How to Use Conversations to Improve at Languages

The number one output-based language learning activity that you can do is talking with a native speaker. While this might seem obvious, there are a few things you can do to maximize the benefit you receive from a conversation no matter your level.


I break these things down into four categories:


  • Preparation
  • Conversation
  • Post-Game Analysis
  • Review


Preparation is all about getting ready to talk about subjects that are important to you. If you are an absolute beginner, this will likely mean pleasantries and introductions. After you have the essentials covered, you will want to start building competency in specific topics, and stick to just a few.


The actual work you need to do at this stage is to build out a script or write down potential phrases you plan on using. As you start to advance beyond a beginner level, prepare questions you can ask the other person and identify the responses you will likely receive to lessen the chances of being caught off guard.


The conversation is where the magic happens. When the conversation opens, you should have done enough preparation to get you through the first couple of minutes without any issues. The hard part comes after you’ve run out of “scripted material”. Depending on your ability, this is where you can either rely on asking the other person questions, or stay on the defensive and answer what they ask you.


Apart from running out of things to say, the second challenge people normally face during a conversation is being unable to understand what the other person says. For this, there are a few language hacks you can use as a workaround. All you need to know is how to ask a few key questions that will get your partner to:


  • Say it again more slowly
  • Repeat what they said
  • Say it a different way


Post Game Analysis can be tedious but I like to think that every minute spent here saves me dozens of minutes down the road studying. It’s so important and valuable because it’s individualized training and it involves you being deeply focused on the things you were trying to say and the things the other person said. In order to do this well, make sure you record your conversations’ audio. There are a few free software programs you can find online in order to do this.


As you listen to the track, make note of any phrases you heard that are important, or go back and figure out how to say something that you struggled to say or wanted to say in the conversation, but couldn’t. I also like to pull out corrections from my partner, and phrases that they say that make their speech more fluid. Take ample notes here and prepare them in a list, or for bonus points add them to your spaced repetition software deck.


Review happens starting the day after the conversation and can continue until the next conversation or even beyond. Personally, I have been using my SRS software (Anki) in order to do this efficiently. I believe that over time, and with more conversations, the most important words and phrases will recur, and I will naturally improve my recall and speaking abilities with time.


The most important thing with any review is to do it consistently, so once you have sufficiently “mined” the audio track for things to review, you need to make it part of your routine to do your flashcards every day or as often as you can so that you receive the benefit.