How to take conversation practice to the next level

Last week at lunch my Mom’s best friend said to me, “You can help me very much!” I figured she was going to ask me to fix something on her computer. Not my strong suit, but I can do all things with Google and YouTube. Turns out, she wanted help with something that I actually know something about.

A new American from Turkey has been meeting with her once a week for conversational English practice. She’s bright, has a degree in physics, and is not a beginner in English by any means. She can read and write well, but wanted help understanding and speaking. Mom’s friend needed advice on how to help her beyond just chatting, which only gets you so far when you’re growing into a new language and culture.

I was going to write her an email summarizing my suggestions, but then I realized this might be helpful for other people too, so here you go!

I call this technique unpacking a text. I did things like this when I lived in France, but the nice step by step procedure comes from my mentors and heroes, Greg and Angela Thomson. You can check out their blog here, brand new website here, training videos here, and their Facebook page here.

It all comes down to playing a game like Taboo, with a few variations.

The first variation uses a short story, Mom’s friend R suggested Sherlock Holmes.

Here’s how the game goes:

  1. R has a copy of the story, her new American friend (A) does not. This keeps the game focused on listening instead of reading, as A requested.
  2. R reads part of the story aloud to A, about 5 minutes’ worth.
  3. A can record this on her smartphone to listen to later if she wants to.
  4. Then R reads the same part again.
  5. A stops her whenever she doesn’t understand or something sounds funny to her.
  6. R gives examples of other places this word or whatever is used.
  7. If it’s a new word, R makes a note of the new word for herself.
  8. A tries it out herself- trying it in new sentences. She asks, “Can I use it here? How about here?”
  9. If A doesn’t ever stop R and say she doesn’t understand, which happens with some people, R will stop every sentence or so and ask A to tell her what it said in her own words. If that retelling shows a misunderstanding, R will explain as above.
  10. If there’s a cultural thing that R thinks A might be missing, she stops and explains it.
  11. This continues until they get to the end of the section of the story.
  12. R reviews all the new words, referring back to her list, explaining them and using them in sentences.
  13. A can record this explanation to listen to at home.
  14. The next time they meet, A will tell back the part of the story to R, in her own words, not memorized. R will help her out when she needs it.
  15. Then they’ll repeat the process with the next part of the story.

I remember doing this with my language parent Soeur Agnes with an article from Paris Match-good thing too! It referred to Roissy, and I would have had no idea that that referred to Charles de Gaulle Airport!

The second variation goes like this:

  1. R tells a five minute version of her life story.
  2. A records it on her smartphone. She might need a small external speaker for playing back the recording so R can hear it well.
  3. A plays it back, stopping it whenever there is something that she doesn’t understand.
  4. R explains it, giving examples. Sometimes this will just be a matter of repeating herself more slowly, and that is ok!
  5. R makes a note of any new words or phrases that A asked about.
  6. Again, if A doesn’t ever stop the recording and say she doesn’t understand, R will stop the recording every sentence or so, and ask A to tell her what it said in her own words. R will explain and give examples as necessary.
  7. This continues to the end of the recording.
  8. R goes back over the new words giving examples and explanations again.
  9. A records this to listen to at home.
  10. A listens to the life story recording at home, and picks out some things she wants to know more about that R mentioned.
  11. The next time they meet, A retells R’s life story in her own words, with R’s help.
  12. Then A asks R about one of the things she wanted to know more about.
  13. A records R talking about this expansion of her life story, and the process of listening together and unpacking repeats.

I had a lot of fun doing this with a new American friend from Iraq. One of the things I mentioned in my life story was working on a milling machine in my first job after college. Of course I had to explain that. I felt funny doing it, since it’s a little obscure, and I didn’t think it would be relevant for him. The next time we met, my friend was all smiles! He’s a dentist, and had gone on an interview in an office that had a computerized system that made crowns…on a milling machine!

These examples are mostly of people learning English, but this game will work in any language, of course. There are many possible variations, be creative! The rule of thumb is that if you’re hearing 4-8 new words per hour of working with your conversation partner, then it’s the right level of difficulty. Less than that it’s too easy, more, it’s too hard for now.

Have you used this technique? How did it work? What questions do you have about it?

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