female-male, female-female and male-male for variety, but each conversation is between two native speakers and about six minutes long. We make 100 of these for each language selected, which gives you about 10 hours of reading and listening to actual conversations. I hope this will be enough to prepare the learner for real native material. To be clear, I’m not saying I expect the learner to understand native material completely after finishing LT conversations; my goal is that they will have the base needed to start to dig into native material designed by natives for natives. In theory, “learning” material should no longer be required.
While creating these, I had a hard time trying to figure out whether they were intermediate or advanced. I settled on intermediate mainly because it’s pretty much impossible to get people to talk to each other normally while covering the things I want them to cover, not talk on top of each other, not use loanwords and speak clearly without some reduction in difficulty. The voice actors tend to create some sort of script to satisfy all of my requirements, even though I’ve asked them not to. I could probably work with teams more closely and intensively to get a more advance product, but that would be more expensive and time consuming, so they are what they are. Good intermediate conversations.
Now I should mention that one of the sweetest things about these conversations is that they’re located in our reading tool already to go. Put your cursor over a word and a definition will pop up; click it and it will change state and color and you can add new definitions. This makes reading much more accessible. As I hinted above, this reading/listening is meant to be just a component of your learning method. I recommend that if you’re going to be memorizing and reviewing vocabulary and grammar you should get them from your personal conversations. But that’s not to say you can’t do it with these conversations - you can go into your own vocabulary database in the reading tool, manicure it, export it to anki etc, if that’s what you want to do. But I personally prefer to let the mouseover definitions and shading do the work for me, read as seamlessly as possible without too many interruptions, and put my memorizing and reviewing efforts into my personal conversations.
I’m going to list all the languages we've selected so far here, and let you know the status. These can all be found in the Reading Tool. You have to be a member to access them, but membership is free.
Swahili – 100 conversation (complete)
Cantonese – 100 conversations (complete)
Tagalog – 30 conversations (in work)