When I taught languages at school, one of the toughest challenges was the reticent teen. They would be bright, receptive and learn the material in class. But then, in speaking tests, they would struggle for something to say.
What are your hobbies? Maybe a one-sentence response – and then blank. What did you do at the weekend? Um… Where did you go on your Summer holidays? “Just make something up!” we’d implore, but the silence was deafening.
To be fair, it’s hard to enthuse teens in their native language, let alone a foreign one. But as an adult language learner, I’ve come to find a bit more sympathy for those untalkative kids.
The fact is, it’s often hard to talk about ourselves on-demand, on the spot.
Be honest – if someone stopped you on the street right now and asked what you’d been doing over the past week, could you reel it all off? (That is, after you’d got over how creepy it would be for a stranger to do that!)
Beating the blanks
I take a lot of language classes on the digital tuition platform iTalki. General conversation makes up a large part of those lessons. And so often in the past, I’ve been caught off-guard by general questions about my recent activities.
It’s not that I don’t do much – I’m pretty much busy all the time! But the sheer void that greets me when I try to answer that question would make you suspect I lived in a cave. It’s a simple case of frame of mind. Being in ‘ready to learn mode’, it’s disconcerting to have to think back to what I was doing six days ago. On top of that, what finally pops into my head might be something I don’t have the target language for.
The trick to beating the blank is simple: be prepared.
It is very likely that most of your conversation lessons will involve the teacher asking what you’ve been doing recently. It’s just human nature, and a nice, friendly topic to talk on. So before the lesson, make sure you have prepared something to say on it.
I’ll spend five or ten minutes before a lesson brainstorming my past week, scribbling down target language words and phrases around what I’ve been up to. I’ll also note down some time phrases – days of the week, constructions like ‘in the evening’ and so on – as these are super-useful when talking about your activities (and so tip-of-your-tongue elusive in the heat of the moment). Much like my speaking bingo sheets, this essential prep creates a conversation framework that supports language flow, and helps you get the most out of the lesson.
Conversely, if it’s your very first time with a teacher, you can preempt other types of likely conversation. You’ll probably be talking about your life, your background and your job, amongst other things. Much like Benny Lewis advocates having a learnt script for the early stages of learning and speaking a language, you can create a list of ready responses to ensure you have something to say.
And, like we tell the kids, if you really don’t have anything interesting to talk about:
just make something up!