Conversation implies a two-way exchange of language. Therefore, reaching a conversational level implies quite a high level of comprehension, enough so that we can understand what is being said to us. That means in order to converse properly we need to prepare ourselves. We need a large passive vocabulary, much larger than our active vocabulary, since native speakers usually use more words than we do, as learners.
Input is important
I believe very much in the importance of input. Most of my language learning has been based on massive amounts of listening and reading, ever since I was a young man.
When I first studied German, Italian and Spanish, I studied books with word lists. For the last 15 years I've been able to take advantage of mp3 players and other technology to study Cantonese, Russian, Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Portuguese as well as other languages. I achieved the ability to converse more quickly, and more enjoyably than before.
I am often asked at what point do I start speaking and when do I consider myself at a conversational level. To some extent you can start at any time. However, the results will vary depending on your degree of preparation.
If you have a limited vocabulary, but you happen to spend two weeks in Mexico, you may be able to say certain things. You may be able to go to a restaurant and between pointing, gesturing and saying things, you'll be able to order. You may even do better than that.
Unless you have prepared yourself with a lot of listening and reading, you may have trouble understanding much of what is said. When you go back home, it may seem that you have lost whatever conversational ability you had. If you had been better prepared you would not only have been able to participate in more meaningful conversations while in the country, but you would probably have been able to retain more after your return home.
Failure and then success
I remember quite a few years ago I spent a few months trying to learn Portuguese using the usual starter books. Then I went to Portugal and found it very difficult to have any meaningful conversations with Portuguese people. I couldn't follow what they were saying. Besides that, they spoke English much better than I spoke Portuguese, so they just switched to English in many cases, or else I just gave up.
Then, a few years later, I put in an additional three months of study of Portuguese, more systematically. I didn't just read and listen to phrases or study the grammar. I listened daily to interesting content, which I also read. By that time we had better content in the Portuguese library at LingQ, which I devoured. I also found some great Portuguese podcasts that I listened to for hours.
The next time I went to Portugal I could converse, albeit with difficulty, and on quite a wide variety of topics. What was more important, I could understand what people were saying. The people I spoke to continued to speak to me in Portuguese and didn't automatically switch to English as they had done before. This visit became a milestone in my acquisition of the Portuguese language.
When can I start?
That depends on your situation, opportunity, need and tolerance for uncertainty.
A conversation is an opportunity for meaningful input as you listen to your speaking partner. However, the range of words you will acquire from speaking to someone when your level in the language is low is, in turn, quite limited. Your counterpart has to adjust to your level, so even if you have the chance to engage with people in the language at an early stage, I would still recommend staying with a program of deliberate listening and reading. The focus should remain on input.
To speak well, we eventually need to speak a lot. However, how much to speak at what stage of our language journey depends on our needs, opportunities and inclinations. When we start won't influence our ultimate success in the language, as long as we eventually get enough opportunity to speak.
How much preparation time?
How much deliberate input learning is required? If I know Spanish and I want to be comfortably conversational in Portuguese and have an hour a day to spend, then I think six months is enough. If I have more than an hour, maybe two or three hours a day, I could reduce that down to two or three months. That is in the case of going from Spanish to Portuguese. Obviously the more similar the new language is to a language you already know, the less time it will take.
For example, it took me years to achieve the same level of comfort in Russian, based on an hour a day of listening and reading. After Russian, Czech took less than a year, and thereafter, Ukrainian and Polish took even less time.
Learn to understand first
Conversation is by definition two-way. It's not just about you saying something and then being lost when the person replies. Conversation implies a more or less balanced exchange, where the other person doesn't have to make too many allowances for you, and where you don't give the impression of not understanding.
The most important goal of language learning, therefore, has to be to understand. I can stumble, have trouble expressing myself, and not find words. It doesn't matter. If I can understand what is being said, then my speaking ability will eventually develop.
Your conversational ability will reflect the preparation work you have put in. Regardless of your level, unless you continue to focus your efforts on input, your vocabulary will remain stagnant, and your ability to understand won't progress. Therefore, even if your goal is just to get to a conversational level, I would keep active in listening and reading. At least that has always been my strategy.
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