Freezer Burn on Your Words

Freezer Burn on Your Words

Adam McGarityby Adam McGarity, World Language Program Manager

So, you’ve been studying a language for a bit…going to classes, doing homework, watching videos, maybe listening to podcasts, or using your flash card app.  Then, there you are, in a restaurant, at a party, or anywhere with a native speaker.  And you freeze up.  You want to use the language, but you’re scared, embarrassed, and can’t remember anything in the moment.  Argghh, maybe it’s best to just hide and let this opportunity pass, and then study harder so you’re ready for next time.

Nope! Not a good plan.  If you’re not careful, it’ll become a bad habit that leaves your language skills cold, dry, and flavorless.  From the beginning, you have to put yourself out there. Building social courage is vital to learning to use a new language.  And the only way to get your courage up is to do scary things, like talking to native speakers, who are sometimes strangers, and may not understand you.

Sure, talking to native-speakers is a “Just do it!” kind of thing, but it definitely helps to have a strategy.  So here you go, here are some tips:

Where can I go?

First of all, you need to go somewhere native speakers are prepared to speak with you, a fledging language learner.  Meetup.com is a great place to find groups organized around language and culture.  Even better are groups of native speakers with some common interest and activity.  Consider attending religious services and events. Volunteer with community centers. Join cultural organizations. Participate in clubs.   Wherever you go, become a regular.  When people know you, and you know them, it’s much easier to overcome those nerves in a second language.

Adam JPN Interview1Who should I talk to?

Anyone, really.  But the easiest first conversation is usually with the host.  It’s the host’s job to make you feel welcome and comfortable. Bonus: They probably won’t try to force a long conversation because they like to spread their attention around the room. So when that conversation’s done, ask the host to introduce you to someone else.  Then repeat. You can keep this chain going for awhile, and spare yourself the awkwardness of cold self-introductions.

What should I say or do?

If you want practice speaking, just use everything you can.  Introduce yourself, talk about your day or your family.  Compliment their clothes, the room, the weather… anything, really.  Focus on using the words, phrases, and grammar that you know, instead of trying to say what you want.  Get comfortable using inaccurate details and lacking nuance, because it’ll keep the conversation moving.  In these situations, flow is more important than precision.

When you want more practice listening, ask open-ended questions:

  • “Tell me about…”
  • “What do you think about…?”
  • “Can you explain/describe…?”
  • “How?”
  • “Why?”

For specific conversation topics, this website has some good ideas.

Here’s another good listening strategy: When you’ve reached your limits of speaking ability with a native-speaker, offer to introduce them to another native-speaker.  Then listen to them talk. Technically, you’re part of the conversation, but there’s less pressure for you to talk and listen at the same time.

Finally, learn to simply tell people that you’re new to the language.  And ask if it’s OK for you to just listen to their conversation.  This can decrease the pressure they feel to include you in the conversation, and revert to English.

What if I don’t understand their response?

Remember, a conversation is not a language lesson.  Sometimes, it’s ok to ask for clarification, repetition, or definitions, but do it too much, and the quality of the experience goes down for everyone.  Instead, listen and catch what meaning you can.  Look attentive, pay attention to facial expressions and body language…echo what you see (smile, frown, laughter, etc.).  Use filler words and phrases that keep people talking.  You may need to guess at what’s being said, based on a few familiar words and the situation itself. But over time, the more you practice actually listening (rather than clarifying every detail), the better you’ll become at understanding.

I won’t lie, for most people it’s emotionally and psychologically difficult to do this, especially as beginners.   But the sooner you dive in, the more fluent and comfortable you’ll be in the long run.  Good luck!