All of us, when we are learning a language, have different goals, different reasons for wanting to learn, different aspirations. Some of us may be planning to conduct research or work with an NGO. We want to be able to connect with a certain type of person and become conversant with a particular dialect. Others want simply to understand the mainstream, watch films or television. For others managing daily life – buying vegetables and getting by in the streets is enough. Then there are the literary types, who are perhaps less interested in the spoken word, but want to read and understand newspapers or journal articles in their target language. Many more of us will simply say we just want ‘to be conversational’.

Being conversational, though, covers a broad spectrum of possibilities. What does it really mean? We would probably all agree that the tourist armed with a phrase book – painfully enunciating syllables, not understanding how his phrase is constructed, and certainly not understanding the response to his question in any case – is not conversational. But then, who is? At what point does conversation begin, and how do we get there? Perhaps it’s good to start by looking at our conversation where we are most comfortable, in our mother tongue.

A conversation can be at many levels. It starts with the introduction, ‘Hello, how are you? What’s your name? Where do you live / work?’ etc, and of course these are good and valid conversations to have. If necessary, these interactions can sometimes be managed phrase book style, by memorising set phrases, and learning to decipher a given selection of possible answers. In the end though, this approach is not very satisfying – as soon as the conversation turns off script and the person says something outside of our repertoire, we are lost, and we remain fearful of this almost inevitable eventuality. Inside we know we’re not really conversational.

Then we have working conversations – the kind of every day things we’ll need to talk to our colleagues about. Being fortunate enough to live in India, I am able to employ a maid to help in the home. Every day, she asks me the same question, ‘what food should I make?’ and every day we talk about it a bit and then decide. Or I ask, ‘where is this?’, or ‘please do that’. These are also good conversations, even though very mundane, similar and repetitive. There’s an ease about the way they happen, they are comfortable and spontaneous. Here a knowledge of basic grammar is required, and a reasonably large vocabulary; set phrases are not enough. But although these interactions are good in themselves, do they really reflect what we mean by ‘conversational’?

Talking to friends about their lives and our lives, hopes and dreams, how their kids are getting on, and to understand what they say in reply – maybe this is more of what we’re looking for. To be able to interact with people in our target language at a deeper level, or perhaps to appreciate jokes and engage in banter. Managing this kind of conversation on a regular basis and relatively easily is much more satisfying. We can start to feel more a part of things, less of an outsider. For this we need not only a good grounding in grammar, but also an ever expanding vocabulary. In fact, for becoming conversational at this level, the wider our vocabulary is the better. We need to practice listening and speaking, and have exposure to a lot of real conversation, and it’s helpful to read too. In a sense, we don’t ever leave this place, as there is always more to learn, new vocabulary to be internalised and idioms to be encountered. Even in our mother tongue, we should never stop learning new words!

You may argue that it’s not necessary to be perfect and that if we struggle a little here and there getting our message across it doesn’t matter, and of course this is true to a certain extent. The problem we encounter however, is that when our friend is an English speaker, as is very often the case in India at least, they don’t like to see our discomfort and they’ll flip the conversation into English in a fraction of a second as an act of kindness or courtesy. For this reason, a degree of competence is important.

It could be that the conversations we want to have are more specialised, about science or politics, or current events. We want to be conversational on an intellectual level. For this we may need to direct our attention towards written material in our chosen field of interest, simply practising speaking will not be enough.

Once we identify where we want to go, we need to know how to get there. Athletes will often spend time doing exercises which look to the outside observer to be unrelated to their sport, but which actually train their muscles or reflexes, and ultimately improve their performance. In the same way, a good language instructor may well ask you to do exercises which seem not directly related to conversation, only in hindsight do you realise their value, when conversation becomes possible or easier as a result. Finding the right instructor is therefore of paramount importance, so that our efforts are directed in a way that will produce the right results.

Clearly, the more we want from our conversations, the more work we need to put into learning the language. Sometimes people say that they want only to be conversational, as if somehow that’s an easier option, requiring less hard work and little attention to grammar. Yet to be conversational really is a high aspiration, and one that will require us to put in a lot of effort to get there. So when we say to ourselves, we want to be conversational, we need to ask ourselves what kinds of conversation we want to have. The ones worth having are worth studying well for…