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The Role of Conversation Practice in Second Language Learning

Why is it that you can spend hours and hours learning a second language, and still not be a very good conversationalist? In this article, we check in with some basic linguistic theory and studies on conversation practice in second language learning to see how people end up in this situation (and what you can do to avoid it).

The Role of Conversation Practice in Second Language Learning image

There's a common issue second language learners seem to have.

It arises when, after months (or perhaps even years) of study, they try to talk to a native speaker of the language they've been learning, and realize they can't really communicate much of anything at all.

Of course, this is a horribly frustrating experience, but on top of that, it’s confusing. How is it possible to spend so much time learning a second language and still end up unable to hold a simple conversation? And more importantly, what can you do to avoid ending up in this situation yourself?

The answer to these questions probably doesn’t seem obvious. After all, to most people, knowing a language pretty much means you know how to have a conversation in that language; it seems hard to imagine learning a language without also being able to hold a conversation in it. However, there’s a distinction to be made here, and understanding a little bit of linguistic theory will help us to pull it apart.

Linguistic Competence vs. Communicative Competence

Let’s ask ourselves a question: what does it take for someone to be a competent speaker of a language? Is it that they know all the words and grammatical rules in that language, or is there something more they have to understand?

The answer to this question hinges on what we mean by a “competent” speaker. In linguistics, when we talk about a “competent speaker”, we typically mean to refer to linguistic competence, an idea first introduced by Noam Chomsky in 1965[1]. In simple terms, linguistic competence refers to a speaker’s unconscious knowledge of all the “rules” of their language - that is, basically the kind of grammatical ‘rules’ you would learn in a second language course, like how to form plurals, how to conjugate different verbs, and so on.

The idea of linguistic competence, however, has been criticized by many linguists as failing to acknowledge how language is actually used in the real world. For example, in 1966, a year after Chomsky introduced the idea of linguistic competence, linguist and anthropologist Dell Hymes argued that just knowing the words and grammatical rules in a language wasn’t enough, and that speakers also needed knowledge of things like when to speak (and when not to), what words were appropriate for different situations, and so on[2]. Hymes referred to this kind of knowledge as communicative competence: in short, everything you have to know to communicate normally in your language besides just the words and grammatical rules.

Now, you might be having trouble imagining exactly what this could mean, so let’s make the difference between linguistic and communicative competence clear using a simple example:

Imagine a sixty-five year old man who’s learning to speak English and has seen the phrase “on fleek” while using the internet. He might understand its basic meaning (something like “awesome”), and how to use it in a grammatical sentence. In this case, we can say he’s linguistically competent when it comes to this term. But unless he also knows not to use it in, say, an interview with a prospective employer, we can’t say that he’s communicatively competent about it. While the two types of competence aren’t always focused on to the same degree in linguistics, it’s pretty obvious that both are necessary for the purposes of communication.

What Should You Be Taught in a Second Language Course?

Well, one thing that should be obvious from our discussion about linguistic vs. communicative competence is that language courses and apps often focus most heavily on linguistic competence - in other words, vocabulary and grammatical rules. While you definitely have to know these things to be able to speak a second language, they aren’t actually enough to allow you to hold a conversation, as we saw from the above example.

You might think this is reasonable. After all, if communicative competence were really important for new second language learners, wouldn’t it be given higher priority in classrooms and language learning apps?

As it turns out, this isn’t necessarily true. There’s a lot of distance between the world of researchers, who ask questions about what’s best for second language learners, and the world of policy-makers, who decide how second language learning takes place. In fact, in a review of the impact of research on educational policy, Orland (2009) states that “even the most compelling and relevant research findings may fail to penetrate the policymaking process and, where research influences are manifest, their contributions are likely to be both indirect and incremental”[3]. In other words, current research probably has very little impact on what you’re being taught in a classroom setting - if it has any impact at all.

Furthermore, second language courses tend to favour the most “proper” way of speaking; that is, they often teach you to speak how most people think you “should” speak, rather than how people really do speak. Mougeon, Nadasdi, and Rehner examined the speech of a selection of French teachers, and found that they consistently avoided colloquial variants - that is, they avoided speaking in the way most people (especially young people) actually speak[4]. As pointed out in a paper by Dewaele in 2004, the effect that this has on learners is that the input they receive isn’t diverse enough for them to understand everyday speech[5]. Essentially, not only are second language learning methods not necessarily based on current research, but they tend to purposely teach you to speak in a way that’s too formal for everyday use.

So What Does All This Have To Do With Second Language Learning?

With everything we now know it seems pretty clear how you can end up studying a language for so long and not be able to hold a conversation. It’s because second language learning courses typically only teach linguistic competence, and this isn’t enough to allow you to hold a natural conversation. The solution seems pretty obvious: if you want to be able to hold a conversation in a second language, you have to develop your communicative competence in that language and the easiest way to practice this is probably just by having conversations in that language.

At this point, you might be feeling a little worried. Conversation seems hard. Isn’t this just too much to ask of a new second language speaker? In order to answer this, we need to see what the research in linguistics has to say about it.

Research on The Effect of Conversation Practice on Second Language Learning

One of the first researchers to discuss the effects of conversation practice on second language learning was Michael Long. Using results from previous studies, he argued that conversation practice between native and non-native speakers, and especially conversation that required speakers to work together to ensure they understood each other, should actually improve second language acquisition[6].

Since 1996, Long’s above prediction has been backed up by a number of studies in linguistics. For example, an early study by Gass and Varonis in 1994 had already suggested that being able to converse with a native speaker seems to help non-native speakers, not only in their ability to understand native speakers, but also to be understood by them[7] (at least short-term).

More recently, a 2017 study by Saito and Akiyama[8] aimed to examine the longer-term effects of video-based conversational interaction on second language learners’ speaking abilities. In their study, they compared two different groups of second language learners: one group used a telecommunication tool (like Skype or Google Hangouts) to practice conversation with a native speaker, while the other group were given standard vocabulary and grammar exercises (like those commonly used in second language instruction). Both groups would practice for the same amount of time every week. The groups were compared after one week, and then again after 12 weeks. The researchers found that the group that had done conversation practice improved significantly in their overall fluidity of speech, variation in vocabulary, listening comprehension, and correct use of grammar, whereas the group that simply practiced vocabulary and grammar showed no significant improvement over this time period.

In fact, Saito and Akiyama note that in general, past studies seem to suggest that second language learners benefit from working on tasks with “high communicative value with the goal of achieving successful social interaction and communication” (p. 8). Thus, though it isn’t necessarily reflected by second language teaching practices, current research indicates that conversation practice likely helps, rather than harms, second language acquisition.

Other Reasons to Practice Conversation in Your Second Language

We’ve seen that conversation actually seems to help second language learning, but there are still a lot of questions about why this might be. As I’ve mentioned before[9], when researchers ask questions, they tend to be pretty specific, which means that while the research that does exist is pretty in-depth, there’s still a lot we don’t know. However, we can still make some good guesses about some other things that might be going on. Below, I outline one or two reasonable guesses about other reasons that conversation practice seems to be useful for second language learners.

Connected Speech Processes

One reason that conversation should help with second language learning has to do with what linguists refer to as connected speech processes (CSPs). This refers to the fact that words that are spoken in isolation or in careful speech (as you often hear them in language learning apps) often sound very different from when you hear them in actual conversation. This is something all linguists know to be true, even though your average speaker doesn’t really notice it.

CSPs are extremely common, however, and are part of what help you to sound native-like as a speaker. For example, think of the expression “gonna”, as in I’m gonna go to the movies. For most native English speakers, this is an extremely common way to say “going to”, which is identical in meaning, but actually very different in terms of how it sounds and how it’s written. Another example is “didja”, which is often used in casual speech in place of “did you”. Again, while English speakers treat these as nearly identical in meaning, they’re different enough that one might be unrecognizable as the other to someone who’s just learning English[10].

As pointed out in Alameen and Levis (2015)[11], though connected speech processes are common in both spoken and written language, second language learners are rarely taught to be aware of them. They note that “frustrating misunderstandings in communication may arise because native speakers do not pronounce English the way second language learners are taught in the classroom” (though this of course is true not only for English, but for any language). The same seems to be true for most applications that aim to teach second language learning: the samples of native speech that most apps offer tend to give you only the most “proper” or formal version of the language, even if this isn’t really how people always talk.

This is, of course, done to simplify the language learning process in its early stages, but it can lead to serious issues with comprehension when you try to actually talk to someone. If you’ve spent some time learning a second language, you’ve probably already noticed this: it’s part of the reason why, despite hours of practice in a classroom or practicing on an app, you still can’t follow television shows or conversations between native speakers very well. The way second language learning tends to teach you to speak just isn’t very much like the way people actually speak. This means that you cannot learn to understand native speakers easily using most second language apps; to do this, the best way is probably to actually interact with a native speaker, so that you can learn what natural speech sounds like, instead of just learning from speech in its simplified and idealized form.

Social Factors in Second Language Learning

This leads us into another major reason that conversation practice should help with learning to sound more natural in your second language: it all comes back to Hymes’ view of communicative competence.

As we mentioned earlier, communicative competence basically consists of all the things you need to know to sound like a native speaker of a language, apart from just vocabulary and grammar. Using language in a natural way consists of a lot more than just being able to speak grammatically: it also means you know how to talk to different people[12] (for example, your child vs. your boss); how to speak in different situations (e.g when you’re at the bar vs. when you’re at work); and what conversational topics are considered taboo in your culture (for example, whether it’s okay to ask someone for money - it is in some cultures - or to talk about politics, and so on).

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that these aren’t things that get much attention in second language learning classes or apps, but not knowing them marks you as being a poor communicator and leads you into misunderstandings just as clearly as bad grammar does. In fact, intercultural misunderstanding is a well-documented phenomenon. Tannen (1984)[13] provides a wonderful overview of the different expectations cultures can have with respect to how you’re supposed to communicate. For example, he notes that some cultures expect a relatively large amount of silence, whereas others expect speakers to be more talkative in general. The result of these differences is cross-cultural stereotyping; in other words, entire cultures can come to misunderstand each other due to expectations about how much we should speak. As Tannen notes, “those who expect more talk stereotype the more silent group as uncooperative and stupid. Those who use less talk think of the more talkative group as pushy, hypocritical, and untrustworthy.” (p. 190).

This puts the second language learner in a pretty unfortunate situation if all they learn is grammar and vocabulary: as soon as they’re confronted with any differences at all between what’s expected in their culture and the culture of their second language, miscommunication is bound to occur.

So what can you, as a second language learner do about this?

Given that current language learning classes and apps don’t usually teach you any of this (and it’s probably difficult to learn from just watching videos on T.V. or YouTube), the best advice I could offer is to go spend time speaking with a native speaker in the second language of your choice. As it stands, it is only through conversation with a native speaker, where you are able to hear how someone in that language actually talks, that you are likely to become a fully competent speaker in that language.

Remember, if you’re learning a second language, your goal is probably to be able to communicate with native speakers of that language, not just to know words and grammatical rules. As I’ve discussed here, current research does suggest that conversation practice helps with fluency and grammar, among other things; and it also probably helps you to recognize how speakers actually speak, rather than only being able to recognize the idealized forms you’re given in most language learning apps. But apart from all that, being able to communicate with another person is about more than just words and grammatical rules: it’s also about learning to understand the conventions and culture that go along with the language you’re hoping to learn. As pointed out by Tannen in his 1984 article, expectations about how we speak differ from culture to culture, and these are conventions that have to be learned - probably by spending some time getting to know people from that culture. After all, unless you understand these conventions, even if you can understand the words someone is saying, you can’t really be sure what they meant to communicate at all.

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Bibliography

  • [1] Chomsky, N. (2014). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Vol. 11). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • [2] Hymes, D. (1964). Two types of linguistic relativity. In Sociolinguistics: proceedings of the UCLA Sociolinguistics Conference (pp. 114-67).
  • [3] Orland, M. (2009). Separate orbits: The distinctive worlds of educational research and policymaking. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, D. Plank, & T. Ford (Eds.), Handbook Of Education Policy Research (pp. 113–128). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • [4] Mougeon, R., Nadasdi, T., & Rehner, K. (2002). État de la recherche sur l’appropriation de la variation par les apprenants avancés du FL2 ou FLE. Acquisition et interaction en langue étrangère, (17), 7-50.
  • [5] Dewaele, J. M. (2004). The acquisition of sociolinguistic competence in French as a foreign language: An overview. Journal of French Language Studies, 14(3), 301-319.
  • [6] Long, M. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. Handbook Of Second Language Acquisition. 413-468.
  • [7] Gass, S. M., & Varonis, E. M. (1994). Input, interaction, and second language production. Studies In Second Language Acquisition, 16(3), 283-302.
  • [8] Saito, K., & Akiyama, Y. (2017). Video‐based interaction, negotiation for comprehensibility, and second language speech learning: A longitudinal study. Language Learning, 67(1), 43-74.
  • [9] “How Does Age Affect Your Ability To Learn a Second Language?”
  • [10] If you don’t think these variations sound very different from their ‘citation form’ variants, ask someone who’s a non-native English speaker if they sound the same! If you’re not a native French speaker, you can also appreciate my confusion upon learning Je ne sais pas… (meaning I don’t know) in French class, and then hearing people say chė pa, its contracted form, when I first moved to Montreal.
  • [11] Alameen, G., & Levis, J. M. (2015). Connected speech. The handbook of English pronunciation, 159-174.
  • [12] A number of studies, e.g. Dewaele (2004) and Bedinghaus (2015) (reference below), have found that ‘study abroad’ type courses, which allow learners to spend time interacting with native speakers, helped to improve learners’ ability to use more ‘informal’ or colloquial speech.

    Bedinghaus, R. W. (2015). The effect of exposure to phonological variation on perceptual categorization and lexical access in second language Spanish: The case of /s/-aspiration in Western Andalusian Spanish (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Indiana university, Indiana, USA.
  • [13] Tannen, D. (1984). The pragmatics of cross-cultural communication. Applied Linguistics, 5(3), 189-195.