Uncertainty in conversations

As requested, let’s continue a previous discussion (http://www.lingq.com/learn/pt/forum/1/10567) from a new thread here.

I think this issue is important because many input-focused language learners overlook the importance of speaking.

I agree with many people here that comprehension is important in a conversation. The conversation is simply unsustainable if the comprehension level is too low. However, it is not practical to wait until you understand everything before attempting to engage in speaking activities. We need a lot of speaking practices to become fluent in speaking.

My question is: how much uncertainty in conversations are you willing to live with?

Let’s say you are off your silent period (whether it exists for you or not). You are introduced to a stranger in an informal social occasion. You and this person already have a common language to communicate well, but he/she is a native speaker of a language you are learning. What is the % of comprehension you aim for first in order for you to attempt to converse with this person in his/her native language.

I myself would be confident that I can communicate intelligently even if I can only understand 80% of the overall meaning conversation (before asking for clarifications). I don’t think I can sustain the conversation if I understand 50% or less, and hence I won’t bother to attempt it.

Personally, I can live with a lot of uncertainty because I know that any incomprehension is temporary. If I don’t continue to participate in a conversation I understand less than adequately, if I don’t continue to strive to understand more, then I will never improve.

Other than that, it’s impossible for me to put a percentage on what I do or don’t understand. I’ve never even thought about it before you started mentioning it.

@Alexandre: When you say ‘participate in a conversation’, do you mean a multi-person conversation in which you can just be a ‘listener’ if you don’t understand?

I see you often emphasis the point on improving comprehension by engaging in conversation, which I agree to some extend. But I cannot see how you can sustain the conversation without much understanding. Or do you have some tricks?

To me, here, participate means contribute in any way by speaking the language as part of a reply, as an additional comment, or as a new question.

If I’m in a one-on-one conversation and we have another language in common, I will still try to use what I know as much as possible. When I fail to understand enough to participate, I can use the other language. If we have no other language in common, then I have no choice but to try. If I completely fail to understand, then the other person usually tries to rephrase things. Even when I don’t understand at all, the context is usually such that there are only a few possible meanings. I may phrase those possible meanings in my own terms to see if any of them correspond to what the person meant. Then I’ve got the advantage that I’ve introduced the words that are available to me.

If it’s a conversation among many native speakers, then yes, I can sit out the parts I don’t get at all, and try to put in my 2 cents when I can. I may get 0% of a sentence and 100% of the next. Of course, there have been times where my contribution were less than relevant, but I’ve always found people to accept that with respect because I show a genuine interest in speaking their language, an interest that is stronger than my desire not to look like a complete fool.

All the input that I’ve had has not prepared me for when I need to speak. It’s true, I can understand stuff I’m interested in, but when the conversation goes to something I don’t read about or listen to much, I end up at a loss. I can have days when I will watch an entire TV show or film, and be confident I’ve understood almost all of it, then the next day I can watch something and barely understand anything. I sure as hell couldn’t talk about what I’ve just watched.

I watch and read lots of technology magazines, TV shows and blogs in my target language. When people then talk about it, I can easily follow along. The other day I was at a BBQ when a random conversation came up about cars, of which I could barely follow and participate in. I get stuck on silly everyday life things, but can follow along with stuff that generally doesn’t interest the people I am able to talk to.

Additionally just because I understand the conversation, doesn’t mean I can actually respond. I believe I wasted lots of time just on silent time and badly regret it now. I believe no amount of listening and reading wiill prepare you for a real, spontaneous conversation.

I do not see this as a dichotomy between listening and speaking. We need to look at specifics.

  1. In order to become good at speaking you need to speak. I do not think anyone can dispute that. The question is when and how. In my view listening and reading is the best way to prepare yourself for speaking, but at some point you have to speak, and keep speaking. If we leave teachers out of this discussion, if we are talking about people who just want to communicate, it is only a matter of which language works best for both sides.

  2. The bulk of my Russian learning consists of listening while sitting in my car, doing the dishes, cross-country skiing etc., or reading at home. These are not situations that can be substituted by speaking. I do not have a domestic Russian that I can just call on when I feel the urge to speak.

  3. I am never hesitant to speak if the need or opportunity presents itself but when my comprehension is limited, the conversations are very limited.

  4. I do not like to impose my limited language competence on someone who is interested in communicating with me. I will switch to our best common language. A tutor or teacher is a different story.

  5. It will, in my opinion, always be the case that in subjects that you are familiar with, i.e. where you are interested in them and have listened a lot and read a lot in them, you will do a lot better when discussing them. This, to me, confirms that good comprehension is at the base of confident speaking.


I find the bulk of my time hesitating to speak in Russian is thinking about the correct case, tense, verb ending and so forth. Sometimes it can stop me dead in my tracks and I need to find another way to say something. No amount of input has prepared me for this, or helped. How naturally did this come to you, do you still need to think about cases, etc… in your head before speaking?

I view language as a collection of puzzle pieces. A subject and a verb conjugated accordingly form one piece. A noun phrase (article, adjective and noun) form another. I rehearse these pieces, instinctively I suppose, by speaking to myself or by repeating outloud (or mouthing silently) the pieces I come across when I watch a video, when I listen to a recording or to people talking, or when I read.

@Friedemann – "I have met a number of expats in our company who all claim to understand German but say they are unable to speak. I have a hard time believing that.

I can very much believe this, and have seen this behaviour for people living in English speaking countries as well. It’s quite possible to be able to follow along in a conversation, but be unable to speak or express what you want to say. It’s also the case with me, and it’s incredibly frustrating and a stage I’m eager to quickly get through.


I find that certain cases just start to slot in because I have heard them so often. I do not think about them when I speak.

One of the earliest to slot in is the Genitive plural then comes the Instrumental plural, and so on. I do not worry about making mistakes. When I listen I really focus on the case endings. I am always impressed when I hear foreigners speaking correctly. I am sure that if I had a few weeks or months in Russia I would improve. Yes I have to continue to speak more, but it is difficult to organize. I try to talk with our tutors here 4-5 times a week. Then I review my conversation report and import my mistakes.

Bear in mind that I have taggged words at LingQ for case. I have saved phrases for case. I have had case tables open in separate Tabs when writing, and if I wrote more often I would improve faster but I am too lazy. We get the results we deserve.

“It’s quite possible to be able to follow along in a conversation, but be unable to speak or express what you want to say.” - tonywob

@tony: but I see this is a normal stage in the journey of language learning. The comprehension level should always be more advanced then speaking level. You wouldn’t imagine you could speak better than you understand right?

You may want to allocate more portion of your time for speaking from now on, but I wouldn’t say the time you spent on inputs in the past was wasted.

BTW tony, my German only improved when I stopped trying to memorize declension tables , did more listening and reading and just let it all hang out when speaking. I have not a clue about cases in German, since I have been away from the language really for 15 years, aside from the occasional visit there, or short spurt at LingQ. I don’t worry about them, and believe me, or ask Vera, I communicate quite OK.

I am a little more self-conscious about cases in Russian but that is because I have not spoken it enough. I did business in Germany in the 90s, and have visited the country many times. It is just a more natural thing for me to do, (speak German). Yes, in the end you need to speak, lots, without worrying about it.

I hope to go to Russia soon.


Sorry I don’t think I expressed myself properly. I don’t think I’ve wasted my time with all the input, on the contrary, I enjoy reading and listening to stuff in my target language. I just wish I’d spent more time trying to speak as well, even if it was basic, or as Steve just said “let it all hang out when speaking”.


Thanks for the advise. I guess being a perfectionist is really bad as I hate it when I get things wrong. e.g. When I write stuff on sites such Lang-8 for correction, I check everything over hundreds of times. I believe I’m doing this when I want to speak as well, and need to just blurt it out and not worry.

“don’t think I’ve wasted my time with all the input, on the contrary, I enjoy reading and listening to stuff in my target language.” - tonywob

@Tony: That’s good. Your tone did sound a bit frustrated to me at first.

"how much uncertainty in conversations are you willing to live with? "
Responding to this question is not easy. If I have no clue to what they are talking about and I am not interested in him or her, I will not join the conversation. If I can understand what they say but I have nothing to add, I tend to be silent. If I feel no uncertainties in what they have been talking about, I might lose interest in joining the conversation. I sometimes enjoy expecting and feeling uncertainties in conversation.