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?

Am I Your Language Coach?

I coach people that are committed to growing into a new languacultural world through comprehension led language learning

Those are people that believe that language parents exist in the language they want to learn. They are willing to do what it takes to find them.  The focus is primarily on understanding and speaking, and then later on reading and writing if it is a written language. We meet once a week on Skype, where I encourage learners, help them set goals, troubleshoot problems, and give just in time training on techniques that are appropriate to their level,  This training often includes videos and documents.  As I said, my emphasis is on spoken language and I use communicative approaches.

I am not a good fit for people who prefer using a grammar translation approach or want to spend their time with apps instead of people. So, I’m not for everyone, but that’s ok!

This is an email I recently sent to someone interested in hiring me to be their language coach:

The people I coach work with a mother tongue speaker of the language they want to learn.

They find a language parent– a mother tongue speaker that plays games with them in the language.

I generally only agree to coach people who can spend a minimum of 10 hours a week with their language parent, and they nearly always pay these language parents.

We meet once a week on Skype or some other video app to teach you the games that you would be playing the next week, to encourage you, and to answer your questions.

These are videos of the beginning games you would play.

I coach people with a comprehension led approach. So, the first times they meet with their language parent they play listening games. After about 30 hours of listening games, then they play some talking games and some listening games. Because this is comprehension led, reading and writing come later. Our beginning focus is on understanding and talking.

Does it sound like I am a good fit for you and your goals? Contact me to set up one free coaching call for you to learn more.


Thrift Store Language Treasures, pt. 1!

Go fishI got this Go Fish game at a thrift store in a bag with other cards. I was about to redonate it, because I don't think I particularly need to learn how to say "guppy." But then I realized that playing Go Fish and describing the fish would be a great game!

As always I am cutting off the text, so we're not limited by it. I need practice on colors, so this will be strategic to play right now.

Now, would I haul these cards with me to a developing country to use? Nope. But I'm Stateside now, and have access to my glorious bins of thrift store treasures. 

I did play go fish in mmmBELLYmay land, though. We were using a lot of food and other things that we got at the market, and the pile got overwhelmingly huge, and the fruit got rotten. So, I took a picture of each object separately and printed them in color. We played go fish, or as our language parent said, go look – boki n bani.

Have you played Go Fish in your new languacultural world?


Do you pay your language parent-helper-friend?

A few people had a great question after they read about me finding a language parent (helper, friend) with a flyer. What about paying them? Do you? Why didn't you mention it on your flyer?

Yep, I pay.

Because let me tell you, helping someone take their first (or millionth) steps into a new languacultural world is WORK! My language parents are so patient, watching and listening to me slaughter their language, repeating a word for the kazillionth time…they deserve to be paid. Being the language parent for a class myself showed me that really fast. 

And, helping me grow in language is a big time commitment-we're talking 10-20 hours a week. Since I am taking my first steps into the Deaf American world, I don't have any local Deaf friends yet besides my language parent (that's normal!), so I don't have anyone saying "I'll help you for free!" That will come later, maybe, but now at the beginning I need one super patient, super committed person to help me every day.

I didn't mention payment on my flyer-I didn't want to start there. I wanted to start when I met people just seeing if we clicked, seeing if they seemed like they would go along with the Growing Participator Approach

How much? 

Depends. I talked to another coach who works on ASL with the Deaf using this method, and went with what he's been paying. When I met my language parent for the first time, and we decided that it would work out for us, I floated that number, and she was happy. We added on a little bit for gas this time around because she's coming to me now.

Here's one way Greg Thomson, the compiler of the Growing Participator Approach and my hero, suggests figuring out payment overseas. Talk to a local person, not another foreigner, and ask them how much they pay a student to come tutor their kids. That's a good place to start.

Now, I have coached people that weren't allowed by their organizations to pay language helpers. They still succeeded, it just took a lot of tenacity and flexibility, and they got off to a slower start than people who were allowed to pay. They were also focused full time on language, had no other responsibilities, and were highly motivated, that's why it worked. 

What's your experience paying or not paying for help growing into a new languacultural world?



Info Gap Game with Dollar Store Cards

Info gap games are one of my absolute favorite language learning activities! They're great when I'm just starting to talk, using my new vocabulary with a lot of help from my language parent. 

I found these compare and contrast cards at Dollar Tree, and I've been dying to use them in an info(rmation) gap game. That's where one person has information, and the other person has to ask questions to get the information. It's a lot like playing Battleship or Guess Who

Cards and box







We set up a barrier between us, and then I picked a card, and set it out. My language parent asked questions-Is it an animal? Is it a person?-until she figured out which card I'd picked. She set it on her side of the barrier, and then she picked a card and I asked questions. When we finished, this is what it looked like. It was great practice for me, especially on colors and animals. The most exciting part for me today was that this was my first time using ASL words I knew to learn one I didn't know. I had a dolphin, but I didn't know the sign. So I said it was a water animal and then pantomimed a fin. My language parent signed "shark," and I said no, and then she signed dolphin. Victory! I also couldn't remember the word for lion, so I signed that it was a biiiiiiig cat and then made a roaring face. She signed "lion" right away! I love staying in the host language and not using English at all in these language sessions. After I go through all that trouble to get my point across, the new words really stick in my head. The fancy word for this communication technique is "circumlocution." talking around the idea when I don't know the word. 

Info gap with cards







As my language grows we will be able to ask more complicated questions about the same cards-Does it have pointed ears? Does it have hooves? I'm also wondering if we could play something like Codenames with them eventually…

This is what the cards looked like originally and after I got through with them:

Cut and uncut cards

I cut off the words. I always remove any text from my language learning props, for several reasons.  I started out learning an unwritten language, and lots of people that I coach are in that situation as well. Seeing text raises a barrier for our friends that are helping us but don't read. Text also can give the impression that there is a right and a wrong answer, or a right and a wrong way to use something. I definitely don't want to limit my language parent that way! Knowing how they interpret the images from their cultural viewpoint is the goal, not getting them to describe the things the way I would from my American point of view. 


For info gap games, you need two sets of the same things-objects, cards, drawings, whatever. I cut my two sets differently, so that if they got mixed together I could easily sort them back out. 

You can definitely make your own drawings for info gap games, but I don't advise people spend too long on that. I can be really tempted to say, oh, I can't have a language session today, I need to draw these pictures first! Or, I can't go out and say hello to people and chat with them, I have to color this clip art! There are lots of great excuses to avoid getting out into our new cultures, but they're just distractions from our real goals. Beware!

What are your favorite info gap games? If you have some you've found or made, please share them in the comments or email them to me at I'd love to have a bunch to share with other people growing into new languacultural worlds!



You Sent Out Flyers to Find a Language Parent?

Someone just asked me what I meant when I said in my blog post The Four Things You Need to Learn Any Language that I have found language parents by sending out flyers.  Let me tell you how that worked!

Last year I had about a month where I could concentrate on learning American Sign Language near South Bend, Indiana. I knew there was a school there, Bethel College, that had an interpreting program, and I knew there was a good sized Deaf population there. But, I didn’t know any Deaf people! So, I asked a friend who works at Bethel if she could send this flyer to people she knew that had Deaf contacts. Another friend who is an ASL interpreter helped me word it so it communicated clearly.

This is the exact flyer I sent, very specific to my needs.

Friend Wanted

Looking for a Deaf person to be my ASL Language Helper

Needs to be:

Very patient

Available for 10-20 hours a week in September

Willing to use a specific method that I’m testing for my job

Does not need to:

Plan or run our meetings, I’ll do that.

Be a teacher, I’m looking for a friend!

We will:

Play language games with toys!

Stay in ASL for 95% of our meetings!

Laugh a lot at my silly mistakes!

Interested?  Text Nora at XXX-XXX-XXXX

The things I really wanted to get across were:

  1. I wanted to work with a Deaf person, not a hearing person. Learning from someone who is a mother tongue user of their language is really important. I can learn from an insider about her culture in a way that is honoring, and in the context of our relationship. Really powerful!
  2. I was looking for a FRIEND (parent, helper), not a teacher. A teacher would come with their own ideas of how I should learn language. My goal was to use the Growing Participator Approach, and see if it would work for me in a signed language. (Spoiler, it’s working great!)


Friend one’s contact sent this around to her contacts, and I got texts from about 5 people. I chose the one that clicked, and off we went!

The flyer approach has worked well for me as well on a college campus. A great advantage of circulating flyers is that people you don’t know yet can respond. When my coaching clients get somewhere and say that they have to build relationships before they can find language helpers, they’re already in a bind. How can they build relationships without language? In addition, the longer I live somewhere without growing into that language and culture, the more I develop habits of living that keep me out of the language. Does that make sense?

Now, flyers are not the solution for everyone. One person I was coaching couldn’t put flyers around, because she needed to keep a low profile in the city where she lived.

How have you found those special, patient, gracious people that help you grow into a new language and culture? Please comment below!  And, keep those questions coming!