It is helpful to have certain topics that you are very comfortable discussing in the language you are learning:
- Talking about a familiar subject that you have practiced many times takes less effort, so it can feel like a bit of a break in the midst of a more challenging conversation.
- Boris Shekhtman refers to these prepared topics as “islands” where a non-native speaker can rest while “swimming” in an unfamiliar language environment, and he recommends memorizing short monologues until they can be recited automatically.
If you don’t want to memorize a paragraph word-for-word, practicing a topic over and over will still make it much easier to discuss that subject in the future.
- You can practice in your conversation sessions and any other time you have the opportunity to talk with native speakers (or with other learners).
- But since those opportunities may not come very often, you should also practice on your own.
- Have conversations with yourself out loud, playing both parts. The more often you practice speaking about the same topic, the easier it will become.
- You can even use flashcards to help with your conversation practice. In her To Be Fluent blog, Stephanie describes making flashcards that have a question on the front (Do you have any siblings?) and prompts on the back (name, work, residence, description, etc.), all written in the language she is learning.
Choosing Topics to Practice
When choosing topics to focus on, pick subjects that are important or interesting to you and that will be helpful in conversations with native speakers:
- Practice some personal topics such as talking about your family, your daily routine, your studies and/or work, your favorite book or movie, a hobby that you enjoy, etc.
- You can also work on non-personal topics, especially ones that relate to places where the language is spoken. For example, if you are studying Turkish, you might practice talking about Turkish music or literature, discussing the different political systems in the U.S. and Turkey, or comparing the geography and climates of the two countries.
- (But again, you should choose the topics based on what you like to talk about, as well as your level in the language. As a beginner you may want to stick to personal topics.)
Steering a Conversation
When a conversation becomes challenging or fades into uncomfortable silence, you can steer the conversation to one of your comfortable, practiced topics.
- One way of doing this is to ask a question that relates to the topic. (For example, if you want to talk about your favorite book, you could ask the person you are talking with whether they like reading, or about their favorite book.)
- You can also try to make a bridge from the current topic of conversation to the subject you want to discuss by stepping from topic to topic (Shekhtman calls this “linking”). If the conversation is about taxes but you’d rather talk about your family, you could say something like this: “My friend helps people do their taxes. She and I went to high school together in Vermont. My parents still live in Vermont. My mother is a doctor, and my father is a teacher…”
Shift the Conversation Away from Difficult Topics
Sometimes in conversation a topic will come up that you just aren’t able to talk about in the language you are learning. Even if you are trying to use simple language, you might just not have the right vocabulary to discuss a certain subject. In these cases, it can be helpful to shift the conversation to a topic that you can talk about more easily (perhaps one of your comfortable, practiced topics or “islands”):
- You can take either a direct or indirect approach to shifting the topic. The most direct way is to simply state that it is difficult for you to talk about that topic and to suggest changing the subject.
- Alternatively, you can try to introduce a new subject in a subtler way. For example, if a native speaker has asked you a question that you cannot answer in detail, you could give a short, simple answer and then ask a question on a different (perhaps related) topic.
(These suggestions are based in part on Boris Shekhtman’s book How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately: Foreign Language Communication Tools)