Posted on | December 31, 2010 | 1 Comment
Speak when you are ready, not when you ‘think’ you are ready. You are probably more ready to speak than you think you are.
Yes, please honour the “silent period” and focus on input activities. But if you have already put in a lot of hours listening and reading, but feel uncomfortable moving on to speaking, this post is for you.
Quite often your “silent period” is much shorter than you perceive. You might think you need more listening practices in order to understand. You might think you need to acquire more vocabulary in order to compose your replies. In really, you don’t need to understand everything to conduct an intelligent conversation with a native speaker, and you need much less vocabulary than you think.
About 2 months ago, I attended a home dinner and met a lady from Argentina who could barely speak English. We managed to have a few minutes of conversation in Spanish, though I could only understand about half of what she said. This was actually not that difficult to do. Here are some tips and tricks.
Common conversational protocols
Everyday we rely on common protocols in our conversations without noticing them. For example, a common protocol to end a conversation is:
A: Have a nice day!
B: You too!
These lines should help you start and end the conversation with confidence.
A side note: I once went through the airport security and unconsciously had this exchange with the TSA guy:
TSA guy: Have a nice trip!
Me: You too!
Anticipate the replies
Even when we converse in our own languages in a noisy environment or with a bad Internet connection, a lot of content could be missing but we can still carry on with the conversation. This is because we anticipate what people say and confirm our guess with the incomplete reply.
You will be guessing a lot when you converse in the language your are learning. You have to get used to dealing with uncertainty.
The trick is to anticipate what the other party is going to say. You may only understand a portion of the reply, but that could be enough to verify your guess. You may also need to rely on her tones, gestures, and facial expressions, too.
Narrow down the topics
Drive the conversation. Talk about subjects that are familiar to yourself. If you deploy this technique to someone you have just met, you should have no difficulty making the conversation last for a while.
For example, whenever I first meet a Mandarin speaker, I would ask where in China she comes from, and then move onto discussing the geography of China (where the main cities are located). Whenever I first meet a Francophone, I would talk about the importance of the French language in Canada. Whenever I meet with a Spanish speaker and I am asked how I learned my Spanish, and I would answer I watched too much “Dora the Explorer” with my daughter, and talk about my daughter.
You basically prepare mini-scripts and learn them, but you don’t have to do it deliberately. You gather them naturally in your head as you converse with more and more people.
Of course this won’t work well after the first encounter. You wouldn’t want to repeat the same lines to the same person again and again. Find someone you have never met and apply the scripts again.
Use word substitutions
If you don’t know the words, consider using the English equivalents. If you do it skillfully, it would sound natural or even somewhat ‘trendy’.
I often found substituting nouns, places, and names with their English equivalents more naturally than verbs, adjectives, and other constructs. Consider the following examples in Chinese. Saying “我来自Toronto” (I come from Toronto) is more natural than “我come from多伦多”.
You may also consider lengthening the conversation by asking how to say the word in the target language. Then you would have something to add to your vocabulary, too.
Be a good listener
At least pretend to be one. The trick is to keep silent but from time to time utter responses like “I see”, “I think so too”, or “really?”. These phrases should already be familiar to you if you have been doing a lot of input activities, and you should be able to say them naturally. Remember, you don’t need to understand what is said in order to response.
Repeat what is said
Pick a word or phrase you can figure out from what is being said and repeat it. For example,
A: In Toronto, most people can speak more than one language.
B: Most people?
A: Yes, most people. In fact, most of my friends can speak more than two.
B: More than two?
If you master this technique, not only would you sound like a good listener, but also a good interviewer.
Focus on making the conversation last
Keep the conversation going but don’t try to understand everything. Enjoy the fact that you are speaking the language with a native speaker. Quite often, the native speaker would enjoy the fact that some foreigner is speaking her language more than the content being discussed.
Some might think instead of deploying all these ‘workarounds’, why not wait until you are more ready.
The key to speaking is confidence. The goal at this stage is to build up your confidence speaking the language. Without confidence, even if you understand the conversation and know how to reply, you will find the other party switching back to your language pretty soon (if he has the option). He can sense your competence only after a few lines of exchange. So, be brave, start the conversation strong, and speak confidently.
Confidence has to come before you can speak fluently. If you wait for the time when you can speak the language fluently before speaking it, you will never get there.