The atmosphere is alive with sounds and laughter. The buzz of conversation fills the air. Voices are raised to be a part of the action. Communication is taking place. This is a gathering of conversation partners. Language learners practicing their own language with other native speakers.
Any language teacher knows the importance of their students developing their communicative skills while studying the grammar of a language, and this method is demonstrating every day its enormous potential for the development of the student.
Building Communicative Competence
The ability to communicate in a language – that is, the ability to interpret and produce meaning – is an important goal for language learners, especially for those who need to fulfill roles as family members, community members, students, teachers, employers or employees in any environment.
One learns to do by doing. People learn to walk by walking and they learn to drive by driving. It makes sense then that people learn to communicate by communicating. Learners must actively work on communicating to develop skills in communication, and they must practice extensively.
It follows, then, that learners should be provided with as much speaking time as possible, both in and out of the classroom. This is one of the main reasons conversation partner programs were established.
The concept of conversation partners goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, and to this day several works have been published, culminating in the most widespread method in the world today, the Tandem Language Exchange.
Fluency Over Accuracy
In developing communicative competence, learners need many opportunities to communicate without having to concentrate on structure and form. Being understood is much more important than using correct vocabulary or grammar. In communicative language teaching, the emphasis is on fluency and comprehensibility as opposed to accuracy. Fluency in speaking can be thought of as the ability to generate and communicate one’s ideas intelligibly and with relative ease but not necessarily with accuracy.
Experiencing fluency also builds a sense of comfort, confidence, and control in the learner. Students working on fluency or struggling to express ideas need extensive speaking opportunities in informal contexts to develop this skill. The intent of Tandem partner programs is to provide learners with fluency-developing activities. They provide learners with opportunities for meaningful interaction in the target language.
In addition to opportunities for interaction, learners need additional support in developing fluency. The extent to which conversation occurs is often affected by differences in background knowledge, cultural expectations and personality. Some of these factors cannot be changed, but others can be. Teachers, tutors and conversation partners can help a learner develop communicative competence by considering these factors in the design of language exchange activities.
One way to stimulate more informative talk for many conversation partners is to provide support for the learners by introducing activities that are somewhat structured.
This means that, although the activity takes place most of the time between the conversation partners, the role of the teacher is essential for the students to be able to make the most of it. In TEFL courses, they work in detail on how to carry out language exchange program in an orderly and didactic way.
This can be done by providing leading questions organized around a relevant topic. While it is helpful to have some structure, it should not destroy the informality that makes conversation groups fun. Some questions such as yes/ no or closed questions are actually barriers to conversation. Carefully designed open-ended questions will stimulate conversation. Good questions allow learners to share information and allow for flexible responses.
Some good questions involve asking the speakers to explain something, provide evidence of something, provide their viewpoint on something, discuss similarities and differences–questions that value the knowledge of the speaker.
Communication involves being able both to comprehend the subject under discussion and contribute to the conversation. By eliminating the constraint of a lack of background knowledge and information, the learner has an opportunity to work on developing fluency and building communicative competence.
To develop communicative competence, learners must want to speak. Therefore, not only should the conversational content be familiar, it should be useful or interesting to the speakers. The learners must be convinced of the need to relate to the subject and communicate about it to others. They need to feel that they are speaking not simply because the teacher expects them to, but because there is some interesting reason to do so or because there is something to gain from the interactions.
Imagine traveling in another country. What would you like to know about that country and its residents? What topics would you be comfortable talking about if you had limited skills in that language? Newcomers and visitors often want to learn about the country and its culture. Language learners are interested in finding out the same information about the country they are visiting or moving to. They are interested in cultural and personal differences, especially those that are obvious to them or that are important in their lives. Therefore, conversation programs should provide topics and activities that incorporate the goals, interests and experiences of the learners.
These communication strategies, along with interesting, relevant and familiar content, structured questions and ample speaking practice, will help learners on their way to developing communicative competence in language exchanges. And the atmosphere that is alive with the sounds of many different voices coming together and actively conversing will herald the students progress.