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  • Writer's picturePreston Fidler

From Zero to Basic Conversational Fluency

I hated high school French. I always seemed to get stuck in the remedial classes with the worst teachers – poor me – and I ended up just as you would expect, a poor student. I learned very little language, and mostly just remember staring at incomplete exercise books that would eventually have to make their way to the blackboard. I listened to the upper level students actually carrying on conversations, and wondered, “How did they do that?” I had no idea how to get there.

Reaching basic conversational fluency is without dispute the single most important first step as we consider our language learning task toward reaching gospel fluency. So, what does basic conversational fluency mean and how do we get there? In other words, what does it mean to be able to carry on a basic conversation with reasonable fluency? More specifically, what mean to learn and practice language toward reaching this level? How do we stay on top of each activity and make the most out of our review so that we remain focused and confident in our progress?

We need to start with the assumption that many of us, perhaps most of us, are naturally not very intelligent language learners. We do not have a strong understanding of what we need to do when we start learning a language. And even if we do, we generally don’t know how to invest our time and energy well, with quick and lasting results.

I want to remind us all that we can do better than that. We can become intelligent learners. We can make life choices, develop patterns of thinking, and create pathways of learning that get us from zero to fluency. We need to be prepared to do things differently, in more innovative ways than many of us have ever done before. We can create a learning environment in our lives where we actually learn the language.

I want to take a serious look at the language learning plans we consider well before we actually engage the speech community, how we put those plans into practice beginning with day one, and how we keep moving forward each day after that for the first few months. We need specific plans that will quickly and efficiently help us reach basic conversational fluency.

Recalibrating Progress

Intelligent language learners think of progress measured in weeks and months, not years. More specifically, for intelligent learners, time does not even necessarily mean progress. While it may sound nice, lots of time may actually be hurting us by fostering inefficiencies.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion (Parkinson’s Law).

Don’t let that happen to us. Wouldn’t we like to get to a place of confidence and satisfaction in our language learning as soon as possible? Let’s consider learning as much as we can, as rapidly as we can, and as efficiently as we can. How much could we actually learn in a defined amount of time? Could we possibly reach basic conversational fluency in, say, 90 days? 120 days? 180 days? Let’s consider what a 90-day challenge would like.

A quick internet search will bring up any number of language sites promising fluency in three months (links here!). While this sounds too good to be true, there is something to say about an initial push in language that enables us to quickly reach basic conversational fluency on predictable and common topics. Wouldn’t that be great? There is something deeply satisfying when we reach a difficult yet attainable goal like this through a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Moreover, a basic level of fluency provides the foundation and traction we need to keep going. This would be a great investment of our first 90-days in our new language.

As intelligent language learners, iteration and continuous development become our primary path to rapid improvement, no matter how counter-intuitive they may seem. We become what I describe as language minimalists, suspending our needs for completeness, exactness, and perfection, and making the most of every resource right in front of us that we are able to utilize. We deliberately strive to get more from less, especially during that first 90-days of learning. Consider how the following description may help us understand how we can squeeze everything we can out of our initial learning endeavors:

Intelligent language learners as “language minimalists” enter a speech community with the goal to reach “basic conversational fluency” as rapidly and efficiently as possible through focused relentless extended linguistic interaction. Never to be daunted by gaping errors in speech and comprehension, language minimalists quickly create spaces for controlled practice by hiring native speakers for real-time feedback, correction, and editing; and they make the most of powerful vocabulary practices including memory techniques and spaced learning. They ransack grammars for just-in-time lessons and leverage daily life experiences to create pungent content for here-and-now language learning charged with high-return, real-to-life high-participation language activities.

This makes me want to ask: What’s keeping us from trying? Are we possibly victims of Parkinson’s Law? What do we have to lose, to give it our best shot to make this work? To help us get out of the gate, I want to consider a few lessons and goals for our first 90 days that could help us to keep moving forward. The 90-day goal: To reach basic conversational fluency. The projected outcome: To creatively tell a simple familiar story in our own words. Consider the following from my own new language experience.

Going into my new language on day one, I wrote out my first 14-day goal: “I will meet people, get around, do basic tasks, and learn language while using the language to accomplish simple survival tasks.”

I worked through some basic introductory survival lessons within the first two weeks. These mostly included survival expressions for everyday life, such as greetings (“Hello, how are you?”), introductions (“My name is...”), maintenance phrases (“Please repeat”), and simple questions, (“What is another word for...?”)

I did these initial lessons with my language partner during a dedicated time and space using simple yet powerful communication methods including:dynamic repetition; associations; Total Physical Response(TPR) or listening while silently processing, and then physically and non-verbally responding; roleplays; substitutions; scene, event, and process descriptions; procedures; interviews; and story-telling. In-languagedialogue with some sort of meaningful response (even non-verbal) was a necessary part of every lesson. You can find all twelve weeks of initial lessons with your language partner here.

Is dialogue even possible on day one? You better believe it is! That was part of the problem with my French class. It wasn’t conducted in French, to begin with, and I was never forced to be mentally and socially engaged in the language. Friends, if we’re going to learn a language, we need to be in the language from day one!

In these language sessions with my partner, I received rapid exposure to new words and phrases through powerful methods of direct association using great memory techniques. I worked all of this into my daily life situations through comprehensible role plays and graphic descriptions of simple scenes and events, all by design, to flood my mind with readily-understandable input using here-and-now commands generating physical response (“stand up, walk to the door”), pictures, wordless books, stories, toys, videos; basically, anything that could help me associate the language I was learning with the life I was living.

After a few months, one of my 14-day goals was, “to understand and to simply describe basic familiar scenes and events from my life in the language.” What this meant was that after several months of powerful exposure and language use, I was poised to reach a point where I could understand and describe basic familiar scenes and events from my life in simple, clear language. This laid the foundation for the creative expression I needed to reach basic conversational fluency. Here are two examples:

My Son and the Big Boy at School

I practice journaling. Early on in my new language, just a few weeks into my learning, I was prompted to relate some of the events recorded in my daily journal to my language partner. He asked the simple question, “What did you do yesterday?” That’s a powerful conversation starter. We sometimes just have to be forced to respond. I improvised. I simplified. I made mistakes. And that’s just the point. This was a good place to generate, to create, and to work through what I wanted to say with the simple language I had. My partner was there for me, to help me clean up my mistakes, and to help me work on my expression until it made sense, until I got it, one familiar description at a time. How can we envision this kind of practice in this kind of creative space with our language partners, working through simple descriptions and narrations of life events? Here’s one from my journal:

Yesterday when my son came home from school he told me what happened that day. There is a big boy at school who has no friends. This boy has no friends because he likes to hit and push other children. He is lonely. My son played with him today. While they were playing the other children laughed at them. But then other children started to play with them. The big boy had fun. He did not push or hit any of the children. They laughed and played together. They enjoyed playing together. I asked my son, “Why did you play with the big boy?” He said, “Because Jesus loves him and I want to be like Jesus.” I was happy to hear this.

Mark 2:1-12: Jesus Heals a Paralytic

I wanted to be able to share the gospel from the Bible – simple familiar stories starting with those that have straightforward action, characters, and dialogue – stories that clearly communicate the gospel, that I could tell my neighbors right away. In Mark 2:1-12 (also found in Luke 5:17-26 and Matthew 9:1-8), Jesus forgives a paralytic his sins, and then he heals him. I live among people who believe Jesus was a miracle-performing prophet, but they do not believe he is God. They do not believe he can forgive sins. In this passage, Jesus confronts the disbelief of the religious leaders who watch him forgive and heal the paralytic. I wanted to be able to tell this story. I wanted my friends and neighbors to hear this story. I wanted them to understand that Jesus could forgive their sins and heal them.

I chose this passage primarily because it was simple and I was familiar with it. It has relatively few characters, a simple plot, and few complicated events.

I read the story first in English, and outlined it with notes, listing characters and events. I then read the story in my new language.

Pause for a second with me. This – reading the story in my new language – was nothing short of a huge victory, a breakthrough point for me. After months of slogging through new language – all these new words, phrases, sentences, and descriptions – I was finally at a point where I could actually understand a simple Bible story. I knew my calling, but now I was beginning to live it. I could take the training wheels off. My enthusiasm went through the roof when I was finally able to read a familiar story from the Bible in my new language, and actually understand most of it!

Just as I had done in English, though much more simply, I took notes, made an outline, and listed characters and events. My goal was to be able to re-tell the story in my own words to my language partner.

I kept the story simple as I told it. For example, instead of saying, “And Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said...” I worked on, “Jesus knew their thoughts. Jesus said...” This helped me learn new words and grammar, but it also allowed me to use simple grammar and vocabulary which I already knew, yet still tell the story in a meaningful and clear way.

The characters in the story were: Jesus, the Pharisees, other people in the house, friends of the paralytic, and the paralyzed man. The story breaks down into events which are active, and parenthetically reported, which illustrate a significant verb distinction in my new language:

Jesus was teaching – the people came – (the Pharisees and people were sitting) – (the power of God was present) – men came with a paralytic – they tried to enter the house – (they could not enter because it was crowded) – they went to the roof, dug a hole, and lowered their friend – Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” – the Pharisees thought, “No one can do this except God alone!” – Jesus knew their thoughts... Jesus said, “Which is easier to say – your sins are forgiven or get up?” – So, he said to the paralytic, “Get up...” – immediately, he stood, took his bed, and went home praising God – everyone was amazed and praised God.

This was one of many ways this story could be re-told. I presented this aloud to my language partner, using these notes as an outline to help me tell the story. My partner helped me say it better. I had him tell it back to me, and then recorded his voice so I could re-listen to the story in simple beautiful form. In this way, I worked with my language partner on this story, and other stories. I wanted to be able to tell these stories to my neighbors.

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