The Art of Conversation (in a foreign language)

By | January 28, 2015

Of all of the activities we do on a daily basis, I feel that the act of communicating with another person using spoken language and a series of back and forth exchanges, what we call “conversation”, holds a very unique place. If you think about all the things involved in this process, and how closely it is linked with who we are, it’s pretty amazing.

For example, our thought processes are tightly intertwined with our speech. In order to keep a conversation going we really have to use our mind, with the level of effort depending on how unique or commonplace the topic is. How we think, and how we express ourselves are two very important parts that make up who we are, what makes us special. Scientifically, the workings of the human brain are just beginning to be understood, and it’s clear there is no simple ‘equation’ for conversing. In fact, the “Turing Test” is an idea proposed by well known computer scientist Alan Turing that involves the attempt to create a computer program which can maintain a conversation that is indistinguishable from that of a human. Though there have been some minor successes, most people agree we still have a long way to come in this area.

Let’s think about what’s involved in having a conversation with someone. First, we have to be able to listen to the other person’s speech and figure out what they are trying to say. Besides the words themselves there is tone of voice, pauses, and other visual cues like body language that give us a wealth of information to interpret. Once we digest what they’ve said, we think about it and begin forming our own response on our mind, which we eventually convey to them using words of our own. We have to decide on what we want to say conceptually on a high level (for example “I agree with you”), and then some part of our brain makes decisions about word choices, expressions, and tries to fit everything together using proper grammar. Our emotions at the time may leak out into our tone or voice or gestures either purposefully or unwillingly.

Besides taxing our capacity to process information both coming in (listening) and going out (speaking), speech also heavily works our memory. We have to remember facts about ourself, the other party, and possibly other memories like events from years ago. Linguistically, we also need to access the meaning for all words involved, as well as the meaning of expressions -combinations of words that is more than the sum of their parts.

To top it all off, this entire process is typically done at breakneck speed. Passionate conversations sometimes can contain several hundred words per minute, with frequent interchanges between who is actively speaking. In a particularly fast paced conversations you may have to do both speaking and listening at the same time, consider whether you want to change your statement halfway through speaking it or stop completely, based on what the other person is saying. And as the number of people involved increases to more than two, things get even more complicated. In certain environments, like at the workplace, just finding the right timing to jump into a conversation can be a challenge, and is a skill I’m still refining myself in my native English.

The really amazing thing is that for most of us, the ability to converse like this in our native language is a relatively effortless process that we learned in our formative years with ease. Actually, let me take that last part back – I think we all did struggle to learn conversation, and language in general, when we were young – but we were single-mindedly focused on the learning process itself as opposed to how hard it was, and much of our memories from that period are quite foggy if not gone completely.

Like many things we learned as a child, the process of communicating like in our native tongue this has become second nature to us, so that we can hold simple conversations without consciously thinking. I think of this sort of activity as going on ‘automatic pilot’, where our (learned) instincts just take over.

Now all is this well and good, but the real challenge comes when we decide (or are forced) to learn a second language, especially at a later age when the part of our brain that deals with the ingraining of learned things to make them second nature has gotten a bit lazy. Besides the fact that certain processes in the brain naturally decline as we age (though this itself is debated and depends on the skill in question), the act of learning the basics of a language is something that we probably haven’t done in quite some years, especially if you consider that we learn key fundamentals of grammar and pronunciation in the very first few years of life.

I’ve come to think about these things after over a decade of learning Japanese and finding that having a real tennis-style back-and-forth conversation is one of the most difficult things to master. From an academic point of view, conversation skill is unique in that no amount of book study or practice will get you past a certain point. You can master grammar, memorize expressions and all the vocabulary you like, but it is only when you actually begin conversing with someone in a foreign language you realize that, while these things do matter, there is so much more involved, and the only way to really train those skills is actually speaking with an actual person.

Now you won’t find me using this as an excuse for weak Japanese conversation skills, or a reason to slack off. Instead, it helps me understand why the process can take years, and in doing so I’ve gained a new respect for my own native communication ability, as well as for those who have mastered a second or third language. I’ve also become more interested in how to teach conversation skills, and someday may consider a career doing this.

For those of you have taken the first big step to try learning a foreign language and experienced that “oh no!” moment where your suddenly clueless about what to say next, go ahead and give yourself a round of applause.


Though I’ve been thinking about these topics for quite some time, reading this post helped inspire me to actually write it all out.


(Featured image taken from here:

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