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So, you've got a couple of phrases learned off from your phrasebook, you've got a positive attitude and you've even enjoyed quickly learning off lots of new words, but the whole point of all of this is to actually converse with native speakers! In the early stages of speaking a language you may think that an actual conversation beyond a basic question-and-answer is out of reach, or you may have tried to enjoy having basic conversations, maybe even talking about something new that you haven't talked about before… but it just isn't happening! Maybe you should wait a few months (or years…) until you're “ready”?
Hardly! No matter how bad you may think your level is, with a bit of imagination you can keep conversations flowing ;). I have to admit that I was having trouble at this for trying to converse in Czech, but luckily one of the commenters on this blog came to my rescue!
Down with robotic conversations!
When I was learning off sentences from my phrasebook, I was learning something specific to say in a particular situation (Where is the bathroom, Nice to meet you etc.), I've also taken parts of these phrases (simply “May I…, is … included, etc.) and combined them with words that I've memorised and the small amount of grammar that I've learned up to now. This allows me to be more flexible in these basic stages with what I want to say, but there was still a very unnatural tone to the conversation. I ask a question and get the answer. They ask me a question and I give the answer. Perhaps I listen an anecdote of theirs and just say “interesting”, or try my best to explain something about myself, but I started and ended abruptly.
This isn't actual conversing; it's pure segments and can seem very robotic. It may seem that when we start off, we are limited to just giving or receiving answers to basic questions, but even in your first weeks of learning a language, you can still insert a certain amount of feeling of “fluency” into having an actual conversation! That's where commenter Splogsplog (also known as Anthony Lauder) gave me a much needed boost!
Keeping the conversation flowing
I'll copy what Anthony said in his comment that introduced this concept to me:
You are in a restaurant and somebody asks what you think of the meal. From a typical language learning experience, a student would often get flustered, find the experience unnerving, say “urm … good!” and hope they aren’t asked any more uncomfortable questions.
However, if they could use conversational connectors, they could say things like:
Thanks for asking. To tell the truth, I must say that the food is good. Let me ask you the same question: What do you think of your food?
The same conversational connectors can be recombined in all sorts of ways. Later on, then, the question “Where are you from?” could be replied to with: “To tell the truth, I am from England. Thanks for asking. Let me ask you: where are you from?”
Very little of each conversation is actually about the topic under discussion, but more about establishing intimacy and keeping the conversation going.
It's pure genius! It's true that some people may notice you using these same phrases, but for brief conversations they really are excellent for filling in those gaps between the actual information. It is also a great way to bounce the question back to the asker and introduce a new topic. This is important in all stages of learning a language; not just the early stages (like me in Czech currently), but intermediate speakers who don't use such phrases can come up with a few to learn off and spice up the conversation!
In fact Anthony has worked hard at preparing a list of such phrases to use in many different types of situations, such as agreeing/disagreeing (one hundred percent! That is an exaggeration), opening (that is a good question), general fillers (between you and me, actually), qualifying (as you already know) and switching (by the way, I have an interesting story about it). He has his own introduction and a wider list of these there. Many of these phrases are actually translations back from common Czech phrases, but this method can definitely be applied to any language. He also gave me an Excel file that you are welcome to download and add your own translations or get a general idea of the sentences he uses to inspire you to make your own. (If you don't have Excel, then I recommend using Open Office [download] or Google Docs [online], both of which are free; I actually prefer Open Office to Microsoft Office).
[Note that I've had this Excel file translated to 23 languages as part of the Language Hacking Guide, included in Premium 2.0]
I have of course been using these conversational connectors in the last week, and have come up with my own based on things that I would naturally say anyway in conversations. I would also recommend using as many general fillers as possible to avoid the awkwardness of “um…” in sentences (such as the language's equivalent to so, you know, like, well, etc.) Conversational connectors and fillers have worked really well in field tests to help me “fake” having an actual conversation in the beginning stages. Of course, you don't leave it at that; as you progress in the language you can take a more active role in conversations. Even so, trust me, it's a great feeling to actually have a to-and-fro with someone with no awkward pauses after just having start a language from scratch a month before!! 😛 I have been using this in combination with my methods for convincing locals to actually talk to me in their language, which I will be talking about in my next post :).