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What will I talk about when my language level is so basic?

| 19 comments | Category: learning languages

One of the biggest questions I get when I encourage people to just speak, no matter how bad your grammar is and how few words you know, is “What will I talk about?? They’ll just get bored and angry with me!”

This attitude is quite strange because it presumes a level of rudeness of foreign cultures that is (almost) never true. You’ll find pretty much everyone is so eager to hear you speak their language, if you would just give it a try!

But ignoring the reactions, and just focusing on what you would talk about, once again I find it to be a weird question. What do you talk about in your mother tongue? Surely that will do! With a bit of imagination, you can work around lack of words and share something you are passionate about.

And if anything, that vocabulary should be prioritised in your studies over what many courses may consider “essentials”. Talking about travel and language learning has always been more essential vocab for me to focus on than learning colours has.

While there are many answers to this (it really depends on what you like to talk about), the simplest advice by far which solves many problems is this:

To be interesting you have to be interested!


Learn how to ask questions.

Let the other person do the talking.

This way you are not under as much pressure. You don’t have to have a bubbly personality to keep them interested, you don’t have to give long speeches, and you don’t have to talk endlessly about yourself;

Ask them what they like – how is work going? What are they doing this weekend? Did they see the game yesterday? Do they like cats or dogs, and why? Who is their lifelong hero?

Think about questions that require answers much longer than a word or sentence. Something that opens up several minutes (at least) of interesting conversation.

When you ask good questions then they’ll do all the talking for you. You can keep up the flow with clever use of conversational connectors, which helps the other person feel that they aren’t waffling on uninterrupted.

I personally feel that the most valuable reason to learn any language is to learn about other cultures more directly, not to go around the world telling everyone how great I am. For this, you need to be a good listener, and that’s way easier than being a good talker.

As well as being easier and putting you under less pressure, it gives the other person the spotlight.

Everyone likes a good listener! Several studies have shown that the most “interesting” people you tend to meet in social gatherings are actually simply those who do very little talking, but show genuine interest in finding more about who they are talking to, by asking the right questions.

So try it – don’t know what to talk about? Ask the other person what they‘d like to talk about. The best way to be interesting is to be interested.

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  • Mamatothree

    Those sculptures are a little scary! Where are they???

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      In Vancouver.

      • Scott H Young

        I instantly recognized Vancouver. You’ll have to visit me again soon, Benny!

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          As soon as I can! ;)

  • Anonymous

    ¡Le diste en el clavo! You nailed it, Benny!  I’m learning Portuguese right now, after Spanish,  and I spend more time listening in my Portuguese conversations than I do speaking.  I speak, and have from quite early but I’m not doing monologues. It is quite rewarding and I am learning so much. I can’t wait to go to Brazil and meet the Brazilians in their own country who don’t speak English or Spanish- most of them.

    I try to encourage people to speak, but I get the same response as in your first paragraph “what would I say? I’d just bore them to death”.  There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to speak if speaking is not your goal. If speaking a language is your goal, what are you waiting for? You’re wasting opportunities right now to learn how to speak.

    You once said that not knowing the word for “shoelace” never stopped you from speaking a language.   I think a lot of people believe that it is somehow critical for them to know that word before they try to speak.  What I think is important to know is how to ask for a word in the target language using the target language.  O que é  a coisa que….?  Como se diz… em português? O que quer dizer….em português? 

    O que é a coisa que se usa para atar os sapatos?- o cardaço ( ou a cordão ). Acho que sim, mas, não faz mal! Obrigado, Benny.  Como se diz “le diste en el clavo” em português?

  • http://austinguidryexperiencingchina.blogspot.com/ Austin Guidry

    this is great! When I was learning Chinese, I was frustrated and asked that exact same question!! Luckily, I had a friend who would put me in situations that forced me to speak Chinese with people. He’d take me somewhere and said, “We’re not going home until you speak to (x amount of people).” Oh man, I really hated that, but it really helped me out!

     I’ll take a look at the Language Hacking thing – that sounds pretty cool!

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    Brilliant. Simple. 

  • http://twitter.com/brookemiceli Brooke LaRue Miceli

    That pic is awesome, Benny!

  • Randybvain

    I think the most important thing is to be able understand what the other people say, because without this the conversation is broken and partitioned by frequent I-am-sorry-could-you-repeat’s and what-did-you-say’s. The language is not the only issue – one has to be a good, active listener, and there are ways to do it: http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm

  • Kristian

    When first I had to speak spanish abroad, I was of course a little nervous. But seeing how helpful, appreciative and patient people were, just made me throw away my concerns. I went to parties and generally talked a lot in spanish. The first month, I probably didn’t utter one single correct sentence, but that was never a problem. Coming from Norway, I wasn’t used to this extent of body language, but I was very pleased at how far it gets you.

    Textbooks and courses can’t prepare you for this stuff; you have to look up what you want yourself. A google search for “most common phrases in x language” is so much more useful than any course. I’m now reading humor sites in spanish, and it has added some really useful vocabulary for joking around at parties. I would rather know 10 dirty common words than 100 farming related ones. I still can’t talk about knitting, the contents of women’s purses, or the animals at the farm in spanish, but I never do that in english or norwegian either :)

  • Angel Crush

    Hi from Long Island, NY!

    If you learn to say, “Hi!  My name is …… I only speak a little Spanish (or whatever)… it has been my experience that people are patient and kind…

      Hasta luego!

      ~ angel

  • David Cheney

    Right on!  I find the weather and family to be good ice breakers.  After that, if they don’t start a topic, I give a compliment or mention how beautiful this park or building is, and do they live in this city?  Usually though they start asking questions.  Normal questions to expect; where are you from?  How long have you been here?  98% of the folks will put up with my poor grammar and saying  I don’t understand the word ____.   Thanks for the excellent article and some new ideas for me to use.

  • Anonymous

    This is a great piece of advice!  Just yesterday, I decided to come up with five questions (in my target language of course) based on the 5 W’s (In english)  Who, What, Where, Why, and How (ok, 4 W’s and an H) that they teach students to use when interviewing someone.  I think if we all came up with our own 5 questions we could pull off a pretty good conversation while letting the native speakers do most of the work.

  • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

    As an ESL teacher I use that same technique  in reverse to help people learn English. Once you find a topic they’re really interested in a few simple questions can get them talking (and practicing) in English for ten to fifteen minutes at a time without stopping.

    The best part is they have so much fun chatting about things they’re into that they completely forget they’re studying.

  • Gosxka

    I often find basic expressions given in courses or net at least not useful if not ludicrous, e.g. all the numbers while you have your fingers to show and parts of body, while you have your own! generally, verbs are much useful e.g. ‘should’, as you can show, describe or mime subjects more or less.

  • http://twitter.com/Wiktor_K Wiktor Kostrzewski

    This attitude works in your mother tongue and in foreign languages. Well spotted!
    Another interesting thing I’ve noticed: It is also a way of telling good and bad language teachers apart. Throughout my career as a teacher and Academic Manager, I’ve found that teachers who were _genuinely_ interested in what they students say ended up being way more effective (not to mention popular…)
    I like the idea behind this blog! Ever tried Polish?

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    American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.

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    Sincerely,
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  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    That’s great! I hope you had fun on the date :)