A conversation, whether as "the interchange through speech of information or ideas" or as "a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged", is an everyday activity which few foreign language learners actually get the chance to practise, even if they happen to be living/staying in the L2-speaking country.
The obvious differences between the formal written and spoken versions of a language become even more obvious when compared to the language used in everyday conversations. Under optimum conditions, freed from the possible constraints of the more formal setting of desks and blackboards, and especially in the context of one-to-one classes, conversation differs from other types of communication in that it tends to:
- involve use of inexplicit language and a more active use of non-verbal communication, etc.
- be more spontaneous than other, more controlled, speaking activities that take place both in and out of the classroom
- be more informal, with more use of hedging, hesitation markers, fillers and even slang.
Freelance teachers often get approached with nebulous requests for "conversation classes", usually on a one-to-one basis, and sometimes with the idea of holding them in cafeterias or in other "natural" settings, such as parks, museums or even shopping. The teacher's role in a conversation class is more likely to be that of the language coach than that of the traditional teacher-centred one. Some language schools do actually offer the format for groups. Like everything else, conversations classes have their pros and cons:
- The teacher/coach can help students develop their speaking (productive) and listening (receptive) skills in a more informal setting.
- Students may feel more motivated by having a more active choice of conversation topics
Note-taking will take away some of the spontaneity which makes a conversation class seem attractive, and some students may not have the ability to recall the language items that crop up in the conversation. This can be offset by the teacher taking notes, which after the first couple of classes can usually be done quite surreptitiously so as not to distract the student too much from the conversation.
"Controlled" conversation classes
With a view to offering teachers and students some ideas regarding conversations, albeit in a classroom setting, Teflpedia has a dedicated page on conversation questions, with some recommendations for use in class, and a short list of quick conversation questions and a more complete list of 150 conversation questions here.