There’s no substitute for human conversation

Sometime earlier this week I’ve been in a three hour video chat with a native English speaker. It was about work and a possible cooperation. It quite drained my brain’s battery. At some point I was wondering “Why is this so exhausting?” A host of missing words bothered me, those darn soldiers of mind escaped my command. Why are there empty lots instead of words, when in German language, my native tongue, talking is as easy as water is flowing down the mountainside?

I’ve just completed 4,400 pages of reading in English language. Extensive reading practice, as recommended by researcher and neurolinguist Stephen Krashen. While it improved my reading speed and listening comprehension, this massive effort seems to have left my speaking skills untouched.

I wonder, is it because I’ve never lived in an English speaking country? For most of my life most people around me—if they spoke English at all—they spoke English as a second language. Germans, Swiss, Italians, South Americans, Chinese, Hongkongese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese. It’s fun to listen to the French pressing English vocabulary into French grammatical structures and metaphors. And I enjoy the efficiency of Asians when they remove articles and tenses. They seem to be so confident with their shortcuts and adaptions. But when I open my mouth… it feels like walking on a cane. It’s ok, but it hardly feels quick or smooth. More often than not, it feels far from being on top of my thoughts.

“You speak slowly but are actually highly intelligent,” the native English speaker shared his observation at about two hours into the video chat. I was not sure if I should have an emotional reaction to that. My mind drifted off and for a brief moment I recalled a scene from a movie where a kid grew up in isolation, but always had a thesaurus with him. That kid was able to recite definitions and synonyms for any word thrown at him. I wondered if this approach could help me become more fluent. Effortless like water dripping down the needle-like leaves of fir trees in the Canadian Cascades.

The next day, when I browsed the latest in body work and fitness trends on Instagram, I saw a professional footballer doing leg drills. Super fit guy. I guessed that he trains 6+ hours per day. “He’s that good for a reason” I thought. I glanced at the app icon of the thesaurus I have on my phone. Would that it were so simple.