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Getting conversational theme by theme

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

In the post about acquiring conversational fluency, one of the principles I introduced was the idea of learning one theme at a time. In this post, I’d like to go into a bit more detail about how that approach works.

Whatever method you are using to learn Gaelic, there will be a certain selection of vocabulary that you will have to acquire. However, as soon as possible, you should start making an effort to learn vocabulary that suits your own needs and interests: after all, we learn languages in order to be able to talk about things that interest us. You should therefore begin by making a list of the topic areas you are most likely to want to talk about. For the most part, these areas will be particular to you, but some of them will almost certainly be general, too. For instance, most of us need to be able to talk about our background, our work or hobbies, and our families. Another topic area that is generally useful right from early on in the language learning process is talking about your experience of learning Gaelic: people will generally want to know what made you interested in Gaelic, whether you have any family or other connections with the language, and how you are learning it. With many languages (especially languages that are associated with a particular country), you will want to learn things like: how to book accommodation, how to order food and drinks, how to talk about paying for shopping, how to ask for shopping items, how to talk to taxi drivers, etc. However, most of these areas are things that rarely arise for the Gaelic-speaker, and you may decide to leave them until a bit later than you would if you were learning Spanish or Thai. It depends on when, how and where you expect to be using your Gaelic.

You will get derailed...

Once you have made your list of topics that you think you will want to be able to discuss, decide the order in which you want to learn them. This is really up to you, but it would make sense to organise your learning in the order in which you are most likely to come across the topics. Again, for most people, an obvious place to start is by learning to talk a bit about yourself. Generally, when we meet new people, we ask each other certain kinds of things that follow a similar pattern; and we also introduce ourselves to other people by telling stories from a trusty stock of bits of our past, etc. Learn to do these introductory bits in Gaelic, and work out what the questions are that you might ask someone else in the situation. As soon as you have worked some of this out, test it and practise it with a more fluent speaker (even if it is someone you already know). The crucial thing is to be aware that you will likely make mistakes. Even if you have worked things out really well beforehand, the stress of the situation (and the fact that your conversation partner will go off-script) means that you may very well get somewhat derailed at times. Not to worry: this is why we call it practice.

Learning to chat by telling stories

When I got to intermediate levels in learning Chinese, I had one particular conversation teacher who used to get me to tell her stories about things I got up to when I was young. This caused me all sorts of trouble the first time it came up, but I soon started to anticipate the trick and I would come in to our one-to-one class with a couple of stories already prepared. One of the best things about those conversations was that she would always tell me an equivalent story from her own childhood, which meant that I was getting the chance to pick up the typical vocabulary, structures and rhythm of how to tell these stories in Chinese by listening to a native speaker telling similar stories. Because I knew what kinds of conversations were going to come up, I had a chance to prepare. Then, by carefully observing a native speaker doing the same task, I had a chance to review and learn. I would then go away and talk to other Chinese friends and give them a truncated version of both my own story and my tutor’s story. This then gave me the chance to practise. This is the pattern you should adopt with your Gaelic conversations, too:

1. Anticipate;

2. Prepare;

3. Talk;

4. Observe;

5. Review;

6. Learn;

7. Practise;

8. Anticipate…

When we are comfortably fluent in a language, we rarely need to go through these steps. But, if you think about it for a moment, many of you will actually recall having had to do something like this even in your native language, albeit not very often. Think about the first time you had to make a professional phone call, or more or less every time you have a job interview, etc. I use this pattern whenever I am working my way through the intermediate stages of any language, and I always know I have reached the advanced stage when I catch myself going to have conversation practice with a tutor and not even spending a second thinking about it beforehand.

Use the steps

When we first set out to learn a language, it can feel very intimidating – even overwhelming. Then we get that great buzz that comes from realising we are suddenly able to understand and say some things in the language. I can clearly remember when I was learning Gaelic. I would study it all week and then take the weekend off. But every weekend I just played through in my head sentence after sentence of things that I would now be able to say. Or, if I was on my own, I would say them out loud. And I would rehearse conversations I had already had, trying to say my turns more fluently and more expressively.

It’s all a lot of fun. But then we start to notice how far from real fluency we are, and the sense of being overwhelmed comes back. This is why it is important to remind yourself that you are not trying to learn all of Gaelic. Nobody knows all of Gaelic. You only have to learn the bits that you need to know for your purposes. When you approach it like this, it becomes a lot less overwhelming.

Don't get fluent at Gaelic... get fluent at talking about cake in Gaelic... or whatever you happen to like to talk about

It is impossible to become fluent at all of Gaelic at once. It is also pointless to try. If you try to pick up words and phrases from dozens of different domains and topics all at once, you will very quickly become overwhelmed. And you will find that you don’t have enough detail about any of the topics to be able to have any conversations at all. Instead, learn as much detail as you can about one topic. Spend days on it, maybe even weeks. Get really confident at talking about that one topic. Become a fluent speaker of that one topic in Gaelic. Then, whenever you get the chance to have a conversation with a Gaelic-speaker, try to steer the conversation so that you get a chance to flex your muscles. This will build confidence and it will also convince your Gaelic-speaking friends that it is worthwhile talking to you in the language, because there are clearly some things that you can talk about very well. (But don't forget to find time for cake.)

I suggest tackling the issue of acquiring fluency in an order something like this:

1. Become fluent at introducing yourself: (a) anticipate - obviously, this topic will very often come up, (b) prepare - look up words or ask friends for help; you will find many books etc. that cover this topic, (c) talk - try it out all the time, (d) observe - learn how to ask the relevant questions so that fluent speakers have to introduce themselves to you, and pay attention to how they say it as well as what they say; (e) review - think about what went well in what you said and make sure you remember how to do that next time; then think about what else you could have said; recall if the person you spoke to had a neat way to express something, (f) learn – using what you picked up between (c) and (e) above, try to add to your fluency in this topic (add a word or phrase or tidy up a clumsy phrasing), (g) practise – find more people to practise this with and use what you learned in your previous conversations until you get to the point where you feel completely confident in introducing yourself;

2. Become fluent at talking about your hobbies, one at a time;

3. Become fluent at talking about your work or studies or ambitions;

4. Become fluent at talking about your other interests, one at a time;

5. Keep cycling through the topics you have already mastered, so that you feel more and more confident with each of them, and so that you gradually notice that you need to spend less and less time on preparation and review;

6. Keep anticipating the next theme you want to concentrate on, and carry on becoming fluent one topic at a time;

Resist the temptation to take on too much at once. Yes, it will feel odd that you can talk fluently and without a pause for twenty minutes about archery and yet you don’t know how to say more than two sentences about global warming. But don’t cut corners. Take it one topic at a time and you will eventually get to the point where there is so much overlap between the vocabulary and expressions that you will no longer need to do this: you will already be able to talk about any new topic that comes up.

I can’t emphasise enough how useful it is to have a lot of different conversation partners that you can practise with. Trying to have the same conversation over and over again with one person really doesn’t work. It quickly feels like ‘doing language drills’ instead of ‘having a natural conversation’, and your brain will refuse to believe in it. Even though having the same conversation over and over again with lots of different people is also rather contrived, it is sufficiently similar to real life that you will get a lot of enjoyment and confidence out of it. And, because these are all different people, they will ask you different questions or respond in different ways. This gives you the opportunity to react to conversations going in unexpected directions. Before you know it, you will feel like you really are a Gaelic-speaker.

Good luck and remember the key thing in all of this: have fun!

(Next time: Things that you will hear about learning Gaelic that are only partly true)

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