As an experienced language learner, I know that it’s important for me to speak as much as possible in order to improve my language. That can be easier said than done though (no pun intended).
Since I came back to Poland after a few weeks away this summer, I’ve noticed I’m much more confident when speaking Polish. There’s been a real difference in my interactions, which I think marks a step change in my progress. Reading Scott Thornbury’s recent post W is for (language learning in) the Wild, I finally realised what this difference is: questions.
Let me explain.
In my first year in Poland, I went through somewhat of a silent period. Having previously learnt Czech and Russian really helped my understanding of Polish, since they are all Slavic languages. However, it meant that whenever I spoke, it was some kind of weird mix of all three languages, and people often struggled to understand me. Without realising what was happening, I mostly stopped trying to interact, and would switch to English whenever I knew it was possible.
Last summer, I went for a weekend away with organised by my flamenco teacher in Bydgoszcz. At least half of the people on the trip couldn’t speak English, but they were curious about why I was there, and wanted to share their own experiences of English and/or the UK – many of them have family who live there. They were also very patient with me, and supported my efforts to communicate.
A few fellow flamenco learners in the beautiful surroundings of Gzin
A couple of weeks after that I moved into my new flat, and shared it for six weeks with the previous owners, who didn’t speak English. I’ve written previously about that experience of immersion and how much it helped my confidence.
Despite these positive experiences, I still felt like I could only make statements, or follow where my conversation partner led.
Now I’ve realised that I’ve started to be able to instigate conversations too, because I’ve begun to experiment with asking questions. I’m still not hugely confident with the grammar of questions, and mostly stick to question words and rising intonation, but I now feel like I can steer what’s happening or fill lulls in the conversation when my conversation partner has run out of things to ask. It also now feels rather less like the Spanish inquisition.
What particularly made me think in Scott’s post was the fact that the Japanese hitchhiker he describes had been prompted to use a particular list of questions by his English teacher. Maybe I should come up with a list of Polish questions that I can use in a variety of situations, to help improve my confidence and make it easier to start conversations.
Have you ever done anything like that with your students? What kind of questions would you include on the list?