Making the shift from language classroom to real-life conversation can be hard, and it’s easy to panic/freeze up when you’re on the spot and you don’t know how to respond, or how to get people to stop switching to English with you. I got thinking recently about things that I do and that I’ve seen other fluent language learners do in order to manage this difficult situation, and ended up with the following 12 tips.
1. Pre-think. What kinds of situations am I going to be in? What will people say/how will I respond? Basic situation ideas include: where/how you learned the language, where you’re from/what you do (and other biographic information), what you’re doing in the area and for how long, especially if you’ve travelled there to learn the language. Also think about how to describe things you’ve done recently or are planning to do. Think about who you’re going to see and what you could say to them. If a funny thing happens to you, describe it to yourself in the language, so it will be easier to tell someone else about later. This is a great time to look up how to say essential words.
2. Re-think. When you have a conversation in the language that goes less-than-ideally, or where you had to switch languages, afterwards think about how you would have said things in the language so if the situation comes up again you are prepared. If you are trying to learn a language with few speakers around you, then you can also do this for any conversation you’ve had. This is also a good time to look stuff up.
3. Learn filler words. Every speaker hesitates sometimes, so learn the equivalent of “ummm” and “ohh” in the language. Similarly, learn transition words/expressions like “and so”, “and then”, etc. This signals that when you don’t know what to say, it’s a content issue, not a language one, so people will be less likely to switch out of the language.
4. Talk around what you don’t know. If you don’t know how to say “barks”, say “the sound a dog makes”. Mid-conversation is a terrible time to look things up. Instead, try to get the speaker to understand what you men and tell you the word. Also try being less precise about things. For example, if you don’t know how to say that something was mind-numbingly dull, try saying that it was not very interesting. If someone asks you what you did last summer and you did several things, pick whichever you know how to describe.
5. Make stuff up. The word for “laptop” in most languages these days probably sounds a lot like “laptop”. If you speak a related language, learn and try to apply some sound correspondence rules (e.g. x in French/Spanish corresponds to ss in Italian, so “taxi” becomes “tassi”).
6. Echo. When someone says something you don’t quite understand, try just repeating as much as you can manage of what they said, especially the part you don’t understand. Example:
A: Do you have a bligglethorp?
B: A bligglethorp?
A: Yeah, they’re really popular these days.
Now even if you don’t know what a bligglethorp is, you know something about them. Or the person might give you an explanation.
A: Do you wanna come merping with us?
A: You know, it’s like when you put a cape on and run around a field yelling “merp!”
7. Learn how to say “I didn’t hear you” and “I don’t know for sure”. You’re going to be confused sometimes. That’s okay, native speakers get confused too. What you want to do is make your confusion seem as nativelike as possible, so people won’t feel like the language is the source of your confusion and switch out if it to help you (even if the language is in fact the source of your confusion).
8. Get automatic responses to basic greetings. Basic greetings are pretty formulaic and are the most likely thing to be thrown at you without context, so get good at responding to these without having to think about it. These signal your willingness to have a conversation in the language.
9. Use situation clues. Many times you can tell what a person is probably saying from what kind of situation you’re in. For example, if you’ve just sat down in a restaurant, the question the server is probably asking you is “can I take your order?”. If you’ve just been greeted in a shop, the following question is probably “can I help you find something?” If you see someone on Monday after not seeing them for two days, they might ask “how was your weekend?”
10. Use other words as clues. You don’t need to understand every word in a sentence to know what the person is getting at. Excercise: try reading A Clockwork Orange. Don’t look any words up. Notice that for the first few chapters you don’t really know exactly what’s going on, but by halfway through you’re pretty much getting everything. This same principle applies to figuring other stuff out from context.
11. Eavesdrop. For example, if you’re unsure about what the conventional thing to say when brushing past someone in a crowd is, find yourself a crowd and pay attention to what people say. If you want to know what to say when answering the phone, try to overhear someone doing this. This is particularly useful if you’ve been learning the language from books or classes and want to check to see whether you’ve actually learned the normal way of saying things. Note that I’m not condoning listening at keyholes to private information — keep your eavesdropping to public locations or when the speakers can tell you’re there but they just aren’t talking to you specifically.
12. Work on your pronunciation. Listen to recordings or songs or radio of the language and repeat to yourself sounds that you have trouble with. Also try to match the speakers’ intonation. Read aloud written texts to yourself. Try to approximate a normal speed once you stop tripping over the sounds everywhere. Having a strong accent will make you sound less fluent even if your comprehension/grammar is perfect. (For more advice on pronouncing things, see How to Fake-Pronounce Any Foreign Language).
These were all I could think of. Any other experienced language-learners want to chime in?