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How to Become Conversational in a Language

jason-oxenham-ceo September 21, 2016, 7:49 pm
By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger.

Becoming Conversational: Five Tips for "Fluency"

You've started learning a new language. You memorize new vocabulary words, use flashcards, practice conjugating verbs, study new grammar topics, and then comes the moment of truth: you meet a native speaker. Excited and nervous to show off what you've learned, you start to speak and...freeze. You stumble over words.

How do you  say that again? Does the adjective come before or after the noun? Am I even speaking? Can they understand me? Who knew a simple conversation could be so difficult?!

If you've ever studied a foreign language, you're probably no stranger to this situation and to the difficulties of conversations. Reading, listening, and studying vocabulary and grammar is one thing, but when it comes time to actually speak, it's a whole new ball game.

Fluent, Conversational...Or Both?

When asked what their language speaking goals area, many language learners don't even hesitate to respond: "To become fluent, of course!"

What few learners realize, however, is that the common conception of fluency is in reality a very unrealistic and vague goal. After all, to be fluent means to speak perfectly like a native speaker, right?

Not necessarily.

First of all, very few native speakers even speak their own language perfectly (feel free to watch any American political debate for evidence). Second of all, it's not easy to define what it even means to speak like a native speaker or to speak "perfectly." If we take a moment to stop and think about what we really want, it's probably something like this: to be able to speak in our foreign language comfortably and without hesitation.

With this definition in mind, fluency can actually occur at any language learning level, whether you're a beginner or an advanced speaker. It's simply a matter of practicing what you do know and knowing how to talk around things that you don't know.

This is a very common practice of well-travelled "worldly" people. In order to be able to visit a country without distractions and to better blend in, they learn just enough to be able to get by. Then they practice their new vocabulary, and practice it some more. By the time their trip is over, they're able to trick locals into believing that they're native. In other words: they're fluent, with just basic vocabulary and basic notions of grammar.

I have a friend who is an expert at this: He can have a fluent conversation in Italian, sound great while doing it, and in reality only studied Italian for a few weeks. His confidence and lack of hesitation with the little vocabulary he knows (which can be applied to the majority of common interactions) makes anyone who listens think that he's been studying for years.

I like to call this type of "fluency" being conversational.

Being conversational is a matter of being comfortable in your foreign language and not needing to search for words or hesitate when speaking. It's about not letting your insecurity get in the way of your skills. It means focusing on the practical words, phrases and skills that are useful in the majority of interactions and practicing them until you dominate them.

Doesn't that sound like a much better goal than the vague notion of becoming "fluent"?

In order to achieve this goal, there are some great ways to practice and improve your conversational skills and learn to be confident when speaking in your foreign language. Let's take a look at five great tips:

1. Stay Motivated

It's no secret that motivation is crucial when learning a new language. Any quick Google search will find you countless studies that prove the importance of motivation in language learning. This is one of the main reasons why anyone is able to learn a language regardless of age, education and experience: motivation is more important than any one of the excuses you may have for not learning a language.

Staying motivated is the number one reason why many have language learning success, and is also the number one reason why some fail. There is no understating its important at every step of the learning process, whether you're considering learning a new language or becoming proficient in one you already know.

Stay motivated. Focus on why you want to learn the language, how it will improve your life, and everything good that can come from learning a language. Learning a new languages is always worth it. This mindset is helpful at every stage of the language learning process, and really helps to fuel your conversation practice.

2. Create Your Own Phrasebook

As an English teacher, whenever I start a new class I always tell my students to bring a small, unused notebook and turn it into their own dictionary and phrasebook. Every time they hear a new word or phrase that they think will be useful, they write it down in their phrasebooks. Later, when they've got some free time or forget a word or phrase when speaking, they can turn to their own portable, handy dictionary for help.

Creating a phrasebook is a great way to build up useful vocabulary and phrases that will help you to become more conversational. Your phrasebook is your own personalized dictionary and guide to the words that will be useful to you. It's a way to organize the most practical information from your studies in one place for future use and to focus on things that you will really need when speaking.
The great part about creating a phrasebook is that not only is it helpful for keeping all of your useful words and phrases in one easy-to-carry location, but the very process of writing these words and phrases down helps you to memorize them. It's a great tool for anyone studying any language at any level, and you can even use it to improve your native language!

3. Learn Connectors and Fillers

So, when we speak in our native language, we fill our conversations with small or seemingly insignificant words that help us to form connections between ideas and fill empty spaces. Well, as a matter of fact, these connectors or fillers are what help contribute to our language fluency and keep us from sounding like textbook-reading robots.

That being said, there are ten categories of connectors that I recommend focusing on:
  • Fillers (Well... actually... so...)
  • Elaborations (More specifically... in other words...)
  • Openers (That's a good question... I was thinking... So)
  • Closers (Overall... Basically, that's it... In the end)
  • Apologies (I'm sorry, but... I've got to be honest with you...)
  • (Dis)Agreement (Definitely... I completely agree... I don't really agree...)
  • Passing (What about you? What do you think?)
  • Qualifiers (To be honest... To tell you the truth... Actually... In reality...)
  • Quotes (Recently, I heard that... They say that...)
  • Switches (By the way... Oh, I forgot to tell you...)
By learning these connectors and making them a part of your speaking, you not only sound more fluent and feel more confident in being able to speak how you think, but you also buy yourself more time to think by using the appropriate fillers. Seriously, give it a try! Remember, though: don't try and learn them all at once. Pick the most practical and add them to your speaking little by little.

Learning fillers and connectors in your native language can help you become more conversational and, of course, fluent. Don't forget to write them down in your phrasebook!

4. Practice, Practice, Practice!

Once again, we return to the old cliché: "practice makes perfect." Never has it been more true than in the world of language learning, although I personally like to think of it as "practice makes fluent."  
Imagine you dedicate two hours a week to studying Spanish online, and then you turn off your computer (and brain) and leave your Spanish aside until next week. If you're like me (and most normal adults), everything you learned the previous week will either be lost or require a long review. This pattern can be repeated the next week, and the next week, and the next week until... Well, give it a good 10 years and you'll be able to order a second beer on vacation in Cozumel.

Just because you have limited time to dedicate to language learning doesn't mean that you don't have time for language practicing.

Tell your family or friends about what you learned after your class or study time. Practice with a native friend or coworker over coffee or lunch. Try and read the Spanish signs on the bus or in the store when you're out and about. Talk to yourself in the language you're learning. Repeat words, sounds, phrases and sentences in your mind. Look around you and recite the vocabulary words for the items that surround you. There are so many ways that you can make practice a part of your daily life.     

If improving your speaking is your goal, try to practice speaking at least 2-3 times per week (although once a day would be ideal!). Before you let this idea daunt you, let me list a few different, excellent ways to practice speaking:

Speaking with native speakers.

Don't let their perfect accents scare you. Native speakers are almost always more than happy to help you learn their language, whether it be online (via Skype or another chatting service), over the phone, or in person. If you meet a native speaker of the language you're learning, don't be shy; ask them for some help!

I like to invite my native friends for a drink in exchange for practice. It's a cheap way to get a great, live practice, and I end up learning even more than in a classroom! If you're not sure how to find native speakers near you, search for local groups at the library, schools, language centers or online.

Speaking with other learners.

You're not alone, so don't be a language-learning loner. Sure, maybe you're the only person you know who is studying Thai, but you definitely aren't the only person in the world. Odds are that if you're reading this article, you're no stranger to the internet and all the resources it provides for learning new things and meeting new people. Search for others who are learning your language in your area (checking the local schools, universities, language academies and libraries is a great place to start) and start a study group. Of, if you prefer, search for other learners online and set up weekly Skype or phone chats.

Meeting and interacting with other people who are also learning the same language can help make your learning more fun, keep you motivated, and provide you with conversation partners who can teach you things you can't teach yourself.  

Talking to yourself.

Believe it or not, you are your own best language practicing buddy. It's easy to forget how much time we spend in our own internal dialogues in our native language on a daily basis. This dialogue can be turned into wonderful practice simply by translating that dialogue to the language that we're learning.

Talk to yourself--either out loud or in your head--in your target language as much as possible and in as many different situations as possible. It'll help you to put your knowledge into use and will better prepare you for conversations with others. It really works!

Imitating speeches and songs.

This is a great little trick I learned from an interpretation professor. To practice your overall fluency and pronunciation, go online and find a speech or a scene from a movie in the language that you're studying. First, watch it to become familiar with its meaning. Then, little by little, play the scene and pause it while imitating the speech. Repeat what the actor or speaker says word for word. Before you know it, you'll be speaking with the rhythm and pronunciation of a native and learning new vocabulary and phrases while doing so! The same can be done with singing, which is a great excuse for you vocally gifted people to get out and sing some karaoke in your foreign language...

Overall, the key is to practice with as many people as possible as much as possible. This will help you to adapt to a variety of different dialects, accents, and speaking styles, and not only make it easier to understand different people, but also to communicate with them in a variety of different situations.

5. Record Your Conversations

My final tip is another trick we learned in interpretation classes: recordings. By using your phone or a recording device (or even a camera for you tech-savvy, adventurous types) you give yourself the valuable opportunity to review your conversations and find ways to improve. You can use these recordings to look up words that you weren't able to remember during the conversation, discover good ways to introduce fillers and connectors into your speech, improve your pronunciation and fine-tune your overall conversational fluency.

On another note, recording yourself speaking helps you to become less nervous when speaking. After all, very few people enjoy being recorded or filmed, and the very thought of it usually makes us uncomfortable. If we're used to it, however, speaking a foreign language with a native speaker seems like a piece of cake!

Overall, learning a foreign language and becoming fluent is easier than you think, and all you need is to be confident in what you do know and comfortable in using it when speaking. There are many ways to improve your fluency and conversational skills in your foreign language. With motivation, dedication, and plenty of practice, you'll be speaking fluently in no time!

Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.
How to Become Conversational in a Language
trutenor September 21, 2016, 8:50 pm
I agree with all of this.

When it comes to language learning, speaking is IMO the most difficult aspect of it, simply because of practicing with natives (or other practicioners of the same language).

In my area, there is an official Japanese organization (there are several around the world).  Once a month, they hold a luncheon where people can come together and speak only in Japanese.  Its immersion at its finest.  I attended one of these luncheons early this year (about a couple of months before I would get Rocket Japanese), and I enjoyed being able to converse in Japanese with other speakers of the language, but here was the problem...

Out of everyone there, I was the only one who was self taught.  Everyone else present was either a native Japanese speaker, or studied Japanese at a university for several years and was close to fluency if not fluent...Read More
I agree with all of this.

When it comes to language learning, speaking is IMO the most difficult aspect of it, simply because of practicing with natives (or other practicioners of the same language).

In my area, there is an official Japanese organization (there are several around the world).  Once a month, they hold a luncheon where people can come together and speak only in Japanese.  Its immersion at its finest.  I attended one of these luncheons early this year (about a couple of months before I would get Rocket Japanese), and I enjoyed being able to converse in Japanese with other speakers of the language, but here was the problem...

Out of everyone there, I was the only one who was self taught.  Everyone else present was either a native Japanese speaker, or studied Japanese at a university for several years and was close to fluency if not fluent.  It was intimidating to me trying to hold my own amongst my peers.  I could only form extremely basic sentences, and my vocabulary and conjugations were horrible.  I made do with what I had, but it was slightly frustrating as well feeling like such an amatuer against all of these "pros".  I feel that they were a bit impressed with how much I knew being self taught (along with the fact that I knew how to write some kanji, again, all self taught), and they encouraged me to study further and get better, but I still wish that I could have expressed myself further.  I didn't want to come off like the stereotypical "poser" or "otaku" that the Japanese community often get, I wanted to show that I was genuially serious in my endeavors to learn the language.

I enjoyed that luncheon because it was the closest equivalent to actually being inside Japan, but I also yearned for a similar experience with a lower "learning curve".  Immersions like the luncheon I attended is similar to being tossed into the deep end of a swimming pool, and now you have to swim or sink.  While those methods indeed work, I feel it would be more beneficial to have an experience that isn't as tramatic, and can let the learner ease into the language a bit more smoothly.

As far as the recordings go, I do use that everyday, with a language translate tool.  I simply speak into the mic, and then the translation I get back lets me know how I did.  I find this to be extremely useful as it helps immensly with sentence structure, and allows me to freestyle a bit with new words that I haven't covered in Rocket yet.  I can study the basics and expand upon it a bit, and then come back to Rocket and do even better then I did before.

As far as speaking with natives go, whenever I come across a native, I will initiate a conversation in Japanese and then go from there.  In the past couple of months since studying Rocket Japanese, I've found that my conversations have gotten better, and sound a lot more "natural" as opposed to "coming from a script", so I am indeed thankful to Rocket for preparing me.  The main issue is just finding people to converse with in Japanese (I never have a problem practicing Spanish due to my area), but I guess I'll just have to venture out a bit more and see what results I find, right?
How to Become Conversational in a Language
Karen-B1 September 22, 2016, 1:40 am
An excellent article for me on several levels.  It has helped my to re-frame my goals in learning Spanish.  Very refreshing perspective.  Thank-you!
How to Become Conversational in a Language
KelllaurBailar September 22, 2016, 2:10 am
Great article! My "phrasebook" is invaluable to me. If I lost it, I'm fairly certain I would lose my mind. 
How to Become Conversational in a Language
genevieverk September 22, 2016, 2:13 am
Very good tips, I'm trying apply all for improve my english.
thanks
How to Become Conversational in a Language
Diana--172 September 22, 2016, 11:44 pm
Has anyone thought of the concept of " study buddies" on the old fashioned idea of pen pals.
i would love to team u with an Italian speaker wh would like to learn more about English and I would like to learn more about their language. Mostly it's the little things liked mentioned in Jason's article above.
we could share by whatever method and it would, be a fun way of learning.
anyone up for it....????
How to Become Conversational in a Language
trutenor September 23, 2016, 2:29 am
I'm definitely up for it, the main issue that I notice though would be time zones.  4pm for you could be 5am for the native you wish to converse with.  If you only have a certain window of time that you can get your studying in, and nobody is available in that specific country at that specific time, then you are kinda out of luck.

Of course, I am not one to be a pessimist.  Optimism is the fuel that powers up my ambition to better myself.  Nothing is impossible, it's just discovering a way to do it.
How to Become Conversational in a Language
the-hefay September 23, 2016, 3:48 am
Excellent article.  For my part, the thing that's helped me the most is the conversation with native speakers.  Today, in a conversation with a native speaker that doesn't know English, a word was used that I didn't know.  I asked what it meant.  By her second sentence, I was surprised that I knew exactly what she meant, the English equivalent, and was able myself to finish the definition for her.  I'm not saying this to show how much I know, but rather to show how important and effective real interaction and conversation with native speakers has helped in my case.
How to Become Conversational in a Language
Diana--172 September 23, 2016, 5:59 am
Thanks for your reply trutenor,  well I guess it depends on where you are. I have friends in northern Italy and I speak with them every other day from about 2 pm on my time until late. We use Whatsapp which is really useful, we send pics and videos and it's great to see all the festivals they go to and things they do. They were in Verona the other night watching Zuchero... Sigh....
They are seven hours behind me and this works. But they are friends and they busy and don't have much time for study stuff. I just thought it would be nice to learn the things that everyday Italians use al well as text book stuff.  I notice little changes they make and things they say are a bit different.  It is really helpful to speak it. You just have to say it and keep going...Read More
Thanks for your reply trutenor,  well I guess it depends on where you are. I have friends in northern Italy and I speak with them every other day from about 2 pm on my time until late. We use Whatsapp which is really useful, we send pics and videos and it's great to see all the festivals they go to and things they do. They were in Verona the other night watching Zuchero... Sigh....
They are seven hours behind me and this works. But they are friends and they busy and don't have much time for study stuff. I just thought it would be nice to learn the things that everyday Italians use al well as text book stuff.  I notice little changes they make and things they say are a bit different.  It is really helpful to speak it. You just have to say it and keep going. I like Jason's idea of talking to yourself. At home I do that , I speak it in Italian rather than English just to practice.   I  so can't wait to go back to Italia...
Diana
 
How to Become Conversational in a Language
LaGalleta September 25, 2016, 10:54 pm
Thanks for the article, Andrea.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!  

I learned a couple of new things, and you also reinforced some things I'm already doing right, it seems -- i.e., talking to myself in Spanish, and singing along with songs.  (Have even contributed a translation to LyricsTranslate.com and shared the link to it with my readers at HermanoJoaquin.com.)

I find the phrasebook idea intriguing.  While I'm not sure how I'd implement it in such a way that the look-ups would prove effective, I do agree with you that the act of writing the phrases, in and of itself, can prove fruitful.

What I need to get better at doing is the process of practicing the vocabulary I pick up in Rocket Spanish, though.  Since much of it (so far) has dealt with travelling -- finding hotels, ordering in restaurants, catching trains and planes, etc...Read More
Thanks for the article, Andrea.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!  

I learned a couple of new things, and you also reinforced some things I'm already doing right, it seems -- i.e., talking to myself in Spanish, and singing along with songs.  (Have even contributed a translation to LyricsTranslate.com and shared the link to it with my readers at HermanoJoaquin.com.)

I find the phrasebook idea intriguing.  While I'm not sure how I'd implement it in such a way that the look-ups would prove effective, I do agree with you that the act of writing the phrases, in and of itself, can prove fruitful.

What I need to get better at doing is the process of practicing the vocabulary I pick up in Rocket Spanish, though.  Since much of it (so far) has dealt with travelling -- finding hotels, ordering in restaurants, catching trains and planes, etc. -- I find it challenging to practice it with people in my daily work & play.  However, I could always just read though the vocabulary list the next day and read the words back to myself, thus cementing them in my memory before moving on to the next lesson.

Well, I'd better get on with today's lesson, come to think of it.  I look forward to becoming fluent (conversational) enough in the near future to compose whole blog posts in Español, though they may have to be quite brief at first!

Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

¡Hasta luego, amiga!
How to Become Conversational in a Language
William-E2 September 26, 2016, 1:33 pm
Thanks, it is good to review my program on occasion based on your insights.  The one I focused on is "Learn Connectors and Fillers" for the notebook.  That extends the phrase vocabulary to many situations.  Too many of my saved phrases apply to very specific situations.

One aspect of learning phrases using Rocket Italian is the mix of formal and informal, which doubles the general phrases I record. What is the best guideline for choosing formale o informale in conversations?  In many situations in Rocket Italian it seems that first time conversations use the informale? E.g. parli italiano...
How to Become Conversational in a Language
Lucia - Rocket Languages Tutor September 26, 2016, 6:58 pm
Hi William,

Alex and Maria from Rocket Italian, when talking to each other, use the informale. Informal speech is common between young people, relatives and friends. Children are also addressed informally.
When circumstances require a formal speech, such as at the restaurant or at the hotel, you'll see that the speakers switch to the formale, which is what you're supposed to use in front of a stranger (but not if they are kids or teenagers) or people you have to show respect to, such as your boss at work.
Many people nowadays (especially young adults) use the informale in cases where it would have been frowned upon in the past (not that it isn't now, but people let it pass more easily), such as at the pub or when taking to a shopkeeper...Read More
Hi William,

Alex and Maria from Rocket Italian, when talking to each other, use the informale. Informal speech is common between young people, relatives and friends. Children are also addressed informally.
When circumstances require a formal speech, such as at the restaurant or at the hotel, you'll see that the speakers switch to the formale, which is what you're supposed to use in front of a stranger (but not if they are kids or teenagers) or people you have to show respect to, such as your boss at work.
Many people nowadays (especially young adults) use the informale in cases where it would have been frowned upon in the past (not that it isn't now, but people let it pass more easily), such as at the pub or when taking to a shopkeeper.

Hope this helps!
How to Become Conversational in a Language
Matthew-H68 October 3, 2016, 11:51 pm
This is a great article! I just wish that I could print it off, so that I could refresh my memory on it occasionally.  
How to Become Conversational in a Language
trutenor October 4, 2016, 4:18 am
Brittany: If you have some sort of word document, you can simply copy the text of the article and then paste it into your word document and save it there, then you can read it at will. 
How to Become Conversational in a Language
KelllaurBailar October 4, 2016, 4:24 pm
About to say that, trutenor, thanks. I do it all the time!
How to Become Conversational in a Language
Matthew-H68 October 4, 2016, 10:10 pm
Gracias Trutenor! I guess it just has to do with the computer I'm using, I'll try doing that on another one.
How to Become Conversational in a Language

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