As I promised in my post describing my language learning method, Synergy, I’d like to start topics expanding on the way I learn the 7 facets of languages - conversation, grammar, listening, pronunciation, reading, vocabulary and writing. This first expansion is about conversation.
I have seen one poll, and have heard it mentioned often in the forums that conversation is the most coveted goal of language learners. Of course there are some learners who rank it lower, and some who don’t learn it at all, but overall it’s number one. It’s easily number one with me, and over the years I’ve been trying different strategies to improve my conversation techniques. Below I will recommend how speaking and conversation fit into Synergy, but first I will give you my background with them so you can see how I arrived at these conclusions.
My background with speaking and conversation. When I was a child of 11 living in Ecuador, I took Spanish classes at an English medium grade school. We spoke a little bit, but it was mostly grammar. I had some interaction with locals, but I wasn’t anywhere near being immersed in the language. I took Spanish for three years in highschool in the US, but still remained a mediocre speaker. I had a Spanish speaking girlfriend, made several trips to Central America, and finally wound up marrying a Panamanian. My Spanish improved a lot in the short two years we were married. I’m sure we talked hundreds if not thousands of hours. I reached about a C1 level. The lesson I take away from this is that it takes many hours to become a good speaker.
The next language I learned was Swahili. I studied it hard for 3 months, then just relied on conversations with villagers to improve my language. Again, my job was in English, so I wasn’t even close to being immersed. I got some conversation with locals. After my 3 months of training I was probably A2. By the time I left 3 years later, I think I was B1. I’m sure I had several hundred hours of simple conversation. This is where a more systematic approach would have helped me. Relying on passive improvement is very slow.
I learned Thai for 9 months, went to Thailand and failed at conversation. I took some classes while I was there, and tried to talk for several dozen hours, but wasn’t understood because of my poor pronunciation. When I got back, I decided to try a conversation tutor. I put an ad in the newspaper, and wound up meeting with a lady 5 hours a week for about 2 months. We only spoke Thai about 15 minutes out of the hour, but it made a big difference because she understood me and we worked on my pronunciation. That was my first long term experience with a conversation tutor, and it’s something that I decided was a very good.
With Japanese, I decided to hire a conversation tutor after only 4 months. This was a little scary for me, but I plunged ahead. Unfortunately I had a huge problem, and that was almost no listening skills. So the sessions with the tutor were painful for both of us. After about 6 weeks I went from 5 hours a week to 1 or 2 hours a week. I finally started to listen to Japanese on a regular basis, which really helped. I visited Japan for the first time after 18 months of study, with very little conversation practice. I wasn’t great, but much better than my first, and even second visit to Thailand.
When I got to Mandarin, I had already begun reading the forums, and had a solid learning plan. My friend was going to get married in China in 9 months, so I was going to go to the wedding and hopefully speak some Chinese. I started out with pronunciation, and took it very seriously. It was a tonal language like Thai, so I didn’t want the same pronunciation disaster. After completing Pimsleur, I had about 3 months to go, and hired a Skype tutor. We met 5 days a week for 1 hour. She emailed me a short recording of all the new things covered during the lesson. They were sentences containing the new vocabulary. I only listened to them once, because my time was limited. I used a syllabus to cover a wide variety of topics, found in Kick-starting Your Language Learning. When I went to China I could talk, but not very well. Not quite as good as my first trip to Japan. The problem wasn’t the method imo, but the fact I had so few hours of conversation in. I probably had about 50 hours. But I had developed a very systematic way of using a conversation tutor, and I learned how important it was to be organized with them. The recordings were a nice try, but I don’t do this anymore because I’ve found using media and keeping tutors focused on conversation is more efficient.
I did just about everything right with French, including my usage of tutors. Halfway through Pimsleur, 2 or 3 months into my French studies, I started to converse with a conversation tutor. I started out speaking relatively well, since my Spanish helped. In fact, about 50% of my French was Spanish at first. It took me about a month to get the Spanish out of my conversation. When I went to France about a year later, I was conversing at about B1, and understood just about everything important. The biggest mistake I made with French was to stop studying it so early. I haven’t studied it since then; just maintained it. I learned a lot more about how to use tutors effectively though.
With Russian, I had a very good learning plan, including the way I handled conversation. This is essentially the plan that’s detailed out in Synergy. I started to converse about 3 months into Russian. My results weren’t as impressive as with French, but Russian is a much harder language, and should be compared with Japanese and Mandarin. I had a much better beginning in Russian than either of those two.
I converse regularly in 8 foreign languages these days. I used to use language partners rather than tutors, because it’s free and it’s often more fun and less stressful than working with a teacher. But now I’ve switched to using conversation tutors most of the time because they save me time and prices are more reasonable these days. I use Skype, and hire most of my teachers here. I have been working with tutors and language partners for a long time now, and will give you some recommendations about them below.
Now let’s summarize and see how this fits into the big picture.
In steps 1 and 2 of Synergy, it’s required to learn correct pronunciation. So right from the very beginning, you are practicing speech. I’ve found it’s not practical to start with conversation when you know absolutely nothing. When you do this, you are basically forcing your tutor to speak a lot of L1 and teach you grammar, which I think is very inefficient. There are many really good, simple beginner programs that will do this much better than any tutor I’ve ever had, so you should take advantage of them.
Anyway, continuing on with what Synergy describes, first you practice isolated sounds until you can make them correctly. Then you move onto words, and finally sentences. It is crucial that you nail down the pronunciation first for the following reason - when you start to read, whether out loud or not, if you have incorrect pronunciation you will reinforce and fossilize it, making it time consuming and possibly even impossible to completely correct down the road.
In step 3 of Synergy, you are ready to converse. This is when you are roughly halfway through Pimsleur, and have some listening, reading and vocabulary under your belt. Imo, this is the earliest practical level to have a regular conversation component in your learning plan. Step 3 is a very big step, with a lot of things going on, but keep in mind that conversation is your number one goal.
Learning vocabulary and sentences from conversation is the best way to improve your conversational vocabulary and sentences. It probably sounds obvious, but very few methods take advantage of this. More traditional methods are less direct and less effective, imo. For example using textbooks and other sources to learn grammar and vocabulary, hoping that you will think of them when you converse. Since your main goal is conversation, you’re going to use conversation to learn vocabulary and sentences. Conversation isn’t the only way you’ll learn them, but it is the most important and effective way at this point.
Choose a language partner/tutor carefully. You’ll want partners who are native speakers, patient, have a sense of humor and are actually interested in conversing with you, rather than just correcting you. In the beginning, it helps if they have some L1 skills. Find someone who is willing to speak with you for 30 minutes in L2. During this period, don’t switch to L1, or allow your partner to speak L1, other than to give the occasional brief translation. They should try to get you to talk at least 50% of the time, rather than hogging all the time to themselves. You can hire tutors in Find a Teacher and can meet language partners in Chat.
Every time you want to say something but can’t, write it down. If your partner says something you don’t understand, write it down. This is the way your going to improve your vocabulary and sentences through conversation – write things down, memorize them before the next conversation, and try to use them at that time. The things you write down can be sentences, phrases or single words. I like using Google Translate and occasionally my partner to translate when I get stuck, although I try to keep translation to a minimum. I also like to use Skype, and I type the L1 text and the L2 translation in the Skype window. After the session, I load these items into my SRS for memorization.
Converse about a wide range of topics with a variety of partners. Try to talk about all the things that are really important to you; the things that you’ll need vocabulary for the most. If you get stuck and you want a list of topics, you might try Kick-starting Your Language Learning. Another thing I find useful is talking about pictures. If you have time and motivation, you can prepare for conversations by learning some key words ahead of time. I prefer not to do that because I like the native to introduce the vocabulary, but it can be useful if done carefully. Because voices and conversation styles vary greatly, it’s best to speak with several partners to improve your flexibility.
Go with the flow. It’s good to be studious, but you don’t want to get too anal about memorizing every single word and phrase you don’t know. Be aggressive about writing things down, especially in the beginning, but make sure to just let the conversation flow at times. I sometimes limit myself to 20 new entries per session. Other times, I refuse to write anything down for a half session, or even a full session. After a few dozen hours of conversation, the number of new entries per session is greatly reduced. After 100 hours or so I rarely need to memorize a new entry.
Use tips in How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately. Most of these are common sense. Especially beneficial is the use of “islands” – short memorized scripts which are very useful in topics you find yourself repeating a lot.
Step 4 of Synergy has you continuing conversing, but now without any memorizing. Really let the conversation flow smoothly and fluidly. Do your best to use all the grammar correctly that you have learned from your other studies. Continue conversing until you can talk about anything you need to with correct grammar, quickly and fluidly. That is your final goal.