The Art of Conversation

There is no such thing as a stupid question, indeed. But questions may be impaired in hundreds of other ways. They may be out of place, boring, unfruitful, irrelevant, futile, too intrusive, provoking, untimely and inappropriate for a variety of reasons. And conversation classes for adults seem to be fraught with undeveloped questions to the detriment of the learning process.

Conversations are for language learning what the cheesy tip is for a pizza. It is the best part, the rest is crust. It is, therefore, a big misfortune that the state of questions in language teaching for adults is so dramatically low. My last French classes included questions about my family, past and future weekends, favorite colors and food.

Conversation questions are by design supposed to be easy, so that thinking does not obstruct production of the language, but more often than not the result is opposite — talking about one’s family often turns out to be more difficult than the deepest philosophy. And from the psychological point of view, it is a disaster too. Mistakes are ingrained in the learning process, and they will happen, but not being able to answer a seemingly simple question about last weekend does not encourage further development and leaves a rather depressing aftertaste: “My, I’m so bad I can’t even describe my last weekend in simple words”.

By being so dead simple, the questions-about-last-summer, as I like to call them, focus exclusively on the form, not on the content, and leave no room for mistakes, because the asymmetry of information between the teacher and the student is so wide that there is no common point on which communication could hang; mutual understanding depends, therefore, on the perfect delivery. It is a vicious circle.

Instead, I propose a complete revamping of conversation questions to shift the emphasis of foreign language conversations on sense and communication. It is done primarily by eliminating the asymmetry of information between the teacher and the learner, which boils down to not asking personal questions (“what do you…”, “what is your…”, “why do you…”). Doing so levels the playing field. The learner is no longer a poor weakling failing at building the simplest of expressions, but the teacher’s equal: they are both united in the search of sense, in finding common points on which communication can hang. Mistakes will happen, of course, but the overall experience will be incomparably better. By asking questions free of the asymmetry of information the aftertaste will be like this: “Hey, I made a couple of mistakes, but the question was not easy, and I was understood!”

The list of benefits of such change is long, and extends far beyond language acquisition. In Mentals — the conversation-focused language atelier which I have been running for many years now — I have experienced some of the most delightful, enlightening and profoundly human moments in my life. Many of them with absolute beginners who, despite language difficulties, were able to communicate their thoughts and ideas of tremendous worth.

You are probably dying to see what are the questions free of the asymmetry of information. I present ten of them, from my database of over one thousand and counting.

  1. What is the difference between a shy person and a coward?
  2. What is stronger: a promise or a contract?
  3. Is it profitable to go against the grain?
  4. Is cooking art or craft?
  5. Could a black character be likable?
  6. What is the relation between smell and taste?
  7. Is it possible to work with passion in a supermarket?
  8. Is there order or chaos in the jungle?
  9. Can a monster be small?
  10. Is sugar a spice?

Find my language atelier at www.mentals.fr

Please, click the like button if you like what I said here, and let’s change the state of questions in language teaching.