How to have a conversation?

I want to start by asking you to think about something. How do most people describe their language ability? They call themselves ‘speakers’. I am a native English speaker and I also speak Spanish. People don’t ever describe themselves as English grammar experts or English certificate holders.

Like it or not, speaking is the only skill that matters, and that includes sign languages. Remember that a majority of the world’s languages have never been written down, ever! And when we speak, we don’t normally speak to ourselves, we speak to other people. And it’s not normally a monologue.

It’s an interaction.

A conversation.

Conversation is the core of language.

The question is, how can you have a good conversation?

Well, I could give you some ‘rules’ for conversation. In 1975 the philosopher Paul Grice proposed the cooperative principle, which had 4 rules, or maxims:

Maxim of quality
Try to make your contribution one that is true.

Maxim of quantity
Make your contribution as informative as is required.

Maxim of relation
Be relevant.

Maxim of manner
Be perspicuous and avoid ambiguity.

So there it is! The ‘secret’ to good conversation. But I want to go deeper and understand what it really means to communicate with other people. To do that we need to play a game.

This is the game of connect four. And the rules are really simple. Now I want you to use your imagination for a moment. Imagine me and my friends…

But I can’t give you a copy of these rules because this is my only copy. You’re going to have to learn the rules, and then pass them on to anyone else you want to play with. How difficult do you think that would be? How many times would I have to repeat the rules to you? How many times would you have to repeat them to other people?

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with language, and conversation? Well, this simple metaphor explains a language paradox: languages that have a big population tend to have simple grammar, and a big vocabulary. And languages that have a small population tend to have complex grammar and a small vocabulary. Just like the rules for this game. Me and my friends can create complex rules and pass them around easily, but creating complex rules and passing them between millions of people is, really difficult.

In 2018 researchers modeled this behaviour in a computer and showed that when a population of speakers reaches only 100 people, really complex rules completely disappear.

OK, so again, what does any of this have to do with conversation?

It tells us something very fundamental about how language works. Language only receives meaning from contact with other people. Language is ALWAYS a social activity. Even if you are writing on your own, or reading on your own, or listening on your own, the meaning always comes from millions of people agreeing on the same meaning.

You can’t hide behind your workbooks, and your exams, and your apps. If you are not being social then you are not really using language.

Stop Waiting

A lot of students don’t have conversations because they are waiting. Waiting for someone or something. Waiting for someone to come along and take away their fear of speaking. Waiting for an app to teach them enough vocabulary so they’ll be ‘ready’. Waiting for a teacher to give them the secret to good conversation.

But here’s the truth: Nobody can teach you to have a conversation.

Consider how hard it is to change yourself. How hard it is to eat healthy, and exercise regularly, and read more, and work harder, and worry less. And once you think about how hard it is to change yourself you’ll understand how little chance you have in changing others.

I don’t have the power to make you have a good conversation. Only you can do that, when you make the decision to participate in language, instead of just sitting and watching.

So, is it one day, or day one?

Want to start using your English today?

Join my Academy and get 100+ hours of English immersion per month.

Share this article: