Considering I have more than 12 languages to keep active and I’m not one to go out every night, speaking is usually one of my weakest areas in foreign languages. I do a lot of maintenance by way of reading books, watching movies or exchanging e-mails, not so much by talking to people, except when I have close friends speaking a language. There is some amount of skill that transfers, so if I randomly meet someone and I haven’t had a conversation in his language in several months, I’m not immediately fluent but also not tongue-tied as long as I had enough other exposure to the language. Still, there are times when I know that I’m going to be using the language a lot and I want to boost my conversational ability, dust off almost-forgotten grammar points and re-activate passive vocabulary.
This is one of these times, because I’m preparing for a trip to China. In the past couple years, my Chinese has gotten quite good; I’ve even read several novels in it. However, my conversational ability hasn’t kept up, it has declined from where it once was even. So this puts me in a position that a lot of people wonder about: knowing that I shall have to use the language in less than two weeks,
What can I do to maximize my fluency in this short time?
The key is to speak the language a lot – you probably guessed that. You may not be able to arrange many meetings with local language partners or language tutors before your trip, so I recommend additionally using iTalki in order to have conversational practise over Skype. Prices for tutoring on iTalki are also lower than local prices, and you have a much larger selection of tutors, so that it becomes possible to fit in many sessions before your trip. When you only have 10 minutes or so, you can also use Verbling to talk to random fluent speakers of your target language without the need to make an appointment – it’s similar to ChatRoulette but for language learning.
You don’t have to have a conversation partner at all times though. You can also do the Self-Talk Exercise, which conveniently works anywhere and anytime – even in the shower, on the bus or while washing dishes.
Apart from that, I would recommend preparing yourself for the topics and questions that are likely to come up during the trip or whatever you’re preparing for. When you first speak a foreign language with surprised native speakers, they will likely ask you about your background, about the languages you speak and how/where you learned them, about your plans to visit the country where the language is spoken or your previous travels and about your home town. Prepare for such questions by answering them for yourself already, maybe first writing down some possible answers on Lang-8 to get some corrections (or with your language partner) and later practising answering such questions fluently without the help of notes. Maybe even plan out a story that you can relate; this will give your brain more time to acclimatize to speaking the foreign language and it will make you less nervous.
In case people ask you questions you’re not prepared for, it’s good if you have familiarized yourself with some stalling expressions, the equivalents of “That’s a good question”, “It’s hard to say”, “I am not sure, but I would guess that…” and so on. Have a native speaker (a tutor from iTalki?) provide some of these and have them practise the use of these expressions with you. Same for expressions that allow you to switch topic / make a detour, for example “Maybe I should start by explaining that…” or “Let me say that…” or “What I find really interesting is…”. There should be several such canned expressions that you can use while your brain is thinking of a reply.
You can also improve your fluency in a foreign language by playing Taboo in that language. Try to describe some things without using any of the obvious words – this is an important skill when you’re lacking vocabulary to talk about something. It probably won’t have much of an impact if you only have 1-2 weeks though, so I say it’s more important to practise speaking as much as possible.
You may want to do some vocabulary cramming – up to you – and for that I’d recommend Anki, Memrise, or, if you can get your hands on it, Knuckles in Chinaland. Knuckles in Chinaland is an RPG that I like to use to cram vocabulary when there is too little time for a traditional SRS. The entertainment factor makes it possible to spend more time on it than on traditional flashcard apps, and it generally has better short-term results.
What shall I do to prepare for China?
All of it. There is no single best method, there are only things that let you study more. So I shall use one method until I get bored with it for the day, then switch to another way to improve my Chinese and maybe round off the day by watching a movie in Chinese. Watching movies is not the best way to improve conversational fluency – I wouldn’t even list it among the TOP TEN ways to improve conversational fluency – but it’s better than doing something unrelated to Chinese.
加油 everyone! (Come on, give it your best shot!)