How to Get Good at Conversations Without Spending Much Money

Posts32Likes40Joined9/5/2022LocationBerlin / DE
Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

A lot of popular language courses, especially those that come in the shape of an app, do not include many (or any) dialogues. As a result, I am increasingly meeting people who have an insanely long streak in Duolingo and have a passive vocabulary of 2000 words, but who are completely unable to use any of these words in conversation. Let's face it, "The duck is eating the strawberry" is not terribly useful, and useful phrases like "How are you?" come up far too rarely. Even worse, there are many apps that only teach you individual words, not even sentences. (It's cheapest to produce those.)

If you are using apps as a supplement to regular classes, that is not a big problem. I personally tend to take a lot of 1:1 classes on Skype and I make sure that these are 95% focused on building conversational ability. However, I also recognize that a lot of people can't afford a lot of classes. And we do want tutors to earn a decent hourly wage. So what's the alternative?

First, ensure that you use materials with a lot of dialogs. And not just any dialogs:

  • The dialogs should be applicable to your situation, with phrases that you might actually say.
  • They should also be modern, because the spoken language evolves much faster than the written language. If you're using a textbook from the 60s, the dialogs will generally be useless or worse.
  • They should have audio. Since not getting as much exposure to the sound of the language via tutors, you need to compensate by listening to a lot of recordings. Try to shadow what you hear, or stop the dialog and imagine a reply before you hear it.

Communicative Method textbooks like Teach Yourself or Language Hacking will give you a good basis. Once you know essential vocabulary and grammar, I highly recommend you switch to the LanguageCrush Language Tools Conversations That's 100 natural conversations about all kinds of topics, with native speaker audio, and available for many languages.

You still have to practice conversation though. No matter how shy you are, nobody ever mastered foreign-language conversation completely without having conversations, just as nobody ever mastered swimming without getting in the water.

I really enjoy speaking the language with tourists who are passing through my city, or with people abroad when I'm traveling myself. In order to find and contact these people, I use the Amikumu app, which is essentially a language speaker detector, telling you which languages are spoken by people near you.

Depending on the language, there may also be groups of learners that have regular practice sessions that you could join. Practicing with other learners is not as good as practicing with native speakers, but it is better than nothing. Facebook groups and Telegram groups are my first go-to point to find these. They are generally language-specific, so it doesn't make sense to list them here, but if you can't find any, just reply to this post and I'll help.

Finally, there are the classic language exchanges, where, instead of paying for a native speaker's time, you offer to teach them your language instead. If there aren't many people who want to learn your language, you can also offer something else, such as cooking, cleaning, computer help, support navigating the bureaucracy - whatever you are good at.

100 years ago, people could only practice languages locally, and opportunities were much more limited than today because there were much fewer travelers or expats. Nowadays, even a small town may have native speakers of 50 different languages. Wherever that is not the case, there are plenty of opportunities to talk with native speakers online. You have no excuse. Go practice conversations!

I offer personal language coaching if you like.

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