Core Study Sequences: Studying Dialogues

This is Part 5 in a series of articles in which I show you exactly how I’m learning foreign languages every day.

In these articles I talk about how I’m using my Core Study Time – a 30-45 minute period at the start of every day which I set aside for intensive study.

Before you read this, you should go back and check out the previous posts in the series:

  1. Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
  2. Core Study Sequences Part 1: Listening Comprehension
  3. Core Study Sequences Part 2: Learning Vocabulary
  4. Core Study Sequences Part 3: Lesson Preparation
  5. Core Study Sequences Part 4: Glossika Language Training
  6. Core Study Sequences Part 5: Studying Dialogues
  7. Core Study Sequences Part 6: Transcribing Audio
  8. Core Study Sequences Part 7: Reverse Translation

Studying Textbook Dialogues

When I'm not speaking a foreign language, I'm probably studying a dialogue from a textbook.

For me, and many other language learners, dialogues are a staple of language study.


Because they show you language in use.

Whatever the quality of the teaching methodology (grammar explanations etc), if you have nothing other than the recorded conversations between two people, then you have everything you need!

So what's the best way to study them?

Do you just read them? Or listen to them?

How many times?

And what if you don't remember the new words later?

Well, herein lies the problem! It's difficult to know whether what you're doing is actually working – i.e. whether the time you're spending on these dialogues ends up helping you speak your target language more fluently.

After many years (and many thousands of dialogues in 9 different languages), I've developed a pretty robust process for maximising my learning from dialogues.

I've divided the process into four stages:

  1. Challenge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Processing
  4. Ownership

These four stages take you from the very first time you press “play” on the recording, to the point where you have learnt, and can use, all the new words and phrases from the dialogue.

Stage 1: Challenge

When you first listen to new dialogue, you've got a small window of opportunity that quickly closes.

That opportunity is to practise your listening skills on something you've never heard before.

As soon as you start studying the contents of the dialogue, you're no longer testing your listening skills, because you know what's coming!

For this reason, you should spend time listening to the audio recording of the dialogue before you start the study process.

In most cases, this will be pretty hard.

But that's ok.

The more you push yourself, the more you'll learn.

When you simply can't get any further, or begin to grow frustrated, it's time to move on.

Time Spent On This: 1 day

Step 2: Comprehension

Having pushed your listening skills, now you can begin to close the gap between what you could and couldn't understand.

[Tweet “An effective language learning strategy focuses on closing the gap between what you can and can't understand.”]

This happens bit by bit.

This isn't about studying yet, it's about gradually adding some support to the process of understanding.

Listening on its own is tough, so by adding the text to read at the same time, you're giving yourself an opportunity to catch a few more things.

Once again, listen and read repeatedly, filling in as many gaps as possible in your understanding.

When you can't get any further…

This part is familiar. It's the “study” bit.

But it doesn't end there…

Far from it…

Time Spent On This: Depends on the difficulty, but usually no more than 3 days.

Step 3: Processing

Having “studied” the dialogue, now you need it to sink in!

You see, most people think that once they've “studied” something, they're done!

But it doesn't work like that.

Do you remember in school how you had to write history essays?

As you were writing the essay, do you remember how many times you had to go back through the books, checking facts and events, in order to make sure you got it right?

How much deeper was your understanding of that period in history after having to write about it?

A lot deeper.

You see, it's not the studying of the textbooks that teaches you things. It's the work you do afterwards that helps you consolidate it.

And it's the same with language learning.

You've got to go and do things with the language you learn in order for it to sink in.

So what's the language equivalent of writing a history essay?

Two things:

  1. Continued Listening: Over the days to come, keep listening to the dialogue audio in your free time. Every day you'll bring a pair of fresh ears, and you'll be surprised how much you forget. Coming back to it forces your brain to recall the information it needs to understand.
  2. Copy out the dialogue: This is a trick I learnt from my friend Richard Simcott from Speaking Fluently. Richard likes to copy dialogues from the textbook into his notebook, word for word. Why? Having tried it, I know why. It's simply a different way of processing the text. It involves some physical movement, and helps get it out of your head and into the physical world. I find that by simply going through this process of writing, you bring more attention to what you're learning, and it sinks in faster.

Time Spent On This: 2-3 days

Step 4: Ownership

By now, you'll probably feel like you've got a good handle on the dialogue.

Indeed, you might be happy with this level of understanding.

But there's still more you can do if you want to take ownership of the language you've learnt, so you can use it actively in conversation (not just understand it when you hear it).

This is the hardest part, but here's how I do it…

  1. Flashcards for new vocabulary: I like to select some words and phrases that I think are going to be very useful, and put them into flashcards. Not only does this help me keep my “priority” vocabulary in one place, but it helps me to easily revise it over the weeks to come and commit it to long-term memory.
  2. Speaking: I like to share the dialogues I'm studying with my tutor, and use our time together to practise the things I've learnt. Try to always link what you're studying with opportunities to speak, as it's the fastest way to reveal the gap between what you think you know, and what you actually know!
  3. Reverse Translation: This is one of my favourite activities, but also very tough to do! It tests not only your ability to understand the dialogue, but the extent to which you've learnt it… and there's nowhere to hide! Step 1: Translate the dialogue into English. Step 2: Cover the original. Step 3: Translate the English back into the target language. Step 4: Compare the two versions. See here for complete instructions.

Time Spent On This: Speaking and reverse translation, 2-3 days. Flashcards, ongoing.

I follow the basic approach outlined about with every dialogue I study.

However, it might not always be right for you to do this in so much depth.

If the dialogues you're studying are short, easy for your level, or in a familiar language, you can probably get away with less. (For example, flashcards or reverse translation might not be necessary.)

Try it out, notice what's working (and what's not), and always remember to adjust what you're doing to best fit how you learn.

Would you use this routine yourself? What problems would you have?

Please do share this post on Facebook or Twitter if you found it useful, then leave me your comments or questions below!

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