As children, our parents always taught us never to talk to strangers. Don’t say hello to the man in the grocery store and don’t talk to the lady reading on the train. We all know the reasons for being cautious and protective of our children but why do most of us stand by this rule once we are adults?
Why not say “Guten tag” to the man talking German with his wife in the grocery store and why not say “Que hora es?” do the lady reading a book in Spanish on the train? Speaking is arguably one of the most important aspects of learning a new language. Many well-known language learners advocate for speaking in your target language from day one. But there is no doubt about it; speaking can be scary! Your first few words and sentences in your new language are choppy and full of uncertainty. Did I pronounce that correctly? Was my tone right? Did they even understand me? Not to mention the anxiety before breaking the ice with a perfect stranger and speaking to them in their native language. These thoughts are all natural and every language learner experiences them.
Speaking is arguably one of the most important aspects of learning a new language.
Below you will find some of my tips for becoming more at ease with the vulnerability that comes with your first steps in your target language.
Be ok with making mistakes
If there is one certainty in life it is that we all make mistakes and that’s ok! Language learning is no different and in fact, it is often these mistakes that forge concepts and vocabulary into our long-term memory.
A lot of memorization techniques rely on attaching concepts and words to images and emotions which help to fortify new pathways in our long-term memory making recall much easier. Sometimes we unknowingly do this when we make a mistake. Often times these moments can be awkward or embarrassing for the new language learner but they can also make something unforgettable.
Imagine trying to tell a Spanish speaker that your father is 40 years old (Mi papá tiene 40 años) but instead you mispronounce a few words and end up telling them that your potato has 40 anuses (Mi papa tiene 40 anos).
At this point you can throw your hands up in defeat and forever abandon your dream to learn Spanish OR you can laugh wholeheartedly for a few seconds (or minutes) with the local who will undoubtedly correct your little mistake after they have composed themselves and make a mental note to never forget the difference between papá / papa and año / ano.
Mistakes are meant to be made so embrace them when they happen, learn from them, and move on.
Break the ice
Most people are easy to talk to especially when they are talking about themselves or something they are proud of. The most difficult part often isn’t the conversation itself but the first few words that kick things off. You usually can’t just walk up to someone and say “Hey can I practice German with you?” But you can work it into a conversation fairly easily once the ice has been broken. If you live near a a city centre chances are you are surrounded by people from other cultures and countries. Next time you hear someone speaking your target language or speaking with an accent that you are fairly sure matches your target language try breaking the ice by simply asking:
Do you have the time? This can be used nearly anywhere and is a great way to enter into a conversation. Try approaching the individual and saying “Hello, I’m sorry to bother you but do you know what time it is?” This is a generic and easy in that opens the door for a quick conversation. If you can identify your target language try asking for the time in that language. If the person you asked had an accent that you were fairly confident matched your target language you can follow-up with “Thanks so much. You don’t happen to speak (insert your language here) do you?” if they are a speaker of your target language try saying a couple common phrases in that language that you feel comfortable with like:
“Oh cool, I am learning (target language) right now. It is really interesting”
“I speak a little (target language) but I don’t speak very well yet”
“Where are you from?” — “I would love to visit there someday”
At this point most people are usually pretty impressed that someone else is learning their language and will generally take the time to chat with you a bit. By engaging someone with a simple question you open the door to a quick conversation.
Practice common topics
So you managed to break the ice and you have the opportunity to practice your target language with a real live person… now what? Don’t panic! Fall back on some common topics and phrases that you know well. You should practice some of these questions and phrases so that you can recite them confidently. This will allow you to keep a small and basic conversation going while you find a chance to practice your “goal material”
- Introduce and talk about yourself – this doesn’t have to be anything complicated just feel comfortable talking about your profession, hobbies, how long and why you have been learning the language.
- Things you like about the culture or country – if you are learning Mandarin maybe learn some phrases related to how you love Chinese food or if you are learning Spanish learn how to say something about how you have always wanted to see Machu Picchu. It doesn’t have to be complicated or long winded, just find some things that interest or motivate you.
- The weather – when all else fails you can always fall back on the weather. Learning some common weather vocabulary like “it’s a really nice day today isn’t it” or “It is really raining a lot today” will help to keep the conversation going.
Have some “goal material” in mind
Goal materials are the words or phrases that you want to practice. Having one or two points in mind that you have just learned or that you want to improve will help give you more meaning to the interaction.
For example, if you have been learning the past tense you may want to work in the phrase “last week I…” or if you are having a tough time learning the vocabulary for a specific area try to work them into your conversation and see how it goes.
Additional goal material can also be identified during these interactions when you encounter a phrase or part of speech that you don’t understand. So if, during your conversation, you are struggling to find the words to talk about your last trip; make a mental note to study that vocabulary in more depth. Or, if the speaker uses a word or phrase you don’t understand; ask for clarification and even write it down somewhere to review at a later time.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
We are all so focused on our devices nowadays that having a real conversation can seem more daunting than it needs to be. If you make a mistake laugh it off and pat yourself on the back while knowing you probably committed that phrase to memory! If the person is not interested in talking, thats ok! Don’t take it to heart and think your French was so horrible they couldn’t be bothered to talk with you. Ask questions with genuine curiosity and make observations and statements about culture with sincerity – this will go a long way to making that connection.
Overall, have fun with it and let the interaction be what ever it turns out to be. Whether its a quick 30 second exchange about the time and weather or it turns into a 30 minute chat that ends with an invitation to stay at a distant relatives house in Manilla; you should be proud you took the chance, broke the ice, and put yourself out there.
For some serious motivation and awesome advice on putting yourself out there and talking with native speakers check out Moses Mccormick – a self taught polyglot who regularly records videos of himself practicing his target languages with native speakers.