Building Conversational Fluency

Andres Abeyta offers new solutions to the age-old problem of attaining oral fluency in a new language

Learning a second language can be a difficult task. Students work very hard learning grammar, comprehension, and vocabulary and generally do well on their exams in these areas because language programs are tailored to them. But when it comes to conversational fluency, second language learners the world over often face an uphill struggle. However, online tools are helping learners overcome the hurdle of finding accessible tutoring partners.

After five years of language classes between middle school and college, why isn’t someone fluent? The first reason is that the learning setting is usually one teacher and 25 students. The teacher gives reading or writing assignments and predominantly speaks to the class in a one-way direction, rarely conversing with each student one to one. Lynne Matthes has 20 years of experience utilizing her English degree and ESL certificate. She says, “I estimate that in my extended-study English classes, students practice speaking for about 5% of the duration of the class. You can’t escape the fact that one-on-one practice overcomes this limitation and evens out the ratio of listening to speaking.”

The second factor inhibiting conversational fluency is the sporadic nature of learning. Students take classes and stop for a summer, or a semester, or between schools and jobs. Language requires ongoing practice. This points to a need to fill in the transitional periods between formal classes.

The traditional way to overcome both of these challenges is enrollment in immersion programs. When students enter a foreign culture, they are engulfed in the language to be learned and are forced to practice in a meaningful way. However, not everyone can afford to travel or is adventurous enough to go abroad, so language learning is stunted at the classroom level. The alternative is to fill in the gaps with a language tutor.

Best for language learning

A tutor helps the language learner deal with the frustration of limited communication, learning plateaus, and the length of time it takes to reach fluency. A tutor can react to the student’s expressions to gauge comprehension and provide the encouragement and instant feedback critical to learning. The tutor is also responsible for a key element — motivation.

Learning in Context
Focus on student’s important subjects

One of the great breakthroughs in language learning is the realization that students learn a second language faster when they are not focused on learning it. Programs that teach second languages in the context of other interests — travel, social networking, hobbies, and professions — are successful because the emphasis is on communication around a subject that students care about. They are learning the vocabulary of real-life situations, with all the idioms and colloquialisms. They learn usage by hearing it and speaking in context.

Periodic Practice
Students learn at their own pace
The pace and frequency of language instruction is extremely important. People learn more effectively when they have regular one-on-one conversations. It’s becoming commonplace for users to turn to online tutoring services to get regular practice in a safe, convenient environment. Yunsik Choi has recently arrived from South Korea and he attests to the ongoing need for safe practice. “Despite being here in America, we lack the confidence to speak. I am very shy with my conversations. My wife stays in our apartment and practices online with a tutor. My roommate travelled here for an immersion program and still logs in online for private speaking practice. We like the online tutoring experience because watching TV dramas can only get you so far.”

Game-Changing Technological Advances

Access to broadband
Broadband access is an enabling technology. It’s in the national interest to provide broadband access to citizens as they compete for web opportunities with others across the world. The U.S. established its National Broadband program to ensure that rural areas had an equal digital playing field with their metropolitan counterparts. And China has led the charge in a big way by investing $58 billion in 2012 for its broadband expansion (source:

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) video streaming
Why spend the time travelling to a class where you are one of 25 students? P2P live video streaming allows the student to stay put and have personalized tutoring. With broadband access, students can access tools like Skype that put them in visual touch. When students and tutors speak through a webcam interface, both parties can see critical facial expressions. Students need to see how the mouth moves to master pronunciation. At the same time, tutors can react in real time to signs of frustration, fatigue, and confusion so they can customize instruction immediately.

Social networking platforms
Social networks are attractive enough that people want to invest their time on them. Some of the online language platforms are developing communities where it’s fun to be part of an international group that exchanges language skills in informal ways, like chat and video. This new dynamic of connecting with a member of choice both formally and informally meets the needs of motivation and context. Students can enter a social learning environment where they can communicate about a wide range of topics at any time.

At last month’s National Association for Bilingual Education conference, there was a keynote speech by Dr. Alma Flor Ada, an advocate for bilingual education. She said passionately that “education should develop the brain and cultivate the heart.” This idea separates language technologies into two camps. The first is asynchronous, wherein the learner engages a computer tutorial, simulation, or game independently. The value focuses on convenience, repetition, and quantifiable metrics. The other camp is based on the idea that technologies can assist with person to-person interactions. In this manner, the heart is cultivated and emotions are added to the experience. With a computer tutorial, the student won’t be laughing out loud, exhibiting pride, or even feeling embarrassed. Emotions are tied to long-term memory, so the value of an interpersonal interaction can’t be understated. Because this article focuses on conversational fluency, here are some traits to shop for in platforms in the second camp.

• Choice: Large choice of tutors with varying ages, backgrounds, and geography
• Flexible scheduling: Wide calendar availability, on demand, cancellation policy
• Pricing: Variable pricing, no contracts, trusted payment methods
• User experience: User interfaces tailored for language learning
• Social attraction: Reach across cultures and borders for friendly fun
• Safety: Parental consent policy, policies for inappropriate conversation
• Privacy: One-to-one classes using secure video

With these ideas in mind, students should always be able to find the tutors of their choice at the prices they can afford.

Originally from Albuquerque, Andres Abeyta is the CEO of TheTalkList. For the last 16 years, he has been the CEO of a San Diego based company, and prior to that he was a public school teacher at all age levels, including adult software education. He has a master’s degree in education. His passion is to connect people from around the world.