There is an ongoing flow vibrating in the air. People talking, expressing themselves, their needs, their ideas, their world. The marvelous world of communication is taking place among English learners and English native speakers.
The communicative competence
The ability to communicate through the use of language is natural to humankind. But, what is to communicate? We have several and similar definitions: to make someone know something, to transmit and obtain information through a shared code, etc. It the end, communication among speakers is the way we transfer our abstract world of ideas to the real world, and is the way we have to interact with other people and fulfill our potential as human beings. When learning another language, having the ability to communicate is an essential part of the process. That comes as a relevant factor in the case of people having a certain role in a group of people. Society members such as students, teachers, employers, employees, community and family members need to communicate effectively. As it is usually said, some factors such as age, personality and the different types of intelligence influence on language learning, but the definite point that can make you learn a language is the ability to interact with other speakers.
The best way to learn something is by doing it, and learning a language is not an exception. Students must play an active role and become active participants in charge of their own learning process. They need to be encouraged and engage in the maximum amount of speaking time as possible, both in and out of the classroom. It has been proven that the greater the amount of language input a student has the greater the ability to develop a better output will be. That is why conversation classes are becoming more and more popular everyday.
The importance of fluency
Has it ever happened to you when saying something in English that you got frustrated because you were focusing more on grammar than in the idea? The acquisition of good grammar skills plays an important role when learning a second language, but we can’t forget that focusing solely on grammar can be disappointing and frustrating. When it comes to expressing a message, being understood becomes more important than using the perfect vocabulary and grammar. In communicative language teaching, the emphasis is on fluency and comprehensibility as opposed to accuracy. Fluency in speaking means the ability to speak and write in an articulate and natural way, but not necessarily with accuracy. Being fluent in a language also gives a sense of comfort, confidence and control in the student. Students trying to improve their fluency will need plenty of opportunities to speak in informal settings to develop this skill. The motive behind the English conversation classes is to provide students with opportunities to improve their fluency. In these classes, learners can practice the language while engaging in meaningful interaction in the target language.
Besides the opportunities to interact, students need further support when improving their fluency. Everyday conversations are often affected and shaped by characteristics such as cultural baggage and individual personalities. Tutors and teachers should take into account these differences in order to provide student-oriented conversation programs.
The content of conversations
In order to communicate we need to comprehend the topic under discussion and be able to contribute to the interaction. To understand or especially to speak on any subject, we need to have background knowledge about the topic. The more knowledge a student has about the matter of the conversation the more confident and proactive to participate with ease and fluency they will be.
Many authors have proven that adult students learn best when the content is relevant to their own life and personal experiences. What this means is that the conversations should be familiar to the learners. This usually involves placing common grounds among different countries and cultures and talking about shared life experiences (schooling, family life, housing, transportation, etc). By eliminating the constraint of the lack of common background knowledge, we free the students to focus on developing their communicative skills.
To develop communicative competence, learners must also want to speak. Therefore, it is not only important that they are familiar with the content of the conversation, but it has to be an interesting topic for them. They should feel the need to communicate their thoughts on the matter to other people, and should do so not because they are expected to but because they want to.
Imagine traveling to another country, what kind of things would you like to know about your target destination? If you had limited knowledge of the language spoken in that country, what topics would you feel comfortable talking about?
When we travel, we usually feel curious about the culture and way of life of the different countries we visit. What is the typical food, national holidays, how does the political and justice system work, how people drive in that country and the hobbies they have. Important linguists and authors have stated that a second language acquisition must be accompanied by cultural knowledge. Having cultural competence in another language plays an important role in gaining communicative competence. Therefore, conversation classes should incorporate topics that bring the culture of the country closer to the student.
One of the traditional ways to promote informative talk among students is to propose some structured questions around which the topic will revolve. While it can help to have some structure and direct the conversation towards a goal, it should not constrain the conversation and lose the spontaneity of natural talking. Some questions such as yes/no questions limit communication. Well designed, open-ended questions stimulate conversation and enable learners to share information and provide flexible responses.
The best type of questions value the knowledge of the speakers about the topic. Some of these questions let the students explain something, proof something, express their viewpoint and talk about similarities and differences.
Strategies to maintain the conversation
Despite good questions, conversations can be altered when the speaker doesn’t know when is their time to speak or the strategies used by native speakers to indicate they are following the conversation. Communicating with people from different countries and cultures involves not only knowing the language, but being aware of the cultural conventions that regulate conversations. This appears reflected in the use of verbal and nonverbal behaviors. The student learning English should know the cultural processes that guide conversation in the scenario where they will be speaking.
Some of the most important strategies students should be aware of are (these may vary from culture to culture): providing feedback, interrupting, asking for clarification, using gestures, being silent, taking turns, self-monitoring, organizing, and maintenance strategies such as “uh-huh” and “mmm” to indicate that listening is taking place. The teacher can also give a list of conversation strategies to the conversation pairs. Students can then discuss the strategies and observe others using them before applying them to themselves.
These communication strategies, along with interesting, relevant and familiar content, structured questions and speaking practice, will help learners to develop their communicative competence.
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