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I know several languages on various levels:

  • Polish native
  • English C1-C2
  • German B2-C1
  • Russian B1
  • Spanish B1

I have tons of opportunities to speak to natives:

  • English - quite a few people at work (though very mixed origin: USA, Canada, UK)
  • German - I have been living in Germany for 8 years now
  • Russian - my wife speaks exclusively Russian at home (to me and our kids; I talk to all of them in Polish) and we spend ~1 month each year in her hometown
  • Spanish - every now and then I meet Spanish people where I live and there is a chance for a longer conversation

I can usually eventually communicate what I want in all of those languages. But I don't feel like I'm getting any better in neither language. I'm not taking a course or any other more structured approach as currently, I have other more pressing issues in my life. Still, I'd like to make the best use of the time I have with natives. Without turning the encounters into a lesson, that is.

If I had to narrow down the things I'd like to improve I'd go for:

  • grammar (e.g. prepositions and articles in German, declension in Russian)
  • vocabulary (nothing specialized, just every-day topics)
  • pronunciation (not perfect, just being consistent and sounding clear)

It's about improving confidence and fluency.

I don't have to work on everything at once. If there are any ideas to prioritize things, then I'm happy to hear them.

So, how to get most language learning benefits from frequent, casual conversations with natives?

Cheers!

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    Welcome to Language Learning Stack Exchange. Could you clarify what you mean by "best"? Without objective criteria, questions like this are opinion-based and inappropriate for this site. – AModHasNoName Jan 8 at 14:47
  • @ChristopheStrobbe how can I clarify "best"? Should I rephrase "what are the best ways for maximizing time spent with natives (for language learning benefits)" to "what are the ways for maximizing time spent with natives (for language learning benefits) the most?" It seems just like juggling words and the outcome is the same. I'd love some of your help on this one! PS. I'll swap "maximize" with "best use" to make it clear. – virtuallight Jan 8 at 17:57
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    Well, "language learning benefits" is very broad, since there are many types of benefits. Similarly, "best" will also depend on the learner. Examples of benefits: improve speaking skills, improve listening skills, learn more vocabulary, improve grammar, or even just having fun (since motivation is important when learning languages). However, a question covering all of these aspects would really be too broad. – AModHasNoName Jan 8 at 18:01
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Makes sense, thank you! I've extended the question with more specific benefits. – virtuallight Jan 8 at 18:17
2

The most interesting approach I have seen so far is the FORCE Cycle, a strategy formulated by the Canadian linguist Keith Swayne. He described the strategy in a series of blog posts (with embedded YouTube videos) that start at http://fivearrows.ca/wp/2012/04/28/the-force-cycle-phase-1/. The strategy relies on speaking in your target language and preparing for this by anticipating certain things (vocabulary and grammar) that may come up in the conversation. The idea is that you work through a specific cycle while talking to native speakers of your target language. Each FORCE cycle should bring you closer to your long-term objectives in your target language. FORCE stands for Focus, Organise, Rehearse, Communicate, Evaluate.

The first phase, focus, is about things that you will need soon and often. These things should be part of your life and that you would also talk about in your native language, e.g. your family, your language learning, your work, your home country, your native language. There are two types of focus: a topic or theme to talk about, and a skill (e.g. how to order coffee, how to receive or accept an invitation). The focus should be specific; you should to yourself something like, “I am going to learn how to buy a hard drive for my computer in Spanish.” By limiting the focus, you make the preparation of the conversation more manageable.

The second phase, organise, is about collecting vocabulary, phrases and language patterns that you will use to talk about the topic that you selected from your focus. Memorising the vocabulary and grammar patterns is not sufficient to become bilingual, you also need to use them. You can collect the vocabulary and phrases from all kinds of sources: textbooks, phrase books, advertisements, Wikipedia articles, conversations you overhear, films, etcetera. Swayne recommends writing these things down by hand instead of using a smart phone or a computer. When you ask native speakers how do say certain things, you need to be careful about how you phrase your question. Don't ask for translations of sentences in your native languages, but ask questions like, “Tell me how you would shop for a smart phone in Spanish.” This will give much more authentic input. (A good dictionary will also provide sample phrases that you can use.) The amount of material you organise depends on the level of proficiency you have: at the beginner level, you should limit the materials to a single page; you can increase this as your proficiency increases.

The third phase, rehearse, is about rehearsing the materials you collected during the “organise” phase until you know that you can use them in conversation. You should not take on too much; the goal is to say much but to say it well. Make sure that you can pronounce the words and phrases well. You should say them out loud. Swayne recommends learning the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is used in many dictionaries. He also recommends Forvo, a site where you can find the pronunciation of words in many languages. If you have recordings, learn to imitate them as closely as you can. If you are confronted with long words or phrases, it is more efficient to start with the last syllable (or word) and gradually add the parts in front of it; this is more efficient than moving from the first syllable (or word) to the last.

The fourth phase, communicate, is about the actual conversations. Conversations are the most natural way of learning languages. Using a foreign language by communicating with people who know the language better than you will ensure steady progress. The goal of the conversation is not to dominate it but to keep it going so you get a lot of input in your target language. You should also be prepared for comments about how well (or badly) you speak the language. You need to be prepared for this, for example, by learning the culturally appropriate way to respond to compliments. (For example, in Chinese and Japanese, you are supposed to be humble or modest about your skills.) The conversations need not be too long, to avoid that you get tired or lose track. Swayne recommends 15 minutes or less at the beginning, and that you gradually build up to longer conversations later on. You will also need to get good at circumlocution and : if you don't know a certain word, try to describe the concept instead of relying on translations. Sometimes you will have to guess the meaning of words or phrases based on context, body language and other clues. It is also useful to learn to say, “I don't know yet how to say that in your language.”

In the last phase, evaluate, you take notes on a few specific questions. Swayne recommends that you do this using pen and paper instead of in your head. The questions are the following (quoted or paraphrased from the last video in the series):

  • Was your focus specific enough or broad enough? How could it have been better?
  • Was your speaking partner appropriate and was the location of the conversation suitable?
  • Was the conversation too long or too short? If you felt exhausted afterwards, it was too long.
  • Were the words and phrases you prepared for your cycle appropriate and sufficient?
  • Are there any learning resources that would help you prepare your organisation phase much better? (For example, books with vocabulary organised by theme.)
  • Were you understood completely, partly or just a little bit? What were the difficulties (on either side)? Did you rehearse enough? Did you anticipate the responses of the other person?
  • Did you understand what was said to you? How much did you understand? Did you have to guess a lot? Was your vocabulary adequate?
  • Were you confused by unfamiliar language patterns?
  • Did you have difficulty understanding words or sounds?
  • Was your FORCE cycle suitable for your proficiency level?
  • Did you exchange real information without using your native language (or another language that you know better)?
  • Did you handle misunderstandings effectively? (Strategies include clarification, repetition, confirmation, paraphrasing and guessing. You should use these strategies before falling back to your native language or another bridge language.)
  • Could your speaking partner offer any helpful feedback on how to communicate better?
  • Can you fix your earlier mistakes in your next cycle?
  • Were you courteous, friendly and culturally appropriate in your conversation? (For example, many languages have formal and informal forms of address, and these need to be used appropriately.)
  • Did you notice any new words, phrases or language patterns that you need to master? If yes, write them down so you can add them to a future cycle. (This is why the evaluation phase needs to be done immediately after the communication phase.)
  • What would have been helpful to you that you didn't know when you went into the communication phase?
  • What should be the focus of the next cycle? (This should be something that interests you.)
  • Did you learn anything new about the target language culture?
  • Evaluate your pronunciation, especially in the first six months of your study. Ask people to comment on your pronunciation. For example, ask whether your pronunciation is difficult to understand, fairly easy to understand most of the time, not a problem, or very good. If people talk to you without pausing or adjusting your language to you, that is probably a good sign.
  • Evaluate the level of understanding in both directions. Write down your successes, not just your mistakes.
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I live in Norway and I am actively learning the language, including by conversations. Here are some things I try to do:

  1. Use a target language, rather than your native language, whenever possible. Obviously.

  2. If I have to resort to English, I hesitate and pronounce the word in a questioning tone. Often, the native speaker will tell the word in the target language to me, and if not, I will explicitly ask.

  3. I sometimes do number three to, for example, the gender of words; I say both alternatives and ask, explicitly or not, which is the right one. The same method should work for prepositions and declensions. I would only do this a couple of times per conversation, so that it does not become too much of a drag on the conversation itself.

  4. If there is something that is particularly bothering me, I will try to check it outside the situation. I believe that deciding that you want to explicitly use a particular word or grammatical structure and then working that into the conversation might also be useful, but I can not back this up with experience. Maybe worth a try.

The key point is: Just try to express yourself as well as you can, and be explicit about uncertainty and that you are willing to learn. In my environment (at a university) people are more than willing to help; might be different in your social context.

There are also other ways of getting exposure to the languages. I would recommend putting the languages in an order of priority and then try to expose yourself to the highest priority language as much as possible. If you read or listen to news, try to do that in the highest priority language instead. Change your browser settings so that it shows websites in the order of priorities you have. If you need to search for a random fact online, try to do it in the target language first. Change your electronic devices to the target language (which is no miracle method, but it will teach you a couple of words).

That is: Whatever you would usually do in any other language, try to do it in your primary target language instead. If that is not possible, try the second-most preferred language, and so on.

You might want to customize this a bit; if both you and many German people like sports, maybe acquire your sports news in German in particular. It will be easier to follow conversation when you know what is talked about, and you will also know more of the relevant vocabulary.

Or maybe you would like to emphasize Russian a bit more before going there and while there, and German most of the time, as it is easier to get get exposed to a language of a place where you are.

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I explain you in the shortest way: There are a lot of websites where you can test, improve your grammar and vocabulary. *You can also do Readings in those websites, not only Readings but also listening audiobooks. So, I wish you the best my wishes to learn languages.

  • 1
    Welcome to Language Learning Stack Exchange and thank you for your contribution. Unfortunately, I don't see how your answer is relevant to a question about conversations with native speakers. (Please also take the tour; this site does not work like a discussion forum.) – AModHasNoName Jan 8 at 19:44
  • The question is more about how to best use the time, rather than how to get more practice. – Tommi Brander Jan 8 at 21:00

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