Attacking Language Dialogues

Attacking language dialogues

The dialogue. The foundation of every language textbook, website and podcast. Whatever resource you've been using to study a language, chances are it's built around dialogues:

A discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed towards exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem.

Oxford Dictionaries

Why are we so keen on dialogues? We like them because they represent what most of us are ultimately aiming for: speaking with others in a foreign language.

If we want to be able to speak, then it makes sense that we use actual conversations to learn from.

Quality… or not?

The quality of dialogues in text books varies enormously, and it's important that as learners we understand exactly what we expect to get from each dialogue in the book.

In the early stages of learning we need some very simple dialogues in order to learn the most basic vocabulary in the language.

Hello, John!

Hi, Peter! How are you?

Fine, thanks. And you?

Not bad.

This particular example (basic greetings)  might be the basis for the entire first lesson in a book, and we can continue like this, building up words and phrases as we go.

A dialogue in a later lesson might look something like this (possessives):

Is this John's pen?

No, it isn't. It's my pen.

Is this my book?

No it isn't. It's Peter's book.

What's happening here is that the text book writers want to introduce more complicated grammar and construct a dialogue in order to showcase it.

The problem is that, as more complicated language gets introduced, the dialogues have a tendency to become more unnatural. Look at the last example. Can you imagine this conversation ever actually taking place in real life?

We need to avoid this stuff and move on to longer, more life-like examples.


I had this experience recently during my Cantonese mission. I'd been working diligently through the beginner and upper-beginner lessons on They're pretty good, overall, but the problem for me was they were too short.Cantonese - Hong Kong

They were designed to teach a set of new words, and so there was a relatively long lesson (including exercises, vocabulary, grammar sections etc.) based around only 6 short lines of text. So for each hour or so I was studying, I was only ever listening to the same 6 lines of a conversation.

That's a lot of time for not very much input.

I decided to skip the remaining lessons of the upper-beginner course and throw myself directly into the intermediate level lessons.

It was the best decision I'd made in a long time.

The dialogues were longer, harder and contained more unknown words. But – and this is the key – they contained a lot more natural language: the “so, um, ah, well, err, then” which characterises natural English.

I'd much rather spend my time studying more realistic dialogues that are characteristic of how people actually speak.

Strategies for attacking dialogues

With longer dialogues come greater challenges and greater opportunities.

Attacking language dialogues

Challenge: lots of new words, difficult to understand at first

Opportunity: the chance to learn more natural language and to get used to understanding how native speakers really speak

This means we need an attack strategy for dialogues that helps us to get the most out of them.

Here's my approach:

  1. Listen closely to the audio at least 10 times (more if possible) without reading from the book. Each time, try your hardest to identify individual words and guess the gist of what's being said, even if you don't understand much. Rationale: prepares you for understanding native speakers when no help is available
  2. Listen another 10 times, this time following along in the book (target language only – no translation). Rationale: helps you distinguish individual words by reading what's being said
  3. Read the translation. Rationale: to understand the meaning of the dialogue.
  4. Decide which words and phrases are important for you to learn and record them directly in your SRS software/app for studying later. Rationale: to capture the interesting and useful vocabulary, giving yourself a way to study it later.
  5. Listen again, many times, referring to the text or the translation when necessary. Go back over the text and figure out difficult/interesting bits until you're comfortable with the whole thing. Rationale: to internalise the new language. 
  6. Activity: reverse translationRationale: to get some ownership of the new language and help you to then use it when speaking.
  7. Listen a few more times without the text. Rationale: build on what you've just done by removing the scaffold of the text.

This is a thorough way to attack any dialogue and can take time, especially if you do the reverse translation activity. However, there's no better way to use your time – tackling new, challenging language from a number of angles and pushing yourself all the time.

As the old saying goes: if you're going to do something at all, you may as well it properly!
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