How to prepare for a conversation

Speaking a new language is tough but I am here to help. I'm sharing my top 5 tips for preparing for a conversation and getting the most out of every situation!

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You finally did it! You took the leap and booked a lesson with a new teacher or a conversation with your language partner. Whether this is your first ever conversation, or one of many, it can always be a daunting prospect. Will you remember all those words you have learnt and be able to speak confidently? What if I freeze or say something wrong? We have all been there! That’s why I wanted to share my 5 top tips to navigate these tricky situations and get the most out of your conversations.

1. Pick a relevant topic

When it comes to any aspect of language learning I think preparation is always the first step. Being prepared always gives you the best chance to perform well and make the most of every situation. This is especially true when it comes to your speaking practice!

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

The first step in my preparations for any conversation or lesson is to choose a topic. While having a random conversation is good for testing your general flexibility, it probably won’t help you practice the specific vocabulary you need or expand your knowledge to improve your level or achieve a specific goal. My current goal is to prepare for our upcoming honeymoon in Italy, so talking about travelling, restaurants and food is much more useful to me than having the inevitable “Brexit” conversation.

Once you have chosen a subject, agree this with your partner or teacher so they are prepared for what you want to discuss. An added benefit of a teacher at this stage is that you can ask them to choose the subject. This may not be something that you’d have ever picked which can help to broaden your language horizons and give you a new challenge; especially if you are at an intermediate/advanced level.

2. Find your resources

Preparing for a lesson (or conversation) is all about pre-learning new information that you can practice in action with your teacher or language partner. That way you are always improving your level and not becoming comfortable with your current vocabulary.

At this stage I tend to use a combination of Youtube videos and articles from newspapers. The videos are great for listening practice and the articles for introducing more complicated structures and vocabulary. For me, my listening skill is generally the area I struggle with most, therefore it helps to invest more time on the skills at the early stage. Doing this prevent a large gap opening up between your different skills.

Google will be invaluable to you. If you don’t already know a good newspaper you can simply search Italian Newspapers and a list will appear in seconds. It is important to try a few different ones so you can find one you like. Then you can go onto their website and search for the subject you want to study in the language you are learning; Cucina Italiana (Italian cuisine), Viaggiare (Travelling) or Videogiochi Italiani (Italian video games) have all been previous searches that worked for me.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice…

After spending all this time finding some interesting resources your job is done, right? Wrong! Now it is time to get stuck in and use them. Just watching the video or reading the article isn’t enough. You can get so much more from them to help boost your learning. Here are just a few ideas for different activities you could try to squeeze every last language drop out of them:

A. Vocabulary list

With a video or article, try to to make a note of any words, phrases or structures you think are worth learning. These might not always be new, but could be a word you know being used in a new way. It’s all about finding things you want to try and replicate in your speaking later.

I’ll then tackle the vocabulary list and find the definition and some example sentences to help me understand whether this usage is an exception or the norm in most cases. At the early levels you can use a bilingual dictionary but as you progress it is good to use a monolingual dictionary. Sometimes you are lucky to find new words in the definition and double up your learning. Due uccelli con una fava! (Two birds with one stone!) For the example sentences I find Reverso Context and Linguee are pretty good.

B. Transcribing the video

When watching the video why not try to write the script. This takes a lot of patience and time, but the pay off is amazing! This really helps me link the sounds in the language to the words I am learning which makes conversation and listening much easier.

I recommend short 2-3 minute videos which will take around 30-60 minutes of writing to transcribe the script, depending on your level, the complexity and the speed of the speech. Just search for a video on YouTube, filter the results by those with subtitles, and drop it into oTranscribe. Now you are all ready to go.!

Start typing what you hear and rewind the video with the Esc button until you have everything. Then compare your transcript against the subtitles to see what mistakes you have made. It’s important to analyse the difference to understand why you made the mistake. Did you hear the wrong sound? Is it a new word? Did you miss something completely? All of these answers will take you a step forward.

C. Shadowing the video

A slightly less intense activity, which is used by interpreters, is to shadow a video. To watch the video and try to repeat exactly what they say, as they say it. This can be a little tricky at first but it is great to mimic the rhythm, intonation and speed of natural speech. When you stumble over something, check the subtitles to see what you are missing, and then repeat it until you can match that section. The repetition involved in shadowing, and transcribing, will really help to fix the new vocabulary in your mind.

D. Write a summary or review

Time to put pen to paper, or keyboard to Google Doc. Write a summary of what was discussed, what you think about the ideas and even a review of the content. The longer and the more detailed the better. To help you get this added complexity I think using a dictionary here is a great thing.

Normally, in conversation you are relying on your active vocabulary to communicate what you want to say. When you are writing you should try to increase your vocabulary to communicate accurately and extend your abilities. I always try to replicate the natural expressions and phrases I would use in English to describe different things in great detail. That way I find the gaps in my knowledge that I need to fill to reach the same level in my new language.

When the text is complete you will need to get corrections to avoid memorising any of your mistakes. You could send it to your language partner or teacher to discuss in your next conversation. This time they will help you understand why something is wrong and how to improve it. Alternatively you can use websites like Lang8 where you can submit a text and a native speaker will correct it.

E. Record yourself

It’s a little cringe… I know… but speaking practice is also possible in advance too! Take the article or your summary and record yourself reading it. Or if you are feeling particularly brave you could record a summary without any writing practice. The recording is really useful because you can review it yourself, or ask your language partner/teacher to, and find some areas you find difficult or pronunciation that needs improving.

Don’t worry about feeling embarrassed about it though, you don’t have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to. The more you do it, the easier it gets. There is a whole community of supportive people out there that are happy to correct you and give you advice to improve. I often do this on Instagram and get lots of friendly Italians complimenting me on my progress. A nice little motivator to keep practising and it also helps me to see my progress over time.

4. Make a checklist

The final piece of preparation is to make a checklist of the vocabulary you want to use in the conversation. As you have already agreed a subject in advance it will be easier to find words and phrases that you can list in advance to discuss this topic. If you are like me and you love a good list, this stage is music to your ears. Simply take the list to your conversation and tick off each word as you use it. But before you get carried away it is important to not overload yourself.

Let’s take the example of an hour lesson. That gives you 60 minutes to speak in total but some of that time will be taken by the teacher’s support and advice, so let’s call it 50 minutes. If you have a list of 50 words or phrases, you will have to squeeze one in every minute to tick them all off. I would personally find this too stressful and be more focused on using the words than having a natural and comfortable conversation. I usually aim for 10 words but with practice you will find the number that works for you. The good thing with this list is that it will relate directly to the subject you have already decided on, so your chances of finding the opportunity to use it will be much higher.

You can structure this list in any way that you like; there are no rules here! You can include the translation for the word, the definition or simply an example sentence. Giving yourself enough information to use it without getting confused by your own notes. You could even fold over the second half with the translations to try and remember them naturally, still having the support there when needed. Whatever works for you!

5. Review

Like all areas of language learning, the review is one of the most important parts. Try to go over your mistakes, the things you have learnt and adapt for further improvements in the future. An easy way to help with this is to record your conversation and make your notes later. After asking your teacher or partner first, you can then speak without worrying about scribbling notes down constantly and ruining the flow of the conversation. Then you can go back over it and note down those nice new phrases you heard or the corrections you were given. Luckily, Skype has this feature built in now so it is really easy.

Don’t worry if your time is limited and an hour recording is too long to review fully. Then just note the time and a bullet point so you can simply skip to that part of the conversation next time. Then you will hear the exact expression, perfect pronunciation and natural speed from your partner in context rather than just guessing. A perfect high quality resource there for you! This will also help you decide on your next topic, the preparation for the next conversation and even start your next checklist. Great!

There you are, my 5 top tips for getting the most out of your conversations! I would love to know what you do to be more effective too. Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time.

Ciao for now!

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