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“Confidence contributes more to a conversation than wit.”
– Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), French writer
How can we help English language learners in the U.S. have more long-lasting, compelling conversations with native speakers?
Sometimes it can be difficult to transition from small talk to a more personal, in-depth conversation. Feelings of intimidation, or unfamiliarity between conversation partners discourage many people – particularly learners of a second language in foreign country – from taking it any further. Luckily, the New York Times’ “How to Have More Engaging Conversations in Everyday Life,” offers some practical solutions. In the October 2016 Smarter Living piece, four panelists – ranging from the founder of a popular social app to a recent college grad – each discuss their top 3 tactics for creating more compelling conversations. While author Jonah Engel Bromwich does not specifically address English language learners (ELLs), all of the advice given applies to ESL and EFL students. Let’s review!
1. Unite around a common interest
Adults usually have an easier time opening up if they’re talking about something they feel strongly about. For example, students attending college or university might see what activities and clubs their campus has that suit their interest.
What about social settings with diverse attendance, like a party? As mentioned in the article, people of a similar age and/or cultural background are often easier to approach; you’re likely to share similar experiences. Likewise, you might consider the English classroom as common ground. When learning English as a second or foreign language, the material and content present unique challenges according to each student’s native tongue. These classmates, diverse in their needs and expectations, share an instructor and review lessons together. Their varying interpretations and opinions on common subjects, like movies or sports, often lead to stimulating conversations!
2. Be friendly, open and polite
Manners matter! The article advocates for treating people with courtesy and respect, which is always a great way to keep a conversation going. However, it should be noted that standards of politeness may vary from country to country. Some cultures, for instance, consider eye contact between conversation partners unnecessary. Having an awareness of these differences in conversational etiquette increases confidence and allows for more comfortable conversation with all kinds of people. (More on American manners here.)
3. Don’t overthink it
It’s common for many people to avoid starting conversations with others out of fear they will consider it an interruption or intrusion. This hesitation is often a valid concern, especially considering others’ perceptions of time and personal space. Therefore, if an English student feels held back by a language barrier, encourage them to be a more active listener. This behavior will provide them with opportunities to ask more questions, both about the discussion topic and vocabulary or phrases they may not understand. As a result of asking more, they’ll know more and, eventually, share more.
What are your tips for advancing conversations? How does this advice vary according to your relationship with the conversation partner? Let us know!