How to have a good conversation (hint: the secret is preparation)
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~Nath

So, you’ve signed up to italki, you’ve found yourself a conversation exchange partner or two and…now you don’t know what to talk about. Do not fear, here’s your guide on how to have a good conversation.

Everything from developing “islands of fluency” (preparing answers for common topics of discussion), to learning only what is relevant is essential are vital when trying to make good conversation and keep it flowing smoothly. In this post, I’ll explain how developing pockets of fluency with careful preparation could be all you need to have great conversations with native Polish speakers. As a result, you’ll speak amazing Polish to everyone you meet. Good deal, right?

How to have a good conversation – Islands of fluency

If you haven’t heard of them already, Boris Shekhtman introduces the concept of “islands of fluency” in his book “How To Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately”. (I haven’t read the book, but I have read Stephanie’s blog post about it on to be fluent and highly encourage you to do the same.)

In short, an island of fluency is a somewhat memorised monologue about a specific subject. In other words, it’s an area of conversation that you’ve practised so many times, you’re effectively fluent in talking about it. An example of a topic that you might have already mastered could be your family, your job, or even why (and how) you’re learning Polish.

Having these islands of fluency means that if someone talks to you about one of these particular subjects, or even something that relates to them, you have a safe place to direct the conversation to keep things flowing.

Creating your own islands of fluency

The way to create your own island of fluency is to pick a topic, talk about it extensively to find out where there are gaps in your vocabulary and then learn those new words in the context of grammatically correct sentences that cover what you were trying to say. For example, if my dad is tall, but I didn’t know how to say it, my conversation exchange partner might suggest a sentence such as:

  • “Ojciec jest bardzo wysoki.” (“[My] father is very tall.”)
  • “Mój ojciec jest wysoki.” (“My father is tall.”)
  • “Mój ojciec jest wyższy niż ja.” (“My father is taller than me.”)
  • “Tato jest jeszcze wyższy niż ja.” (“Dad is even taller than me.”)

By curating a collection of things that you can say about your family, you’d build an island of fluency which you can use when talking about family members in the future. Instead of struggling to answer questions about them, you’d be able to provide a more complete picture of who your family members are in a fluent way.

Topics of discussion

Since islands of fluency are built around certain conversation themes, you’ll have to pick a topic of discussion to focus on first. Thematic dictionaries are often good places for inspiration and offer an easy way to identify where there might be holes in your vocabulary. One which I’ve used is Ewa Puńko and Ewa Maria Rostek’s Słownik Tematyczny. Its 478 pages are full of vocabulary linked to over 40 different topics. For a full run down of what’s included, check out the table of contents here:

http://www.howtospeakpolish.com/themesdictionarycontents

To find out more about the book, click here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/8387388149/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=8387388149&linkCode=as2&tag=howtocom0f-21

There are free alternatives available on the internet, but in my opinion they don’t match Ewa Puńko and Ewa Maria Rostek’s Słownik Tematyczny in terms of either quality or quantity. You get what you pay for, I guess.

To get you started with your islands of fluency preparation, I’ve been curating a short list of open ended questions (ones which you can’t answer “Yes” or “No” to) which you can start preparing answers to and can practise answering with your conversation exchange partners.

[alert-warning]I haven’t reinvented the wheel here. Instead, I’ve scoured the internet for some of the best topics of discussion and questions, so when you get a chance, please stop by the following websites from which I have gained inspiration from/blatantly stolen their content and show them some love:

Take what is relevant, discard what is not

Pick and choose these questions depending on what is relevant to you. Ask your conversation exchange partner to ask you these questions. You can even prepare some answers in advance and get corrections as part of your conversation exchange.

If you or your partner doesn’t know how to ask these questions in Polish, either click the following link or copy and paste the questions into your favourite online translator.

https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?sl=auto&tl=pl&js=y&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http://www.howtospeakpolish.com/conversationthemes&edit-text=

“You said that already.”

To paraphrase a (sexist) quote from Winston Churchill, “A good conversation should be like a woman’s skirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.” Whatever you do, don’t overdo it. I know you’re trying to learn how to speak Polish and that’s great, but don’t bore your conversation exchange partner to death in the process by only talking about the same thing over and over again – they won’t thank you for it. When it’s time to practise Polish, politely tell them that you’ve noticed gaps in your vocabulary in a particular area and ask if you can limit the conversation to a certain subject so that you can work out which words are missing. They’ll understand.

Conversation themes

So without further ado, I give you my curated list of some of the best open questions you could possibly use in a language exchange when the conversation dries up. It’s not exhaustive by any means, so if you suggest a good question that should be on the list I’ll add it on ASAP.

Here is your panic button. If you’re ever stuck of things to say, just head to the following link to get to this list in seconds:

http://www.howtospeakpolish.com/conversationtopics

On with the list!

The Really Short* HowToSpeakPolish.com List of Conversation Topics To Use When You Just Can’t Think Of Anything Else To Say

* because Nathan got bored typing

Childhood

  • What was your favourite book as a child?
  • Who were your childhood friends?
  • What is your earliest childhood memory?
  • Where did you live as a child?
  • What were you like as a child?
  • How old were you when you first learned how to ride a bike?
  • What did you enjoy the most about being a child?
  • Who haven’t you seen since your childhood?
  • What did you want to grow up to be when you were younger?

School

  • Where did (or do) you go to school?
  • What was (or is) your favourite subject at school?
  • Who did you go to school with?
  • What was (or is) your least favourite subject at school?
  • Why didn’t you enjoy that subject?
  • What did you used to do after school?
  • When did you used to get home from school?
  • What have you gotten in trouble for at school?

Relationship Questions

  • What is the first thing you notice in a potential partner?
  • Who is your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband?
  • What is a turn off for you?
  • Where did you meet your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband?
  • What personality traits do you look for in a partner?
  • Who was the last person that you called?

Sports

  • Who are your favourite athletes?
  • How often do you exercise?
  • What sports do (or did) you play?
  • Which position did you play?
  • What is your favourite sports team?

Holidays

  • Where was the last place that you went on holiday?
  • What did you do on holiday?
  • Where do you plan to go on holiday next?
  • Which local attractions did you see?
  • Where would you most like to go on holiday?
  • Which countries have you travelled to?
  • What was your best holiday experience?
  • How did you book your holiday?
  • What was your worst holiday experience?
  • If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Food and Drink

  • What is your favourite drink?
  • Which drinks don’t you like?
  • What are your favourite foods?
  • How do you make that dish?
  • What foods do you dislike?
  • Who is the best cook in your house?
  • What foods are you allergic to?
  • Which do you prefer, pierogi or bigos?
  • What are your favourite restaurants?
  • If you could recommend me one Polish dish that I must try, what would it be?
  • What’s your favourite pizza topping/ice cream flavour?
  • Why did you become vegetarian/vegan?
  • How long have you been vegetarian/vegan?
  • What did you have for dinner last night?
  • What is the signature dish that you cook?

Entertainment

  • Who is your favourite actor/actress?
  • What are your favourite movies?
  • Which movie franchise do you think is the best?
  • What was the worst movie that you’ve ever seen?
  • Which movie genres are your favourite?
  • What is your favourite TV show?

Personal questions

  • Who do you look up to?
  • Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?
  • What do your parents do for a living?
  • How did you learn to speak English?
  • What is your biggest regret?
  • Who don’t you get to see enough of?
  • What was your most embarrassing moment?
  • How old are you?
  • What are some of your short-term/long-term goals??
  • What was your first car?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Give them a try sometime soon!

[alert-warning]TL;DR: Talking about a specific topic will help you to develop fluency in that particular area, so where possible, practise a specific conversation theme with your conversation exchange partner(s) to find out which vocabulary you’re missing and to establish the grammatically correct set phrases that you can use when talking about that subject.[/alert-warning]
What questions do you struggle to answer?
[alert-announce]If there’s one mistake that I always felt that I made, it was that I didn’t focus on a specific topic during my conversation exchange and instead focused on maintaining a conversation regardless of the topic. Because of this, although I built up a varied vocabulary, I could never talk in depth about anything in particular. Rather than being a master of conversation, I became a master of small talk. Once, despite speaking Polish for several hours beforehand, someone asked me a question about my siblings. I struggled to answer as no one had ever asked me that question before and even though I knew what the question was, I didn’t know how to respond. What questions do you struggle to answer? Let me know in the comments below so that I can add it to the list![/alert-announce]

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