Learning the art of second language conversation

Well, it takes two … or three … a little patience and empathy on both sides of the ‘table’, but as a way of improving your real-life language skills it’s second-to-none. It’s not all about accuracy in your vocabulary or grammar, it’s about fluency and clarity. And it’s about enjoying the shared experience.

This part of the InternationalEyes website offers some insights, and hopefully confidence-building tips, with the aim of helping you to enjoy using your second language – whatever it is, and wherever you’re at in the learning journey. Vocabulary specific to Spanish conversation can be found here.

So, conversation skills. What skills do we need to engage in conversation, and how is it different in a second language? Well, and you’ll get this if you’ve taken a look at the InternationalEyes values, it all starts with listening. This is arguably the most important, because it’s about listening for cues – when it’s your ‘turn’ to speak, listen, and show you’re paying attention; and for clues – understanding the gist and direction of the conversation. What’s the overall message and where does the conversation seem to be going? The last thing you’re listening for is information – details that may or may not be important.

Speaking comes a close second in conversation of course. If you’re only on the receiving end, it may be fascinating (or perhaps frustrating) , but it’s far from conversation. The Spanish verb ‘to chat’ is charlar, bavarder in French, which indicates a more relaxed, informal conversation. Now, speaking in a second language takes confidence, but this is something that can come as you take simple steps and follow a few simple guidelines. And remember that listening forms the foundation for your own improving speech, as you pick up the ways native speakers naturally adapt and link what they say in different situations. This way you can focus on fluency, and make use of the vocabulary you have to say what you can, even if this isn’t exactly what you want to say. Choosing and using grammar the way people do in daily conversation is about recognising shortcuts and tricks to get the message across, and creativity in how you express yourself is the icing on the cake – making conversation and learning that much more fun.

  • Verbal cues to listen out for include changing intonation and stress to indicate a question or emphasis. Many languages, including Spanish and French, raise the intonation at the end to turn a statement into a question. Questions put like this generally expect answers, whereas a rhetorical question is likely to sound more like a statement. Specific word and phrases called discourse markers can also give a clue if you’re to expect argument, a list or a change topic. In English these might be ‘on the other hand’ or ‘firstly’, or ‘in short’. Learn to recognise these in the ‘target language’ you’re practising.
  • Non-verbal cues include pauses left by the speaker, changes of expression such as a smile or frown, use of the eyes and eyebrows ( to indicate a question or an emotion for example), hand or head gestures. Each of these may be culturally specific, so try to be aware of the cultural background of the person you’re speaking with. Immersion in a country, and more practice will help with this awareness.
  • Clues – understanding gist. This is important in conversation as you seldom need to keep track of all the detail, just the most salient or important. So look for key words especially at the start that indicate topic and then it will be easier to recall relevant vocabulary you’ve learned. It helps if you know in advance the topic, e.g. a meeting’s theme or purpose, or just from experience knowing the conversation will be about a recent news item, football match or event, but this is seldom going to be the case. But ‘go with the flow’ of conversation and don’t worry if you’re not following everything.
  • Information – listening for detail. In some cases you’ll be listening for detail such as discussing what’s on a menu or what a seminar is about. If you know what you’re going to be listening to and talking about, maybe revise some of the key vocabulary in the early stages – especially things you know you’ll want to find out. As your mental dictionary expands you’ll be able to grab detail and interpret meanings of new words from the context.

  • Fluency first. Flowing statements are they key, but these don’t have to be lengthy. Nor is a series of 3 or 4 word phrases in any way flowing. So aim to learn and practise saying some key phrases and questions you’re likely to use, and fit in topic-specific vocab to adapt these. As your repertoire expands, these phrases will flow off the tongue, and your brain will automatically make links too. Listen to what others say a lot, and (to an extent) mimic these, although not too often as this could be misinterpreted or annoying.
  • Vocabulary – working with what you have is important here. Firstly why try to ‘recollect and utilise extensive difficult and complex vocabulary’ when ‘choosing easier, simpler words‘ can be so much clearer anyway? If you struggle with certain words learn synonyms. This can help later with creativity and with writing too, as you become more familiar with the nuances of different words for different situations. Talk about things you care about and maybe avoid some topics instead of trying to open a line of conversation that’s going to go down a dead-end. Be patient, Learn vocab a few words at a time and in themes, making mental links between them.

  • Grammatical shortcuts. In day-to-day speech, even though there may be a wide range of tenses available, many people will use shortcuts to make speaking less long-winded and more relaxed. So practise this yourself. For example the Spanish will often avoid passive or subjunctive expressions except in certain common situations. Learn, observe and practise these sort of tricks. Think about how often, in English, we use the present tense to indicate the present, future or even the past (storytelling). Alternative ways to talk about the future (a future conjugation vs. going to + infinitive) can be useful too, especially in the early stages of your learning and language experience.
  • Creative conversation isn’t expected on Day One. As you grow in confidence and learn more vocab, understand and practise new grammar, you can be more creative. You can also try this out with close friends in relaxed circumstances rather than those you’re trying to impress. If you hear a friend say something that sounds great, ask them to repeat it, and maybe to explain what it means. File it away if it might be useful. If not, move on. Speaking like a native takes years if it’s ever really achieved, but enjoying conversation can start on day one with the right company.

Developing your conversational skills and repertoire

It’s clear then that to develop your conversational skills you need to work on your ability to listen for gist and detail, eventually with speech at a more natural pace. You also need to work on how you can use vocabulary in different settings and adapt when your knowledge or understanding is unclear.

Listening can be developed by first using resources designed for teaching purposes, then more formal radio and video / television resources. Things like educational or documentary programmes are likely to be easier to follow, and broadcast media such as tv, streaming services or YouTube may have the additional value of pictures and other visual clues (even subtitles), as well as seeing the speaker as they talk. But beware of dubbed commentary, where the speakers mouth won’t match the words that come out, adding a fair amount of confusion. Radio avoids this confusion but you do need to listen that much harder in the absence of any visual cues, although some broadcasts now offer a transcript online. These, and increasingly challenging conversational topics such as debate and current affairs programmes of interest to you, can help tune in your ears and brain to what to listen and look out for. It can also provide interesting conversational material for your next chat.

Conversation isn’t all about speaking and listening anymore either, thanks to the growth of social media. Apps such as WhatsApp offer the chance to have live two-way typed or spoken conversations. Cultivate your friends and contacts. Have a dictionary app on your mobile/cellphone too, but don’t be a slave to vocabulary and complex grammar (see ‘Vocabulary’ above). Let your phone’s predictive text learn with you, especially where there are complex characters in the alphabet of your target language. If you need to take time over a response, do so. If you’re looking for fluency and spontaneity then you can go for that too, with the right people at the other end of the conversation. All they need is patience, a little tact and the confidence in you not to correct everything iof they’re getting the message. Set the conversational ground rules if you can. ‘Delayed error correction’ is widely used by language teachers, so ask them to give you pointers and tips or corrections only when there are breaks in the conversation or when you’re really off track and unclear. This works online and off, face-to-face and in virtual chats.

For further suggestions about the creative use of resources, see elsewhere on this site under Language Learning.

%d bloggers like this: