They always say that being immersed in a foreign language is the best way to learn how to speak that language. I’m not sure who “they” are, but I would have to agree with this sentiment.

This past summer, I was given the opportunity to spend a week in France. While there, I was determined to engage in as many conversations with native French speakers as possible, rather than merely expect others to speak English to me or relying on my friends to translate.

From that experience, I have some tips for having a conversation in a foreign language.

1. Listen carefully when not speaking

This may seem like fairly obvious advice, but it bears repeating. When having a conversation that you have to translate both sides of in your head, getting distracted by trying to find the right words for your next rejoinder can be easy.

But starting to formulate your own sentence while the other person is speaking can cause you to miss important context clues. Part of the reason immersion is so important to language acquisition is that hearing vocabulary words and grammar being used by native speakers is the best way to understand how it all works in a real conversation.


Plus, it’s always better practice to really be listening to your conversation partner.

2. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t understand something

I understand the desire to not interrupt the flow of conversation in order to ask someone to explain words they used or to slow down. However, if you don’t ask when you start to be confused and just nod along, you can completely lose track of the whole conversation.

Then, before you know it, you’d nodded an affirmation that you’re an underwater basket-weaver who builds spaceships for fun.

Confusing conversations have a tendency to snowball. And, if your go-to confused expression isn’t wide-eyed near-panic like mine, the person you’re speaking with might not know you’re even lost. They may continue speaking, leaving you further and further behind.

At the end of the day, the conversation is about communication, not about keeping the flow of the conversation smooth. Admitting you don’t understand something will help you more effectively communicate.


3. When culturally appropriate, a smile is the best vocabulary word

Now, there are some situations in which grinning widely might come across a little strangely. But, usually when one is in a new place with new people, taking a note from Aaron Burr is a good idea: “Talk less, smile more.”

Even when you don’t have the necessary vocabulary to express the sentiment, a smile can show gratitude, friendliness, and general pleasantness. It may sound cheesy, but a smile can really tear down a language barrier.

If you ever find yourself immersed in another language and culture, I hope these simple tips help. After being a host sibling to exchange students for much of my adolescence, being on the other side of a foreign language conversation was interesting and a lot of fun.

Translating both their words and your own words at the pace of a real-time conversation is a challenge, but well worth it to be able to communicate with a person in their own language.

Kim Carter is an English student at the University of Maine at Augusta with an expected graduation in December 2016. She is also involved in many other activities on campus including working as a representative in the Student Government, tutoring in the Writing Center, playing the guitar and singing at campus events, speaking at academic presentations, and giving campus tours.

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