The Importance of Conversation in Language Acquisition

At the tender age of 18, with the thirst for adventure and travel already deeply embedded and ready to be finally unleashed on the unsuspecting world, I arrived in Paris on an overnight bus from London early one January morning to start a job as an ‘au pair’ with a wealthy Parisian family. I came prepared (or so I believed) with a high level of proficiency in French – 7 years of study in school, with straight As. I had read classic texts such as Madame Bovary and a play by Moliere (the French counterpart of Shakespeare) in their original forms and had an impressive written competence in French grammar and expression. So, just imagine my shock and horror, when I found myself struggling to put the words together to simply arrange a taxi! How pathetic was that? The icing on the cake to my humiliation, was the taxi driver’s patronising one-word response to my request for his services – “Anglaise?” My confidence was shattered in an instant.

I’m sure this story will resonate with many Glish clients who have achieved a certain competence in English on an academic level but struggle to communicate verbally. This missing skill, the competence with spoken language, is known, in technical terms, as oracy.  Oracy is still sorely undervalued in language courses to this day.

The beauty of the Glish method is that it’s all about ‘talk’. Clients choose a TED talk, or something similar because they find the subject interesting. That’s the motivation. They prepare in advance of the class by listening to the talk, using transcripts if need be. This is the basis for the conversation with the Glish coach. The role of the coach is to actively listen, encourage the client to express themselves by the use of thoughtful questions, model useful language patterns and expressions when appropriate and share ideas on the subject chosen. Not to correct every mistake, not to interrupt the client’s flow of ideas, and certainly, not to take on the role of ‘expert’. To empower rather than diminish. To make connections between people and across cultures.

There’s academic research out there to support the importance of conversation in language acquisition. As far back as the early 20th century, Lev Vygotsky, a highly acclaimed Russian psychologist, both of his day and still now, argued that spoken language was a ‘tool for thinking’. (1)

More recently, Douglas Barnes, an influential British academic, had this to say on the subject:

The readiest way of working on understanding is often through talk, because the flexibility of speech makes it easy for us to try out new ways of arranging what we know, and easy too to change them if they seem inadequate.  Of particular importance is the fact that we can talk to one another, collaborating and trying out our new ways of thinking.” (2)

‘Talk’ is the major motivator for learning in our society. It’s central to all aspects of our lives and is how society organises itself on every level. It’s the means by which we understand and maintain human relationships. For these reasons, its value should not be underestimated.

And, the conclusion to my story?  Six months later, by the time I boarded the overnight bus back home to the UK, I could finally ‘talk the talk’. Without needing to speak French perfectly. Without breaking into a sweat while I worked out how to express myself! All thanks to my two naughty and spoilt French kids.  They were such a handful (I still laugh about some of their antics even now) and the only way to survive and thrive in my position was to show them who I was and communicate with them how I expected them to behave. In French. The instinct of survival motivated me to get down and dirty, and keep on talking and listening, and move beyond the barrier of language into connection. I’ve never looked back since.

Glish clients are looking for real experiences and real conversations to develop their oracy skills, so they can verbally express who they are and what they think, about subjects that motivate them personally or professionally. We can help them, by creating a nurturing and supportive environment to practice developing these skills in English. And practice is the key to success, as we all know. This is why Glish works.

By Misha Lynn
Glish Conversation Coach

(1) Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and Language, Revised Edition. The MIT Press
(2) Barnes, D. (1992).  ‘The role of talk in learning’, in Norman, K. (ed.) Thinking voices: the work of the National Oracy Project, 125. Sevenoaks:  Hodder and Stoughton.

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