Conversations naturally flow from topic to topic. It would makes sense that we understand how this works from a linguistic perspective. In other words, how does our speaking, listening, and dialogue skills help us in our conversation ability, and how can we know that we are making progress in our language ability and in our ministry communication skills?
To begin with, I want to consider three modes of communication that are very important to communication in general, and certainly for communicating the gospel: the speaking mode, the dialogue mode, and the listening mode. Each of these modes describe language ability and overall communication effectiveness from a unique angle, providing us a workable 3-D fluency matrix. These modes help us examine fluency from the perspective of how well learners speak, how well they understand, and how well they can respond with dialogue.
Speaking in a foreign language takes more effort than speaking in our mother tongue. We usually don’t have to think about what how we want to say what we want to say in many conversations in our mother tongue. In contrast, we often have to think about how we want to say what we want to say in our new language. The more we speak, the less pronounced this need is. It’s great to reach a point where we can think almost entirely about the content of what we are saying in another language, rather than how to say it. For this reason, when we describe speaking, especially as we try to improve our language and not just use what we know over and over again, what we are describing here is prepared or thought-through speaking. We call this extemporaneous speaking. Extemporaneous speaking is not memorized, nor read-from-a-script, but it is well-thought-through which actually helps us expand our ability to think in more deeply and broadly in the language as we learn to express ourselves in more complex ways.
Listening to a foreign language also takes more effort than listening to our mother tongue. This may be more obvious to us. It just takes more work and focus to hear and understand something in another language. And many times we may even think we understand something when we’ve actually not fully grasped the meaning or the nuance. This becomes painfully clear sometimes when we need to respond, and we’re not quite sure what to say. So, when we describe listening, we actually mean responsive listening, which takes into account the quality of our listening skills.
Dialogue is not the same as responsive listening. Dialogue is a combination of both speaking and listening as a distinct communication mode. Dialogue involves engaging with someone about the topic you have prepared and delivered. This may be a semi-formal talk, but most often it’s something informal that you have thought through, and can present with reasonable understandability, and therefore, when you tell it to someone, most of the time it is followed by discussion or conversation. This is dialogue.
And as we develop the ability to speak, listen, and dialogue with others in our new language, we begin to see how our interactions are no longer simple one-sentence responses, rather robust paragraphs that help us engage in meaningful discussions on many topics with our neighbors. This represent the “nuts and bolts” of the conversational discourse we need for fluency in the language and effectiveness in ministry.