There’s no substitute for real Chinese conversation practice.
The bottom line is: you can’t be fluent until you can actually hold a conversation.
You can do some at-home, solo conversation practice if need be.
Like talking back to a television show.
But that’ll only get you partway there.
Your real Chinese conversations are like a live musical performance.
You’ve got someone listening to your every word, judging your coherence and accuracy.
That means you’ll have some decisions to make in the heat of the moment. Do you stop to correct your mistakes whilst the rest of the band plays on? Or do you keep going and hope nobody noticed?
The answers, in many ways, rely as much on your fellow musicians as they do on you, so choose the right language partners and make sweet music together!
Fast Track Fluency with Chinese Conversation Practice
How to Track Down a Chinese Conversation Partner
If you think about your most natural conversations in your native language, they’re most likely to be with your friends.
That kind of natural conversational flow is something which can best be emulated in a casual setting with a group of Chinese speakers. In the bar, in a cafe, playing sports or just hanging out, being with friends is by far the best way to brush up on your slang and colloquial language skills.
A lot of the difficulty with engaging in this kind of conversational practice is actually finding a group of people who are willing to put up with a non-native Chinese speaker until they’re fluent.
In the wrong company, group conversations can be stressful as subjects fly over your head and you feel as though you’ve got nothing sensible to contribute.
My advice is to find the right group, perhaps containing a few other non-native speakers and preferably with some sympathetic Chinese speakers who are willing to slow it down or explain a few things twice.
Make sure to not be disheartened. Contribute what you can and know that, however stressful it might seem, this is the fastest way that you will improve.
That being said, here’s some great ways to identify the ideal conversation partners for you.
In the community
Whereas friends are great for practicing your colloquial language skills, those skills may not adequately prepare you for speaking Chinese in the community or in the workplace.
Going to Chinese restaurants and shopping at Chinese stores is a great way to put yourself in a position where you have to communicate using Chinese.
Especially for beginners, these situations can be good places to practice textbook dialogue in authentic settings. In these situations, even if you make a mistake, you can use the vast world of body language and extra-linguistic communication to get your point across.
In the workplace
If you use Chinese to conduct business, then chances are good that your conversational skills are already very high. If, however, you have Chinese coworkers but usually communicate in English, try to change the balance and engage in more Chinese conversation.
Coworkers are fantastic people to practice on because you’re forced into the same space and they’ll have to listen to your small talk! Try out new words and try to build up a repertoire where even if your conversations are a little dull, at least you’re not using English to chat about what you did over the weekend and the weather!
Language exchange is a good way to find Chinese speaking partners if you work in an English speaking workplace or lack a Chinese social circle. The difficulty with language exchange can be establishing a dynamic in which both of you are getting out of it what you want. Try to delineate a time frame for speaking Chinese and a time frame for speaking your native language so as to not lean too heavily on one or the other.
Where a friend might be unwilling to correct your mistakes in casual conversation, a good language exchange partner will be quick to correct your pronunciation and will also be listening out for your mistakes. Language exchange is a great time to ask the boring questions you wouldn’t ask your friends. Really focus on a list of vocabulary, a certain topic or a certain point of grammar to get the most out of language exchange.
Messenger services offer a slightly different way to practice Chinese. If you want quick-paced writing practice, then text based services can be a good way to strike up quick, casual conversations.
Many services even have a ”Look Around You” option where you can chat with people in your local area and make acquaintances that way. Others also offer a speech mode in which you record a short voice message.
Conversing this way can give you time to collect your thoughts and give a more structured, reasoned response. Messaging can be a good way to build your confidence as you can give yourself time to fully understand what’s being said to you before replying.
The Do’s of Learning Chinese with Conversation Practice
DO talk about topics you’re interested in
If you’re talking with friends, chances are good that you’ll have shared interests, allowing you to develop deeper skills in subjects that you already find interesting. I advise taking a few of your favorite topics and learning the associated vocabulary back to front.
A good way to collect key vocabulary is to read related articles and write down all of the topic-specific words and phrases. There really can be no substitute for talking about subjects in which you have a real interest as your passion will carry across what your language fails to convey.
There’s another great way to come up with an interesting topic that might also resonate with your conversation partner: FluentU.
DO be an active participant
Make sure to ask questions and be an active participant in conversations you hold. It can be all too easy to drift through conversations whilst not fully engaging your brain.
Take the lead and find out what you want to find out.
Those who are afraid of making mistakes are those who will never learn. If you have to play the fool until you’re able to express yourself confidently and fluently, then play the fool!
DO learn the nuts and bolts of Chinese
Like every branch of language learning, your conversation practice should be focused on improving a few key skills. Most broadly, these are speaking and listening. However, within each, conversation practice is excellent for developing the smaller facets of Chinese.
For example, the uses of particles like ”吧 (ba)”,”呢 (ne)”,”呀 (ya)” and so on are interchangeable in different contexts and it’s especially difficult to understand their correct usage through reading and writing exercises.
DO learn the difference between written and spoken Chinese
Spoken Chinese can be very different from the written thing, so you don’t want to sound like a musty old book rather than sounding like your peers.
So much of language’s meaning is hidden in expression and how different phrases react to one another. In conversation, we see firsthand how certain questions elicit certain set responses. Should you want to sound like a native speaker, it’s pivotal to understand these subtleties.
DO play to your strengths
Whilst some of us are visual learners and can remember the particular color or tone mark above a written word, others find it easier to recall a certain person’s voice or the way in which a particular word has been said.
Immediate response in conversation is the perfect way to echo a word with the correct tones and embed it in your own memory.
Chinese has an exceptionally high number of homophones which are difficult to differentiate without high exposure. Your listening skills will develop massively in conversation whilst your ability to master Chinese’s pesky details will also improve.
How to Retain What You’ve Learned from Conversation Practice
The mental stress of conversation can sometimes leave you feeling as though you haven’t learned anything. This, however, is not the case. Ignore your brain playing tricks! Over time and with frequent use, the words that you once had to exert effort to recall will become instantly accessible vocabulary.
Take it easy
When the effort is too much, don’t be afraid to take a break from big groups and intense Chinese speaking. Set yourself time limits and try to stick to them. When your brain starts to disintegrate, collect your thoughts and remember the simple things.
Keep asking questions
Don’t be afraid to ask about new vocabulary. Your conversation partners will understand that you’re learning, and they want you to be part of the conversation. They don’t want you to fall out of the loop, either! By asking about a word you’ve never heard before, you may discover an awesome new slang word to add to your repertoire.
Write down key vocabulary to study later
You’re far more likely to remember vocabulary that you’ve used in conversation than that which you’ve consumed passively. However, it won’t stick in your long term memory unless it’s re-used again and again. So, write it all down as you go! Study your vocabulary lists while thinking about the context in which you first heard each word used. Regurgitate and re-use!
Make it memorable
Another memory trick is to hold your conversations in interesting settings or in places that you often revisit. Stimulating your memory with certain places and environments is a great way to help you recall the conversations you had there.
So, put aside that textbook and get out of the comfort zone.
No time to look up a word in the dictionary? Made a grammar mistake? That’s conversation! Just remember these techniques and talk your way to fluency.
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