Give longer answers

If you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner

When practicing conversation in another language, if you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner. For example, if someone asks, “Where do you want to travel?”, and you just answer, “France” or “I want to travel to France,” you’ll never reach intermediate proficiency in speaking. Get used to volunteering extra information, and your proficiency will grow quickly.

The most obvious way to add information is to give reasons for your answers. “France because I love the French language, and everyone says Paris is wonderful.”

Another way is to compare two things. “Either France or Mexico. In France, I can practice my French, but in Mexico, I can get more sun. I can’t decide.” In fact, a good exercise is to compare two or more things as a conversation topic. For example, you can compare two countries you’ve visited or two cities you’ve lived in. You can compare schools you attended or homes you lived in. You can compare yourself with your siblings or with your parents. You can compare sports you like or foods you cook. This will stretch your language skills and will help you to reach the intermediate level much faster.

You can lengthen your answers by giving specific examples. “I want to travel to Paris and see the cathedrals there. Especially, I want to see Notre Dame before I die.”

You can also lengthen your answers by telling a story. “I want to go to France again. I went to Paris as a teenager and loved it. My family traveled there for a weekend. I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Now I want to see more of France.”

In summary, whether you talk to yourself or practice conversation with someone else, always get in the practice of giving longer and longer answers. If you practice by talking to yourself first, you can look up words in a dictionary as you speak. This way, you can learn specific vocabulary you need rather than the general vocabulary taught in textbooks. If you also study and practice grammar, you can go from beginner to low-intermediate level quickly.

How I use italki

Taking on a leadership role and preparing for lessons–rather than expecting my tutors to do so–is one of the main keys to my success.

Italki is a marketplace of foreign language learners, tutors, professional teachers, and exchange partners. Students can often find tutors within their price range for one-on-one Skype tutoring sessions. If not, they can at least find free language exchange partners for Skype practice. (For example, if you’re a native French speaker learning English and I’m a native English speaker learning French, we can converse in English for 30 minutes and in French for 30 minutes, meeting by Skype or a similar program once or twice a week.) There are several websites like italki, but they don’t offer as many languages as italki does. (By the way, I get no financial benefit from writing about this or any other product.)

Italki also has other services, such as articles of language-learning tips published by various teachers. There’s a place called the Notebook where you can write an essay of any length in your target language (the language you’re learning) and have it corrected by volunteers–usually native speakers. There’s also a place where you can post opinion questions about languages and cultures and people can respond in a discussion format. And there’s a place where you can post questions about specific words or expressions that you don’t understand in your target language. So even if you’re broke, you can probably find italki useful.

Some (perhaps many) italki tutors and teachers are only prepared to teach the basics of their languages–maybe enough to carry on simple conversations or prepare for travel. Some are trained to answer grammar and vocabulary questions as preparation for exams. In my experience, many can adapt to help intermediate and advanced learners. Their usefulness above the beginner level, however, usually requires that the student prepare for the lessons and take the initiative, rather than the teacher. In that case, informal tutoring is cheaper and more appropriate than professional lessons.

This spring, for example, I hired 23 tutors for 30-minute Russian conversation practice sessions (many of them for only $5 each), then kept about half of the tutors. (How I select and weed out tutors will be the topic of a future blog entry.) Between them, I had between 2 and 4 sessions a week over a 3-month period, except for a couple of weeks when I wasn’t available. At the beginning, I couldn’t say much in Russian. By the end, I probably attained the lower-intermediate level (CEFR B1) in conversation–but not reading or writing! I previously did something similar for French, Spanish, and Japanese (but with fewer tutors), all with the help of italki.

As I said, taking on a leadership role and preparing for lessons–rather than expecting your tutors to do so–is recommended, and it’s one of the main keys to my success. First, I met my own prerequisites for conversation practice. (See my blog entry, “Ready for conversation practice,” for details.) Then, I brainstormed a list of simple conversation topics that interested me, grouped related ones together (such as travel, languages, and climates), and arranged them so that topics requiring more vocabulary came after topics which required less vocabulary. When I scheduled each lesson with a tutor, I announced which topics I wanted to talk about and they would tell me whether the topics interested them or not.

For example, the first session I had with each of my 23 tutors, I asked them to converse with me about travel and/or languages and/or climates. In 30 minutes, we can’t talk about all three, so the tutor was free to select from those three topics. One teacher would ask me questions like, “What countries have you traveled to? What did you like about them? Where do you want to go next?” Another would ask me, “What’s the climate like in your city,” and also tell me about the climate in their city. Another would ask me how I learned my languages and what I think of their language. Every conversation was unique and interesting. No two teachers had exactly the same interests.

I answered each question with long answers. Sometimes I would explain the reasons for my answers. Sometimes I would give examples. Sometimes I would compare two things (for example, Japan and South Korea–two places where I taught English). If I had given short answers, I would still be a beginner. Long answers are necessary for improvement. Also, long answers keep the conversation interesting for both the student and the tutor.

Even though every session was unique, I still had a chance to repeat a lot of the same grammar and vocabulary, so I could improve from week to week. Teachers also corrected my errors and taught me words I didn’t know. At first, I didn’t study them, and I kept forgetting the same words and making the same mistakes over and over. Later, I started memorizing what the tutors taught me, and then I improved my conversational skill faster.

To prepare, I first studied topical vocabulary books (such as those published by Barron’s and those compiled by Andrey Taranov). I read through lists of words, but didn’t try to memorize them. Then I wrote example questions on each topic and how I would answer them–all in the target language. Even though tutors asked me different questions, this step nonetheless prepared me somehow. Finally, I practiced talking to myself on these topics in the target language. By that time, I was ready for conversation practice. I needed a lot of help and corrections at first, but after many sessions with different tutors, it became easier and I became more fluent–though I still made many mistakes, especially in Russian (because the grammar is irregular).

It was rare, but in the worst-case scenario, I simply read aloud to the tutor what I had written, and they corrected me. Toward the end, I started using italki’s Notebook feature to have my questions and answers corrected before the tutoring sessions.

Of course, in the spirit of conversation, I asked my tutors questions in the target language, too, but most of them asked me questions most of the time to give me the maximum speaking practice. Besides, I’m introverted, so asking questions and keeping conversations balanced is not my forte.

How do you practice conversation? How do you prepare for it? Have I provided any tips that you would like to try?

Ready for conversation practice

A way to avoid procrastination is to set specific criteria for when you will start conversation.

The global polyglot community is divided into two camps: Those who practice conversation in a new foreign language from the beginning of their studies, and those who delay it until later. Both agree that conversation practice is important (unless someone only wants to read and/or listen), but they do it at different times. Those who advocate “conversation from day one” warn us that it’s possible to procrastinate indefinitely, saying “I’ll speak when I’m ready,” but they never feel ready.

Often the problem is perfectionism: Many people don’t want to speak until their grammar and/or accent are nearly flawless in order to avoid embarrassment. This is a poor reason to delay because perfection is impossible to achieve and embarrassment is impossible to avoid when speaking a foreign language. Besides, at some point it becomes impossible to improve without feedback. Textbooks won’t teach you everything you need to know to speak a language flawlessly.

A way to avoid procrastination is to set specific criteria for when you will start conversation. Some study for a specific period of time first (such as three or six months); others choose to study a beginner textbook such as Colloquial or Teach Yourself or Assimil from beginning to end and then start conversation. These are both good plans. When they finally start speaking, they’re probably less confused and stressed than they would have been if they had practiced conversation from the beginning. In my case, conversation in other languages makes me mentally exhausted, and the delay helps to reduce that problem.

People who delay conversation practice–when they finally start speaking–have the following advantages:

  • They have things to say (vocabulary).
  • They know how to express some of their thoughts (grammar).
  • They’ve hopefully spent time practicing listening comprehension, and
  • They’ve had time to work on their pronunciation.

Of course, if someone needs to use a language very soon, it’s best not to delay.

I, too, have particular criteria so that I know when I’m ready for conversation. In my case, my reasoning is that if I can’t talk to myself in a language, I can’t talk to anyone else either. And if I can’t understand even part of a tutor’s self-introduction video (on italki), I won’t understand them in conversation either. And so, I work specifically on speaking and listening from the beginning to bring myself up to that level. Once I’m there, I hire italki tutors for conversation practice. (By the way, at the present time, I gain no financial benefit from mentioning italki or any other brand.)

The speaking courses I prefer to use are Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, and LanguageTransfer. (At the moment, I’m learning German from them. After I’m done, I plan to write a comparative review of all three.) These courses are completely audio. The teacher presents a small grammatical point or a vocabulary word and then asks the learner to pause the recording and translate a sentence from English into the language they’re learning. Then they continue listening in order to hear and repeat the correct answer. Then the courses go on to the next point or review a previous one. They include a lot of review, so memorization, homework, and writing down notes are all discouraged and unnecessary. Furthermore, they get the learner used to creating sentences aloud in the target language, a prerequisite to conversational skill. After I complete Michel Thomas especially, I find myself thinking aloud occasionally in the target language unintentionally.

My next step is to talk to myself intentionally in the target language, usually while driving a car or taking a walk. If I’m walking, I often bring a pocket dictionary, pocket vocabulary book, and/or pen and pocket notebook so I can fill in gaps in my vocabulary as I practice speaking. At first, I can’t say more than a few sentences–but with practice, I can get into the flow of speaking in that language for several minutes, even if only on one or two topics. This meets my speaking prerequisite for hiring a tutor for conversation practice.

As a beginner, I limit my listening practice to easy materials: podcasts by Innovative Language, the Speak … with Confidence courses published by Teach Yourself, or even audio recordings of dialogs from beginning textbooks. Difficult listening–such as videos or radio–are unhelpful at this point, except to gain an appreciation for the way the language sounds. The key here is to listen often. From time to time, I test my listening comprehension skills by listening to the self-introduction videos by several italki tutors. If, when they’re speaking the target language, I am surprised that I can understand some of it, my listening prerequisite has been met.

When my speaking and listening prerequisites are met, I feel ready to practice conversation. I don’t procrastinate, but dive in as soon as my schedule will allow it–which is usually right away. (How I do it will be a topic for a later blog entry.)

To summarize, if you will need to use a language soon, start practicing conversation immediately. Or start immediately if you want to.

Otherwise, I recommend setting specific criteria and then holding yourself accountable to start conversing as soon as your criteria have been met. Also, avoid perfectionism when establishing your criteria. These steps are necessary to avoid procrastination, causing many people to never learn how to converse in the language they’re learning. If you haven’t selected your criteria yet, I recommend you do so right away, and then write them down and put them where you can see them.

Do you start right away? If not, what are your criteria? Will you change anything as the result of reading my article? Feel free to tell me in a comment. Enjoy your language studies!