“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” by ~Zig Ziglar
How to Improve Conversation Skills
You may be wondering why this topic is important for someone who wishes to learn a second language. One of the biggest factors that hold learners back, especially in a second language learning environment, like learning to speak English in Australia, is the fact that many of them lack the necessary conversational skills for language learning. They are reticent to talk to strangers or even to go to places/meetings etc where they can meet people. This factor is also important, but to a lesser degree, in a foreign language learning environment, like learning Spanish in Australia.
Why I say this is important is because it is by speaking, and doing a lot of it! will you ever hope to improve your language skills. Speaking (and listening) is at the heart of learning another language. Clearly there are many people who set out to learn (and dare I say even taught that way) by learning to read and write first or in the main. However if you talk to any of them, they will all tell you (yes, I can admit there may be one or two exceptions out of 1 thousand) that their speaking and English is no good and what is more they have very little confidence in what they can say.
The reading and writing skills are learnt in a part of the brain that admits only very limited traffic to the speaking part of the brain. The opposite is not true however. Once you can speak, you will be able to write what you can say (after of course you have mastered the writing conventions in the language). That of course may take some time depending which is your first language ( and which one you are going to learn) but once you have mastered the basics of being able to write the words you can say…you are away!
So getting plenty of speaking and listening practice is critical. The more the better. (Just ask a concert pianist how many hours s/he practiced a day before s/he got to the level s/he did.) Learning to speak another language is not much different. You literally need oodles (a technical term!) of practice.
And the best kind of practice is with people you want to talk to. It’s not good always feeling that you have to talk, and so you engage in conversation reluctantly. You have got to put your heart into it so you really want to understand what the other person is saying AND you really want the person to understand what you are saying. Then you will work with a quality of attention that will literally drive your language learning to new heights. That is why getting a lover in the new language is a great idea! If you are not in a position to be able to do that, don’t despair…there are many other people out there that I am sure you can meet and want to befriend.
Which bring us back to the task at hand. What happens if you are shy, not motivated to talk to other people for some reason. Well, unless you decide to want to talk to people…and befriend people in the other language, you might as well give up trying to learn the new language. Maybe I am being too harsh here!
Before I start with some practical suggestions to improve your conversation skills, take note of these words from Eleanor Roosevelt –
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. …… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
So let’s know look at how you can improve your conversation skills and hence overcome your shyness or reticence to speak.
There are many reasons why people are shy, but I am not going to address that here but rather suggest a strategy for getting around the problem. One reason people are shy is they do not know how to talk to other people or what to talk to them about. Once you get the skills, and practice them…you may well find as others have done that your shyness will slowly diminish and become less of a hindrance.
FORM is an acronym that you can use to remember what you can talk to people about. The easiest way to enter into conversation with people is to ask questions about 4 areas. People love to talk about themselves, so given an opportunity, most people will answer ( and if they don’t, just move on and talk to the next person. The reason they didn’t talk to you is because of some issue in their life…it has nothing to do with you really!)
So the 4 areas you can ask people about are:
Family: Do you live with your family? Do you have any kids? What does your husband do? Are your parents living with you? etc
Occupation: What do you do for a living? Do you work full time? Do you enjoy your work? How long have you been doing that? etc
Recreation: How do you relax? Where do you go on your holidays? Do you have any hobbies/ interests outside your job? etc
Money/Mission: Do you do any investing? Do you have your own Superfund? Have you ever done property investing? What gets you up in the morning? Are you passionate about your job? etc
I have provided some examples of each of the areas, but you have to develop some sensitivity with asking questions. You can’t fire them off one after the other, let the person’s answer suggest the next question you may ask. So in other words LISTEN to the answer! The aim is to get into a conversation, not just to get answers! If people answer your questions, inevitably ( well, in MOST cases) people will reciprocate and ask you questions too. If they don’t, don’t be disheartened. Go and practice on someone else! 🙂
Of course there are cultural considerations. For example, in some cultures (as in Australia) it is not the done thing to ask “How much money do you make?”, whereas in some cultures it is critical to first find out what the person you just met does, so you know how to talk to them. That is why in Japan, for example, exchanging business cards is so important.
Just remember FORM and that will help you remember what areas you can ask about. You can practice this in the shopping queue at the supermarket, in the waiting room at the doctor’s, or in the bank aisle, or train, etc etc. Where there are people, there are always opportunities. Many people are in fact craving for company and a chance to talk to people. The elderly, for eg, fit into this category as do the ones who are physically challenged. There are many other people apart from these, I can assure you who are looking for friendship.
You will need to step outside your comfort zone, but hey, learning another language is already doing that…but recognize that speaking to other people in the target language is critical. And as I said the more closely connected you feel to the person you are talking to, the more you will motivated to take care with what you say and what you hear.
Now if you have no interest in talking to other people outside your immediate environment, this needs to be addressed if you are ever going to learn the new language. Again there may be many reasons for this. If you want to get over this, you will need to do 2 things:
1. Master the skills of talking to people..as above
2. Develop some interests that will prompt you to want you to talk to people. There are basically three things you can look at in terms of your new or possible old interest.
a. Get involved in learning from others about some aspect or other of your interest. ( find groups in your local area, from your local library or your local newspaper; etc etc)
b. If you already have some skills, get involved in sharing your skills with others – eg offer cooking classes, help people with their IT problems, etc
c. Find some new interests that may have some appeal for you, flower arranging, bushwalking, photography, investing, etc etc
So now you have a handle on how to improve your conversation skills so now you can start developing your skills, so the sooner you start on this the better! Enjoy! 🙂