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.