Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Making Real Conversation Happen

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

When I was (much, much) younger, I lived in Russia for a year. I arrived in the country with barely a word of Russian in my brain and left, after 10 months, completely fluent. Flash forward 20 years. I have been living in Belgium for 1 ½ years, and I am still struggling to spit out halting, barely coherent sentences.

Students often spend a great deal of money and travel half way (or more) around the world for the opportunity to live immersed in a native speaking environment. It seems obvious that a student who lives in, for instance, Canada, would have increased exposure to English and would be able to find more opportunities to practice speaking with other English speakers, both native and non-native. It’s common sense, right? But we know, as language teachers and learners, that this doesn’t automatically happen. So, what is the magic formula that makes real conversation possible for L2 students in an L1 environment?

Take Advantage of Golden Opportunities

One major factor in my quick study of Russian had to do with the motivation that Russians had to get to know me. I had the good fortune of arriving in Russia during a magical time. The Soviet Union was just starting to open up, and people were relatively free to develop friendships with foreigners for the first time. I was a bit of a celebrity. People on the bus and in the stores were as eager to talk to me and learn about what my life was like as I was to find out about theirs. I couldn’t turn the pages of my dictionary fast enough! Both my Russian friends and I had something to gain from our relationship, so they put up with my initial struggles with vocabulary and grammar because there was no other way for us to communicate.

Make Opportunities Happen

However, for many of students who study in native English speaking countries, this idyllic situation just isn’t a reality. Native English speakers don’t usually view international students as celebrities, and, even if they are interested in learning about another culture, they often simply don’t have the time. That’s why programs like Conversation Partners are so crucial to international students.

Pairing students up with elderly people is a great way for both parties to benefit; older people get some attention and socialization and the international students get some English exposure. It seems the Conversation Partners programs that work best offer the native speakers a benefit beyond getting to know someone from a different country. For instance, a school where I used to work in Nashville, Tennessee paired with a school preparing students to be missionaries. Although proselytizing was strictly forbidden, the American students got a chance to practice speaking with nonnative English speakers. When both parties get have something to gain, the motivation to interact comes more naturally.

Find Hidden Opportunities

It is true to say that Belgians aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to interact with me in French. Most of them are as busy as we are at home and about as interested in foreigners as we are. However, that isn’t the main barrier between me and French fluency. Even though I am not the celebrity here that I was in the glory days of the fall of the Soviet Union, I do have many Belgian friends and co-workers who would gladly and patiently weather my terrible pronunciation and grammar to give me some French practice. So why don’t I take advantage of it?

I have been thinking about the answer to this a lot. I tried speaking French to my co-workers, but I felt ashamed. Even though I know consciously that no one is judging me (we are all language instructors, after all) I still feel uncomfortable about speaking anything but English at work. When I speak with my Belgian friends, their English is so, so, so much better than my French that we often slip into English just to get the stories out. With my friends, I think less about my linguistic development and more about the interaction.

So, what’s the solution? Well, I will keep attending my Weight Watchers meetings where, although they greet me in English, the meetings are held in French. I have also decided to take linguistic advantage of my Osteopath. He is Belgian and I meet with him on a regular basis to have my shoulder attended to. His English is impeccable, so I have always been tempted to speak English with him. In fact, I chose to become his patient for the very reason that I could easily communicate my pain to him. However, I have come to realize that he is also my captive audience. Next time, while I am lying on the table I have vowed to conduct our “small talk” in French. So finding opportunities cloaked in English just be my key to French success.

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