If you have spent your whole life only speaking one language, you get used to thinking about speaking a foreign language as an unreality. It belongs in the same category as becoming an Olympic swimmer and winning a Nobel Prize … it’s something that only really special people can do after they’ve dedicated their lives to it.
It can be really easy to tell ourselves that we aren’t ready to speak to native speakers until we’re already fluent. And it makes sense! After all, there are so many conversation topics in the world! How could we possibly be ready for whatever random thing they might want to talk about, and have interesting things to say, and have the vocabulary and grammar to say them, until we’re already an intermediate or advanced learner?
The problem is, that’s a bit like saying you’re going to start running once you’ve got fit.
So here is another suggestion.
Work with whatever level you are at right now.
I started speaking to native speakers on Tandem within the first month of learning. My first conversations were happening when I had greetings, colours, numbers, the days of the week and conjugation of a few of the most common verbs. I certainly didn’t have the language skills to recount hilarious stories or discuss world issues.
But here’s how I got started!
1) Speak with what you’ve got
First of all, I noted down the most common questions that people ask in their first conversations on Tandem. These were:
Where are you from?
What do you do as a job? / Are you a student?
Where do you live?
Why are you learning English/French/Portuguese?
What are your hobbies?
Are you in quarantine? (Yup, I was learning Portuguese in the Covid-19 pandemic!)
For the first few days, I worked on preparing simple answers to those questions specifically. I asked those questions every single time I had a Tandem chat with a new person. Sometimes I understood the answers. Most of the time, I didn’t. But at least I was trying!
Don’t forget, language learning apps don’t need to be places for completely open, free conversation. There is nothing wrong with sending someone some questions in advance and suggesting you practise those questions together.
2) Show and tell
For my first few language exchanges with Évelin, neither of us had enough vocabulary or grammar to have proper conversations. So, we didn’t try. Instead, we walked around the rooms of our houses, showing each other various objects and telling each other what they were called. We’d repeat the word. Évelin showed me how to make brigadeiro. I showed Évelin how to make a cup of tea. We compared snack foods. Doing this, you only actually need two expressions in your new language:
That’s beautiful! (For when they’re showing you their extensive dress/ shoe/ makeup/ plant/ book/ant collection)
Perfect! (For when they pronounced the word just right!)
Anything else is a bonus!
3) Practise dialogues
This one is a lot easier to do right now if you’re studying a widely studied language like English than if you’re studying Portuguese. But help is on the way! If you can find dialogues in your new language, anything from making new friends to ordering at a restaurant to booking a flight, practise them with your language exchange partner! Play a character each! And if the dialogue is boring, improve it!
4) Test each other on words
If you’ve already found a regular language exchange partner, why not agree a topic in advance? You can both prepare for the conversation by learning words related to that topic, and then test each other! It’s a lot more fun than flashcards, you get immediate feedback on your pronunciation, AND it’s a chance for you to practise loads of other words like “correct!” or “good pronunciation”!
5) Have a structured conversation
Time for “real chat”? Brilliant!
You could just jump straight in and communicate with a mix of your language, their language, and body language.
But if that’s not right for you, you might prefer to take some of the unknowns out of the whole process.
Choose a topic in advance. Choose some questions in advance. Prepare them before your call. The idea isn’t to script your whole conversation and read your answers straight out of your notebook. The idea is to have lots of helpful vocabulary ready, a few key ideas that are hard to translate in the moment, and all the opinion phrases that you need in front of you. Topics can be as broad or as narrow as you like, and they don’t need to come out of a textbook. So, you might want to start with the general ones, like Pets and The Weather, but there’s nothing to stop you choosing topics about ANYTHING you both like:
Game of Thrones
Birds in my garden
Memes that made me laugh this week
Remember, your language learning, your rules.
You don’t need to ponder life’s big questions in your first week. You don’t have to come equipped with hundreds of highly researched and curated opinions. Anything you can say is a huge cause for celebration, because you’re showing yourself that you can.