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Conversation starters

February 10, 2012
English: People engaging in casual conversatio...

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Unless you’re learning to read a dead language, or are solely interested in passing exams, speaking is probably the most important aspect to knowing a language, but it can also be one of the hardest to practise, for a variety of reasons, one of the main being shyness. It takes guts to put yourself in a position where you’re bound to make mistakes, often in front of a stranger or (even worse) someone you want to impress. Still, it’s necessary, and it will hopefully be fun, at least some of the time. Presuming you’re willing to try, here are some of the ways I’ve found people to practise my language skills on real people, face to face, without using specifically arranged conversation exchanges. (I have absolutely nothing against those, but haven’t really tried them, and they aren’t what this post is about.)

Be open to opportunity

Get out of your room/house. Finding language partners on Skype or whatever is great, but face-to-face conversations can give you so much more in terms of body language and context. If you share a space with a speaker of your target language that’s great, but you probably don’t need this post!

Get out of your bubble/car. (If you have one, which I don’t. 🙂 ) Most of my spontaneous conversations, in any language (and if you can’t bring yourself to do this in your native tongue, you’ll have an even harder time in your second or third) have happened either on or waiting for public transport of one kind or another. They’ve usually been while travelling alone (or with just my baby) too, as if I’m travelling with a companion, that’s pretty much who is going to talk to me.

Smile at people, and make occasional (non-intimidating) eye-contact. How much of that is appropriate is highly culture-specific, so go lightly at first, but we’re talking about initiating communication here, and that’s very difficult when one party appears closed off. Body language does a huge amount to show if a person is interested in continuing or starting a conversation, so pay attention to both yours and the other persons’.

Don’t get into people’s personal space (also highly culture-dependent), but do get close enough to have a real conversation if that’s appropriate. Few people are going to shout across space for very long, and there’s no point disturbing everyone else around you.

Props

Real conversations have to start somewhere, and a ready-made topic is a good place to start. The two ‘things’ most likely to get me chatting to people (mostly women, but that’s more than fine, since I’m a happily married woman who isn’t interested in flirtation) are when I crochet or knit in public, and when I’m out and about with my baby. Actually doing something other than passing through the public sphere makes people more likely to approach you, especially when that something displays a common interest, plus, it gives you an immediate connection and topic of conversation.

If you craft, look out for indications that another person shares your passion. Even if they didn’t make whatever item themselves, I’ve yet to meet the person who was offended by a genuine non-forced and non-pressurising compliment on something they might have or did make. Do tread warily, however, and don’t force the issue. You don’t want to appear creepy! (I avoid commenting on the person’s own appearance.)

Babies are great props if you have them, especially when they start trying to make contact themselves (mine is about 14 months old now). Just last night I had a great half-hour chat in Hebrew with a lady on the bus who my DD had been smiling at across the aisle. I had to change seats to really be able to talk to her, (see above) but that’s really not a problem. I’d have enjoyed the same conversation in English (and actually did spend most of the trip the other way talking to an acquaintance I happened to see in precisely English) and that’s also important. While most native speakers are very happy to help a learner through the conversation, there should be real communication going on, that both sides are interested in.

Be generous

Make yourself useful. Help people find their way, or pick up what they’ve dropped. For my own benefit I nearly always carry a map of the city I live in, but it’s been a great language prop on multiple occasions as well. Obviously there will be times when you’re in a rush and can’t stop, but usually giving a helping hand isn’t going to hurt you. In fact, it’s largely because I haven’t been able to help several people that I’m trying to learn Russian now. It’s a very commonly spoken language here, and thus one I’ll get to use reasonably regularly if I learn it.

When someone is trying to communicate in your native language (or one you’re significantly better at), be the native speaker you want to talk to: be open to communication; don’t rush them; help them when they need it but don’t put them off trying. Be wary about correcting their grammar – some people will be really pleased that you’re helping them learn, while others will refuse to open their mouths in front of you ever again. What I’ve done in the past is to tell a person about a specific error I’ve heard them make several times. Even in our first language we all make slips of the tongue, so mentioning every tiny thing really isn’t necessary.

Be selfish

Don’t give up on your chance to speak your target language just because everyone around you speaks your first language, or wants to practise on you. As part of my French and Linguistics BA degree, I spent my third year (of four) in Geneva, supposedly studying linguistics through French. The only problem was that because of my specialisation, I was considered as at masters  level, and thus nearly all of my reading and many of my lectures were through English. Luckily, in the student accommodation I’d chosen I was the only native English speaker, and the lingua franca was French. For the first two weeks probably at least half of the 31 others were asking to practise their English on me, but I refused, as this was my main immersion space, and it was clear that they would have plenty of other people to speak to in English. The other person from my course who came to Geneva went to different accommodation, where he mostly befriended native English speakers and Scandinavians with whom he communicated in English. I definitely felt my French improved far more that year than his did.

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