Why Beginners Should Lead When Learning A New Language

Imagine that you are just getting started learning a new language when you meet a native speaker of that language. You and your potential new foreign friend will both have a lot more fun if you (the half clueless beginner) starts and leads the conversation.

When I say that you as a beginning language student should lead the conversation, I mean that you should ask the questions. This is a lot easier type of conversation than just waiting for your conversation partner to ask you a question. If you have learned to ask where they are from, then ask that. Next ask, “What do you do?” and so on. Ask questions that you already know the answer to, just to get practice speaking the new language.

At some point you will run out of questions that you know, at which point it’s time to change your approach, but you will quickly get a feel for the fact that you can really communicate in your new language.

When you learn to lead your conversations, you will help make language learning more fun for everyone.

  • khaled

    That’s really nice because I’m learning
    French, and I’m facing a problem with having

    • Brent Van Arsdell
      Brent Van Arsdell

      When you are a complete beginner this is especially important. The longer you can keep someone talking to you in French, the more you will learn.

      If you ask the questions it will be a lot easier.

  • thomas

    Lori –

    Erring on the side of caution is a very good idea especially when taking into consideration social prejudices. Assumptions are a challenge to face. One of the best ways to introduce yourself to a stranger in your own country is in the language of your native tongue. By doing this you step into a space where you have stated your preference. The other person can then choose how best to respond to you. Maybe they know very little English and respond with a broken statement. This will give you plenty of opportunity to respond in the best way you know how – hopefully in their native tongue so a great conversation can take place! A great way to respond to someone who has displayed poor English skills is with this statement: Se prefiere hablar en español? ‘Do you prefer to speak in Spanish? You may notice a smile cross their face and a light in their eyes as a truly caring connection is made.

    Leading a conversation means this: Provide more statements that require a response. By offering an inquiry or making a statement that gives someone an opportunity to speak about themselves or another subject that interests you the necessity to speak outside of your comfort zone or even ability to convey the internal dialogue becomes minimized. In an ideal world you would only have to answer questions that you know the answer to. In the real world someone may say just about anything to you so having the proper comprehension is necessary in order to keep the conversation alive. How many times a week do you talk to a friend or acquaintance and hear a word that you need to have them define or expand on? This is part of the joy in learning a new language – asking for help when you just don’t understand. It’s a small bond, yet its the kind of connection that many people enjoy.

    T-Shirt, button, flag or simple listening skills – whatever you choose to use in order to practice your Spanish will be a great help to making a lifelong skill of the languages you study.


  • JT

    My very first real foreign French sentence was Where is the train station? [Frankly I don’t remember how to spell it in French so I’m going to spare myself the embarrassment of making those mistakes and posting them in public!]

    This was a bona fide question in the countryside in France with no one else around to translate…and I was really lost. This was not an excuse to chat up the damsels–this question was for real!

    I lead the conversation. No one was around to intercede, mediate, re-translate, I was on my own. I was afraid that she wouldn’t understand and I’d have to repeat myself repeatedly and slowly and use gestures and sign language but amazingly she got it on my first utterance :-)

    Then my next worry–would I understand the torrent of language from a native speaker. I don’t recall what percentage of what she responded I understood–but I know the bottom line–I got to the train station and caught the train! :-)

    [more later]

  • JT

    Language skills are muy importante!

    There was a time when I worked in France for company that led tours [which I will not identify]. To try to make a long story short I’ll leave out details but 4 of us were in hot-air balloon chase vehicle and managed to maneuver it in front of a speeding coach [think Greyhound-sized loaded with kids] on wet roads in foreign country.

    We got nailed. Glass all over, fire suppressants inaccessible, kids crying, driver crying (someone said his career was over–even though we were probably imbecilic for placing ourselves in harms way), and a balloon blithely drifting through the sky far enough away not to have witnessed the two vehicles attempting to occupy the same space concurrently and resultant deformity–and expecting support crew to be at the landing site!

    Of the four of us chase crew, I was the designated crew member to “commandeer” a local driver from among the onlookers to take me to the montgolfier’s landing location.

    My language skills when directing a man who apparently knew no English was very helpful to getting me to rendezvous with the flight crew and passengers of the balloon! :-)

    • thomas

      Great stories JT. Its important to lead so that you can get the information that you can understand, eh? Even in the case of a foreigner speaking at their normal, fluent rate the influx of familiar data is important so that some level of comprehension can occur.

  • Ricky Buchanan

    Another reason beginners should lead is that the vocabulary the beginner uses can give the experienced language-learner an idea of how complex the language in their answers can usefully be.

    This isn’t foolproof of course but I’m on both sides of the equation (I’m learning very very basic Urdu and also work with lots of people with low English proficiency) so I’ve had a bit of practice. For example I know that as a native English speaker I have to answer differently to somebody who says “Where … (pause) … train … station?” to somebody who says “Hi, how can I find the train station?”

    • thomas

      Ricky –

      Great observations. As someone learning Spanish in a Spanish speaking country I am beginning to see the same thing! When I ask a question I attempt to formulate it in the best English translation as possible yet I still haven’t got a very good command of articles and conjugations so I often ask people broken questions and hope they have a strong enough command of Spanish to put together what I intend from when I state.

      I’ve learned a lot of compassion for the people I’ve met in my past stumbling over my ‘easy’ language that has taken me 35 years to begin fluency of as I start learning a new one!

      Fluency is definitely something that learning a new language helps refine.


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