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Why Conversation Is the Path to True Fluency

When most people visualize becoming fluent in a foreign language, they imagine themselves chatting away confidently with other people.

While the definition of “fluent” is a little broader (most definitions include reading and writing ability as part of fluency), we still tend to associate true fluency with the ability to converse like a native speaker.

After all, conversing is one of the most challenging things to do in a foreign language. If you’ve ever asked someone directions in another language - and tried to follow the answer - you know what we're talking about.

Unlike reading, where you are in control of the speed and can reread a word as many times as you need, a spoken interaction moves very quickly and you only get one chance to catch what was said. And when it’s your turn to speak, you not only have to come up with the right words and grammar on the fly, you also have to worry about whether your pronunciation is good enough to be understood.

So it’s not surprising that language learners tend to focus on reading and writing rather than developing their speaking and listening skills.

Not only is reading the least intimidating way to engage with a new language, it’s a great way to build up vocabulary and grammar knowledge. It also tends to be what is emphasized in most foreign language courses, be they apps or in-person classes.

Finding opportunities for authentic speaking practice in a foreign language can be a challenge in and of itself, and even if you do get the chance, you might feel intimidated to try.

Nevertheless, if you really want to become fluent, speaking and listening are key skills you need to commit to building up. 

Taking lessons with Immerse is a great way to do this. Our expert language Guides are friendly and experienced teachers, and you’ll get plenty of practice talking and listening without having to worry whether your skills are strong enough to keep a conversation going.

And you get to choose which classes you take - so pick a topic you feel ready for. Some of our Members even take the same lesson a couple of times because it feels familiar and comfortable - our Emergent Language Teaching approach means the lesson has a fresh take every time.

Benefits of Learning Through Live Spoken Interaction

1. Talking without translating

When you learn the name of something because someone points it out and tells you what it’s called, you associate the object directly with its name. You actually do this all the time.

Think about the last time a friend showed you a new piece of technology. Did you grab a piece of paper to write down what it was called while they told you about it? Probably not. 

But isn’t it a little different when you’re learning vocabulary in a new language?

If you’re learning Spanish, you may be tempted to think that you have to match new Spanish words to their English counterparts to learn them.

But in fact, doing that will actually slow you down.

If you pair Spanish words to English ones instead of learning to associate them directly with objects, you will end up translating everything you want to say. 

Imagine you’re traveling in Peru and you want to buy a bottle of water from a street vendor. You feel thirsty, you see the bottle, and you think “water.” Now, you have to translate “water” into Spanish. It’s an extra step that will slow you down, compared to just seeing the bottle and immediately thinking “agua.” 

Of course, translating a single word may only take a fraction of a second, but translating every idea that comes into your head during a conversation really will slow you down. Remember that mental image of the fluent speaker chatting away confidently in the foreign language? That speaker is not translating.

So do yourself a favor - don’t get into a translating habit that you’ll just have to break later on. 

2. Verbal communication is more direct

But why is hearing the vocabulary better than reading it? Isn’t a picture dictionary just as good for learning to associate objects directly with their names in another language? Actually, it’s not. 

First, when you learn from a picture dictionary, you can’t experience the object and its name simultaneously - you have to look back and forth between the picture and the word. Also, you are learning to associate the picture with a group of letters, not with a sound pattern. This isn’t your brain’s instinctive way of picking up new words. (And it’s why you didn’t write down the name of that new technology your friend showed you.)

One reason language learners often focus on reading and writing is because that’s the way foreign languages are taught in school. And if that’s how your teachers did it, it must be the best way, right? Wrong.

Reading and writing are important language skills, but the reality is that they are also just more practical for teaching a large number of students simultaneously in a classroom than speaking and listening are.

Effective conversation practice requires more flexibility, individualized attention, and authentic context than most teachers are able to offer in a classroom.

At Immerse, our instructor-led small group classes, and our interactive 3D locations allow you to focus on truly developing your fluency in a fun and supportive atmosphere.

3. Written language Is incomplete

Learning to think and speak directly in your new language will help you develop the ability to communicate more smoothly and confidently. But that’s actually not the only reason to focus on verbal communication.

The true form of a language is its spoken form.

Every human society has a spoken form of language, and children learn instinctively to speak and understand other speakers of their own language. The same is not true for written language, which is challenging to learn and has not developed in every society. 

Writing is merely a system of symbols for representing spoken language.

It is incomplete, leaving out much of the nuance that is present in spoken language. Even writing systems like the Roman alphabet, which aims to provide a letter for each speech sound, cannot capture the nuance and variation present in actual speech.

Think about the letter “t” in the words toy, cat, and mitten. If you say these words in a naturally spoken sentence, the “t” will not sound the same. 

Written language does not capture intonation or tone of voice either, and it also does a poor job of showing the way fluent speakers take pronunciation shortcuts in informal speech. (Think of the way you actually say “I should have asked him” when you’re talking quickly.)

So if you focus your language learning energies primarily on reading and writing, you are not learning the full language in all its eccentricities, and the actual living spoken language is likely to seem unfamiliar and hard to follow when you hear it. 

If your goal is to become that confident speaker chatting away fluently, set aside the books and vocabulary lists as often as you can and tip the balance towards your speaking and listening skills.

It’s the path to true fluency.