Mastering the art of conversation is a skill – particularly when that conversation is not in our native tongue. When acquiring our first language, we start with speaking before moving on to grammar and writing skills. However, learning a second language often focuses on reading and comprehension first rather than verbal narrative. If speaking is the primary language skill needed this begs the question: how can conversation practice be better integrated into corporate language training?
Many international assignees feel insecure when they arrive in their destination country as despite preparing themselves with a language course beforehand, they struggle to understand native speakers in their home environment.
Traditional language teaching is heavily based on students answering teachers’ questions and this is not indicative of how adults use a foreign language in the real world.
The business case for companies investing in effective language training is stronger than ever and conversation practice is a vital part of this. Here are five reasons why it is so important:
1. Learning by doing
Conversation practice enables language learners to assimilate their acquired knowledge, integrating a variety of cognitive skills at once to produce oral communication. In effect, this is learning by doing.
According to a study by Elise W. M. Hopman and Maryellen C. MacDonald of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, language learners that practice speaking outperform those who learn via comprehension exercises where there is no oral practice.
It is speaking that activates all linguistic elements of grammar, punctuation and vocabulary at the same time.
The study also shows that as speakers rely on working memory during speaking; conversation practice is the so-called “link” between grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, increasing connections among these linguistic elements as the speaker forms a sentence.
Comprehension practice, on the other hand, does not integrate linguistic elements in the same way because learners are given the language. A good balance of listening and speaking is essential for effective language learning. Language training needs to be designed in a way that acquired skills and knowledge can be applied in the real world.
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. Confucius
2. Conversation is a two-way street
Real language evolves rapidly and also requires competent listening skills.
Improving conversation skills requires active listening.
So when we speak of the importance of listening in language learning, this doesn’t just entail listening to comprehension exercises and completing gap-fill exercises, it also means listening to your trainer and fellow course participants, showing them that you are listening and understanding the culture behind the language that you are hearing.
Listening is not just listening to respond to the question but also listening to show interest and asking the correct follow-up questions. Good listening skills are a valuable transferable skill and conversation practice is the ideal arena to train them.
Having the lexis to stop your trainer and ask if you haven’t understood a word or phrase is great for preparing yourself for working in a foreign language.
Very often it’s the realia of language that stops learners in their tracks. Formal expressions are easier to use than everyday language that is used in professional and social situations in the real world.
Understanding is a two-way street.
3. Relationships come first
When learners embrace their curiosity, the learning curve soars. Learners who take an interest in their trainer and fellow participants will benefit from the conversation and the trainer will be grateful too.
Building rapport and showing interest in your conversation partner is an important part of communication. Learning conversational skills is also linked to emotional intelligence and understanding and people with a high EQ usually excel at it!
Active listening equates to engagement and by formulating questions with your trainer, you will improve your grammar and accuracy too.
Learning to read between the lines and being interested in people is an integral part of language practice.
Relaxing means letting go. So don’t worry about correctness and just try to communicate. You will make more errors but just like learning to ride a bicycle you need to keep trying so you can get the practice you need to improve.
The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said. Peter F. Drucker
4. Flipped classroom approach
The flipped classroom approach has been around since the 1990s. It is a great way to improve learner engagement both before and during the live training session.
Traditional learning often keeps the emphasis on the teacher, which can leave the learner as a passive recipient of information. Learners often arrive at sessions with little understanding of what exactly they will be learning about that day.
The flipped classroom approach turns this method on its head and moves the learner to a central position in the learning process.
Learners receive digital content before their training session and then continue working with the material during class. The flipped classroom approach accelerates learning by letting employees work at their own pace, giving them the power to decide what they want to learn and they can implement what they learn immediately.
Language learning apps are popular and are easy to integrate into the flipped classroom approach – learners have the autonomy to study at their own pace and are ready to participate in sessions with the trainer, i.e. hit the ground running with conversation practice.
5. Tailor-made content
Many language classes tackle language learning from a grammar perspective and this is not favorable for confidence-building and conversational skills.
Speaking is what we do most in another language and if learners are encouraged to speak from the start they will have a very different learning experience. It feels a lot more personal and can be tailor-made to address the needs and wishes of the individual and group.
An article from the HBR emphasizes how those participants who enjoy the experience learn more than people with negative attitudes. Very often conversation practice is the part where the learners can determine the content and learning by doing is a way of engaging learners.
Many believe that the amount of learning is related to a time issue but really, learners are inspired by good content. They engage with content they find useful, relevant and inspiring. In conversation training, this is the ideal setting to tap into learner-focused topics.
Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Walk the talk
Working internationally requires both intercultural skills and language competency. When L&D professionals design a language strategy for employees, conversation practice must be a central part of the strategy. This can be part of a blended learning or flipped classroom approach but true conversation cannot be totally managed by an online course and getting the balance right is fundamental. When working in a foreign language, employees need the confidence to communicate fluently without worrying about grammar and lexis.
Nurturing employees and providing them with conversation practice opportunities as an integral part of language training, ensures that international assignments get off to a good start as it helps assignees deal with culture shock and assimilation into a new environment. Moreover learning languages is a soft skill for life that employees are happy to invest time and energy in.