Have you ever felt stuck when speaking a foreign language with a native speaker—be it your tutor, teacher or language partner?
I’m sure you have. If you’re learning a language, struggling when speaking is not a matter of “if”, but of “when”.
Now, when this happens to you, you can make one of two choices. The choice you make will greatly impact your success as a language learner.
When you reach a conversational stumbling back, you can choose to believe ONE of two things:
- That you are just not good at languages, and won’t succeed no matter how hard you try.
- That you can be as successful and fluent in your target language as you want to be, so long as you practice and persevere through use of the right tools and learning methods.
If you are reading this article, you more than likely belong to the second category already. If not, I’m sure you want to—and I assure you, you can!
All it takes is a willingness to try new things, and continually look for ways to accomplish your goals better and faster than before.
No matter which category you belong to, you will struggle from time to time. Just as I said in my previous article on building language islands, struggling to speak is perhaps the most part of being a language learner. Its persevering and pushing through the struggling that separates the ordinary language learners from the extraordinary ones.
It’s like famed German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said:
“You have to do something poorly before you do it well”
And that, dear readers, is what this article is about. Today, I’m going to impart to you the tools and mindset necessary to go from speaking a foreign language poorly to speaking a foreign language well.
The Problem with Speaking
Speaking a foreign language will always be difficult at first, simply because it requires your brain to do so many things at once, including:
And this happens for every sentence you utter in your foreign language.
That’s a lot to deal with! And don’t forget that in addition to all of that, you are engaging in an active, dynamic conversation between yourself and one or more people. This means you must:
That’s quite the mental workout, if you’re not prepared for it. And if you want to be a smooth, fluent speaker of your target language, you need to be as prepared as you can be.
Fortunately, there’s a fantastic set of tools available in any language that can help you prepare for a fluid and natural conversation with a native speaker. These tools are called conversational connectors.
What Are Conversational Connectors?
In any language, there are dozens if not hundreds of expressions and words we use when producing speech and reacting to something that is being told to us.
These expressions are the connecting tissue of a conversation. They allow you to move from one idea or sentence to another, and to connect with your interlocutor, by “latching” on what he/she is/was saying etc
You constantly use expressions or words to:
Using these words and phrases helps to link ideas together, allowing you (the speaker) to better organize and manage the flow of your own spoken ideas, and indicating to your speaking partner (the listener) how the ideas in your argument are expected to flow.
Using connectors in this way makes any conversation not only more natural, but also smooth and pleasant.
Let’s see how to make it happen in any language!
5 Tips to Get You Started with Conversational Connectors
Let me share 5 simple tips that will start you on the path of expertly using conversational connectors in any target language conversation.
1. Focus on the Connectors You Need Right Now
The total number of conversational connectors available for use in any language is enormous—possibly in the order of hundreds of different words and phrases.
Such comprehensive lists can be found easily through a quick Google search, particularly for the world’s most commonly studied languages.
For example, my friend Anthony Lauder once put together an extensive list of conversational connectors in both his native English and also Czech. This list has become so popular within the language learning community that it has even been translated into several other languages.
Such comprehensive lists are nice to have as a reference resource, but they contain far too many items with far too varied usages to make them useful for memorizing. There’s simply too much information in any given list to make direct study of conversational connectors lists worthwhile.
That being said, it is extremely useful to take a list like the one above, and focus on memorizing five or ten of the most commonly used ones.
Which five or ten connectors to choose will be up to you, but I recommend focusing only on the ones that you need personally. To discover which connectors are the most necessary for you, I recommend that you sit down and brainstorm which connectors you use most in your native language. With those connectors in mind, you should be able to find their counterparts in a list of connectors used in your foreign language.
Allow me to share with you some of my personal experiences learning and using conversational connectors in Hungarian, during conversations with my Hungarian tutor on italki.
When I start speaking Hungarian with my tutor, I quickly realized that the most common conversational connectors that I tried to use in that language were the same ones that I used most often in my native Italian.
For example, often use először (First of all) and másodszor (secondly) to create a clear structure for the ideas and concepts that I introduce during the discussion.
Egyrészt (on the one hand) and másrészt (on the other hand) are incredibly useful connectors for when I need to contrast two ideas, or statements.
Szóval (so...) and “hol tartottam?” (Where was I?) always come in handy when I lose my train of thought, or simply want to return to a previous subject of conversation after I’ve gone off on a tangent.
Más szavakkal (in other words) is a great connector I often use to restate, or explain something I’ve said in a different way.
I also tend to use az én esetemben (in this case) and ami engem illet (as far as I am concerned) to get more specific, and introduce my personal opinions on the topic of conversation.
2. Keep a Notebook of Conversational Connectors
This tip is quite simple. Find a notebook, and every time you find a conversational connector that seems useful to you, write it down for safekeeping. If you don’t want to use a physical notebook, type the connectors into a document on your computer or mobile device.
And don’t write down just the connector by itself!—always try to find two or three examples of how the connector is used, and then write those in your notebook as well.
The act of writing down information in this way is extremely beneficial to your learning, as it gives you another way to process the new information and get it into your long-term memory.
The benefit of keeping everything in a notebook or text file is that it allows your commonly used connectors to be constantly available at a moment's notice.
You can consult and review these notes when you are out, and you can re-use them as a reference when having a conversation, for example with your tutor or language partner on Skype.
3. Build a Network of Memorable Elements Around New Connectors
Human memory works best when a single idea is mentally associated with as many other ideas as possible. Without a network of relevant connections, any given idea, fact, or bit of knowledge in your head would be impossible to recall when you need it.
We need to make sure your chosen conversational connectors are as memorable as possible, so we’re going to create such a network—or, as I like to call it, a constellation of elements—around each one.
These memorable elements need not be anything complicated. When I record a new connector in my notebook, for example, I just try to write down:
To illustrate this, let me show you an example from my Hungarian studies:
Hol tartottam? - “Where was I?”
I learned this expression on the 6th of October 2017 while having a Hungarian lesson with my tutor about the pros and cons of social media.
Excerpt from the conversation:
HUNGARIAN: Hol tartottam? Ah, ok, vessünk most egy pillantást arra, hogy FB működik. Ami engem illet…
ENGLISH: Where was I? Ah, ok, let’s take a look now at how Facebook works. As far as I am concerned...
I have this information because I not only keep it in a notebook, but I also maintain a shared document with my tutor wherein we write all the new words and expressions I learn across our lessons. Knowing the time, the person, the medium of conversation, and the topic discussed are all precious elements that help reinforce my episodic memory, and enable me to recall the meaning and usage of “Hol tartottam?” when I need it.
4. Practice Using Connectors Often
You can comb through lists of conversational connectors all you want, but the only real way to internalize and integrate them into your active language skills is to use them as much as you can in spoken conversation.
As I mentioned earlier, I learn many of my conversational connectors through speaking with my tutors, and trying to use them connectors as I would in Italian. Through practice and feedback, I have quickly mastered the connectors very often, and I have built my mastery of additional connectors upon this core.
Depending on your previous experience as a language learner, such an approach could be overwhelming.
If you’re just starting out learning conversational connectors for the first time, then I suggest you start by creating very short monologues, and practicing them by speaking to yourself. Naturally, each of these monologues should make liberal use of whatever conversational connectors you are trying to practice.
These monologues can be on any topic you wish, so long as they contain at least three or four conversational connectors at a time. Just make sure the main topic is something you find interesting and pleasing to talk about. This way, you’ll be motivated to practice by yourself, and then to eventually use what you’ve learned in an actual conversation.
When talking to yourself using these monologues, do not worry about making mistakes. The most important thing is about this monologuing exercise is not that you do it perfectly, but that you get started using connectors at all, in specific contexts.
Also, one of the biggest advantages of practicing with monologues is that you don’t have added pressure of “performing” in front of an audience of native speakers. This makes the activity a lot less stressful, and a lot more enjoyable.
When you do decide that you’re ready to practice with native speakers, you’ll gain access to:
Practicing with native speakers is the final and most essential step in ensuring that your use of connectors is natural, fast and idiomatic. Start with the monologues, but make sure that you eventually move on to practicing with real, live native speakers—it will make a difference in the long run.
5. Approach Learning Connectors in a Variety of Ways
In this article, I’ve given you a variety of tips and strategies to learn conversational connectors quickly and effectively.
However, don’t just try one method and discard the rest!
With conversational connectors (as much as anything else in a language), it is of the utmost importance to learn from as many different “angles of approach” as possible.
The more variety you include in your learning methods, the more reliable and flexible your knowledge and memory of conversational connectors will be.
Take the tips in this article, and try a combination of them. Experiment with each, see which strategies you can mix and match together, and then see how well they work for you.
No two learners acquire knowledge in exactly the same way, so it is through this kind of experimentation that you will eventually master conversational connectors.
If you want to improve your ability to speak in your target language, there’s never been as exciting a time as now.
There are more advanced language learning resources and techniques available now than ever before, and so many are available to you at the click of a button.
Think about it. Using your computer and the Internet, you now have immediate access to:
Beyond those resources, you also have a wealth of knowledge that will help you use those resources in the most effective way possible—and even teachers, tutors, and language coaches that will personally guide you through the process.
If you’re looking for a helping hand to lead you through the process of improving your English skills, then I suggest you check out my course at LinguaCore.com , Improve Your Spoken English. In the course, my team and I here at LinguaCore will personally take you through the learning and mastery of conversational connectors, and also introduce you to a variety of additional tools, tips, and strategies that will help bring your English to the next level.
Happy Language Learning!
Written by Luca Lampariello