How can I improve my English conversation?
Updated: Oct 6, 2018
In my last blog entry, we looked at the idea that you really do need to train your brain to talk naturally about real-life situations if you want to be able to hold conversations in a foreign language. We said that, during real life conversations, there are one million and one things for language learners to worry about, apart from grammar - such as word choice, pronunciation, word order etc etc - which is why it's so hard to take language learned in unreal situations (conversations that have been designed by the teacher to force you to use a particular language point over and over again - e.g. the third conditional) and then produce them in real conversations.
So this begs two questions*: How and where can I improve my conversational skills? and What’s wrong with the language school approach? Let’s look at the second of those questions first… In a language school:
1) You may often be asked to talk about very artificial (unrealistic) situations which you would never want to talk about in real life.
2) You are very unlikely to receive much in the way of correction or advice about the things that you say, as your teacher has to teach, perhaps, eleven other students. And the way language schools work is that, instead of having just one pair of students talk at any one time, they have all the pairs talking at the same time. This is designed to maximize the amount of practice that each student gets - but is it really *useful* practice? From the teacher’s point of view, it’s very difficult to provide correction/advice if you are trying to listen to six pairs of speakers, each holding conversations. The best you can do is walk around the room, listening to each pair and then pick a small number of mistakes to highlight on the board - the vast majority of mistakes will simply go uncorrected.
3) Your listening skills (and you can’t hold a good conversation without good listening skills) are very unlikely to improve much in conversations held in a language school setting as you will be listening to another non-native speaker… meaning that you will constantly hear mistakes being made. Also, your vocabulary won’t improve much by taking part in these conversations as the non-native speaker in your class will probably have a similar level of vocabulary to you. So any new vocabulary that you get will come from designed reading and listening exercises - not from listening to the person with whom you are speaking.
Note: Sometimes your language school class will consist of people at very different levels. This occurs because only the very best language schools have enough people enrolling to genuinely be able to do what they say on the tin** - and put you in a class that is at the right level for your needs. If there are only a limited number of people wanting classes, most language schools will just throw everybody into one class, because otherwise it isn’t profitable for them to run the class. This can actually work to your advantage if, for example, you are a low intermediate learner and the rest of the class are all high intermediate learners. But there can also be people below your level, or way ahead of your level, which is useless.
So how and where should you work on your conversational English?
There are two main ways that you can improve – one is to work with a native speaking teacher and the other is to take part in a language exchange with a native speaker.
In my next blog we will look at the good things about each of these methods, and I will provide some advice on where you can find teachers/exchange partners, and we will also discuss how these conversations can really improve your conversational skills.
*If something *begs the question* then this means that a question follows logically from some information that has been received.
** If something *does what it says on the tin* then it does what it said it will do.