Your first conversation can and probably should last between five and ten painful minutes.
Woah, take it easy there Kitten Mcspitfire, isn’t that asking a bit much?
Yeah, it may seem like a long time, but it’s not impossible and I’m going to give you a few tips on how to go about managing this by breaking down the set up into 3 categories: Openers, Topics, and Clarifiers. But first we must address…
The Yellow Duckies
Picture all the things in each of the following three categories as floating yellow duckies in a pool.
You can name them all, collect them and order them into one little corner of the pool, maybe even tie some strings around their necks like little leashes, but eventually they’re gonna drift apart. Probably when one your language partners joins you in the pool via cannon ball. As the water starts sloshing and the ducks spin and bob and the light hits them differently you’re going to feel useless. You’re going to forget all their names, you’re going to let their leashes slip your hands as you kick and paddle to keep yourself afloat. You’re going to choke on water and your eyes are going to burn from chlorine.
And that’s okay! What you can do, is keep circling around the pool. collect some of the duckies as you go. Eventually you’ll get to know them all really well. You’ll be able to identify them from all over the pool and you won’t even notice the sloshing of the pool, the duckies will be constantly moving things but you’ll know them their names and you’ll be a duckie collecting wizard from anywhere in the pool.
When you’re greeting someone for the first time it’s highly unlikely that their response to your, “Hello how are you?”, will be, “I’m peculiar and now, where’s that report I asked you for on the statistical likelihood of accidentally falling into a microscopic black hole?”
If you meet a stranger and this is their response to you, then you need to keep talking to them—they’re a keeper.
Generally, you can predict what will happen in most initial conversations. I use this to choose what things I think it would be helpful to learn.
If you’re feeling particularly strong willed, you can make a script or several (one for each parallel universe). I tend to just pick 1-3 short sentences and memorize those.
Hey, I’m Seth, what’s your name?
My name is Jen. How’s your day/week going, Seth?
Not bad/great/crappy. And yours/And you?
Just learning and figuring this out on your own can teach you volumes about grammar and how a language works.
I mean from those 3 little sentences you learn: possessives, basic conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to be called’ (Although this won’t always be the case in every language. In Hebrew for example you can simple say ‘I’, then your name.), pronouns, adjectives, question words, and more importantly, you get a tiny feel for sentence structure.
For example in Japanese a literal translation of the first sentence would look something like : Hello, I (as for), Seth is. Your name (as for), what is (question particle).
Just looking at that it’s easy to see how 1-3 sentences can get complicated fast, which is why I’d recommend keeping this first section simple and straight forward.
You can and should circle back to this in many of your conversations both to yourself and to actual people, eventually you’ll build on this so it’ll sound less stilted.
This is the meat of your conversation.
Again, keep it simple and do what you’ll almost always end up doing when you meet new people: Talk about yourself. Ask them about themselves.
What’s your name? How old are you? Where do you live? Why are you learning X language? What are you studying in school? What are your favorite sports or hobbies?
You can come up with your own questions or simply pick the ones that are most interesting and try to learn as many of them as you can, try to answer at least 5-10 of these in English and then translate them and see what’s going on.
It’s no secret that it’s easier to learn things that you’re passionate about. If you spend all your time thinking about quantum physics, then you should start off by learning how to say exactly this in the language. Which, like your opener will teach you hours worth of grammar in minutes.
Take the sentence: I like to think about physics and reality.
‘I like to…’ is a structure that you’ll use a ton, because it comes up so often.
By mining your first sentences, you can learn nearly all the fundamentals of any language: tense, conjugation, case, question words, adjectives, sentence structure.
Reading sentences that you wrote about the topics that interest you are one thing, but what about the actual conversation? You can’t predict what a total stranger is going to talk about.
Here’s that cannonball I warned you about.
But it also brings up the hard truth, you’re not going to understand everything you hear in your early conversations.
But that’s okay, you really don’t have to. Just smile and nod, keep circling the pool and make it over to the next section which can help with that.
Clarifiers are like a very disorganized cavalry of tempermental mercenaries. At least this is the case whenever I make this category up.
It’s the odds and ends that can make or break a conversation.
The tricky part is not putting too many or too little for your early conversations. Unfortunately, you’ll always feel like you have too little or too many.
I usually divide Clarifiers into two parts and fit them both on one sheet of paper—generally handwritten, because I tend to be able to find things easier when I have the physical memory of writing them on a certain part of the page.
The first category is useful phrases/questions.
Things like: Can you repeat that? What? How? I didn’t catch that. I can’t hear you. Can you hear me? Would you please speak slower/slowly? I can’t see you. I don’t know. Can you see me? Please repeat that. I think so. I understand. I don’t/didn’t understand.
There will likely be some overlap in terms of question words and general question structure, which will help your memory.
The second category would be helper words or phrases that come up a lot in conversation, like: But, also, maybe, if, please, thank you, yes, no, not yet, again, once, twice, first, second.
Moving from Pool to Ocean
The problem with most university methods is that you spend all or most of your time studying the little duckies on land or in shoebox sized pools. And then, one day when you go right into the ocean, you’ll feel a strange kind of lost. You’ll recognize the duckies but you won’t be able to keep up or contribute much to the conversation. And this brings up one of the secrets about human languages:
All those bits of grammar, sentence structure and conjugations move around. Studying them in a traditional way is like studying how a bird flies after you’ve killed it and nailed its wings to the table. Sure you could, from an anatomical perspective, understand how and why a bird is able to fly, but that wouldn’t help you to understand all the things and variations that go on in flight. That wouldn’t help you have a living picture of what it looks like or the sounds it does or doesn’t make.
So go out and have those first few awkward and socially painful conversations. One day, if you stick with it, you’ll find that you’re actually speaking a foreign language, in a foreign world and that, to me is one of the most magical gifts and human experiences that we as a species can have.