How to get over the fear to start a conversation in Luxembourgish

Are you learning Luxembourgish and want to start  to speak with native speakers? I know it can be scary to start a conversation with someone, especially in a foreign language. You might be wondering “what do I say?” or “what if I say the wrong thing?

The fear of speaking to strangers really comes from the fear of seeming “weird” or looking foolish. You’re essentially afraid of the other person’s reactions, like someone laughing at you. (Of course, this very rarely happens in real life!).

Here’s another problem. All languages  are much more than just a list of words and grammar rules. It’s about connecting with people. Speaking conversational Luxembourgish is usually just about knowing the right thing to say in any given situation. That’s rarely taught in classrooms.

I recently received an interesting email from a reader asking how to start a conversation with native speakers in a train.

And that got me thinking.

What is the best way to strike up a conversation with native speakers?

Deconstructing conversations

If you break down the skill of how to start a conversation (and I think it is a skill), there are two component parts:

1) What to say
2) Making the approach

Since we’re dealing with starting conversations in a foreign language, we unfortunately need to add a third factor into the mix, a big fear that many people have:

3) What if I don’t understand the reply?

I don’t know about you, but it’s the second that would be the hardest for me. When I first started to speak English I used to be terrified of not understanding the reply too, but I’ve developed ways of dealing with that. I’ll share this here in the post.

How to start a conversation with native speakers

Now that we’ve broken down what goes into starting a conversation, we need to address each of the three steps. Luckily, and perhaps unusually for language learning, this is simpler than you may think!

What to say

Unless you’re a very spontaneous person, preparation is key. Getting good at starting conversations involves analysing the situations you find yourself in everyday (or expect to find yourself in the future), then coming up with an preparing appropriate things to say to people in those situations.

What works best for me is to think of a particular piece of information that I might genuinely need to know in that situation, and simply ask for that.

So, for example, if you’re going to be taking a train, you might genuinely ask the person sitting next to you:

  • How long does the train take?
  • What kind of transportation is there from the station?
  • Is this train often crowded / late?

If you’re on the street, no-one could ever blame you for asking:

  • The name of the street
  • Directions to the nearest post office or pharmacy

Remember: this is just to get the conversation going. It’s where the conversation goes from there that really matters.

Another strategy is to think: “How have other people started conversations with me recently?” or “What were the last 3 things said to me by a stranger?”

Either way, the most important thing is to spend some time looking at the situations you find yourself in and preparing things to say. If you don’t do this, concerns over correct grammar or the vocabulary you need will stop you pulling the trigger.

One of the things that I advise to my students is to keep an ongoing list of things they want to be able to say to people. Then together we write it down in Luxembourgish, I record it and my students go away and learn it by reading and listening.

For examples of conversation starters, check out this post.

Making the approach

Approaching strangers is tough when you’re still learning your target language.

However, the approach that I’m suggesting here means that when you do strike up a conversation you already know what you’re going to say.

This cuts out the linguistic problem of how to start a conversation, leaving the social one remaining. And for that, I have a great rule: “The 3-second rule.”

The concept is this: Want to talk to someone? Give yourself 3 seconds to make the approach and start the conversation.

Have 3 seconds passed? Walk away.

That’s it.

The logic is simple. We’ve all wanted to go up and talk to someone, thought too much about what to say, and ended up not doing it, telling ourselves things like: “I’ll just practise it a bit and be ready next time” or else convince ourselves of some reason why we shouldn’t do it: “They’re probably in a hurry and won’t want to talk to me”.

Basically, 3 seconds is the window of opportunity to take action before your self-defence instinct kicks in. You overthink, worry about what might go wrong, and lose your courage at the last moment.

Hold yourself to it (which will mean a lot of walking away at first), and you’ll train yourself to get much better at starting conversations without over-thinking.

What if I don’t understand the reply?

This can be crippling, and there have been times when this fear has prevented me from speaking English with anyone at all. The fear of not understanding the reply, prevents many learner from talking to people for a long time. (Even if they speak 2 or 3 or more foreign languages!)

The solution is in the preparation.

Earlier in the post, I suggested that you prepare conversation starters that relate to a genuine need you may have (such as asking for directions).

Everyone has the right to ask a stranger for something they need. By asking for something specific, rather than a generic request, you play into any decent person’s sense of civic duty. They will take the time to tell you what you need, even if you don’t understand what they say at first.

The point is that you have no need to fear not understanding the reply, because with the right question they will make sure you understand. The information you ask for is more important that the language used to give that information.

And, in any situation,  you can always use this useful phrase:

Kënnt Dir dat widderhuelen, w.e.g.? (Can you repeat that, please?)

You won’t be seen as stupid or irritating to the other person, because you’re asking them for something that they will be happy to help you with.

Making the most out of… life!

Of course, all of this is just the beginning. Once you’ve started the conversation, it’s then up to you to carry it on and make the most of the opportunity.

Perhaps you think this is all a bit disingenuous.

I don’t.

In fact, relationships with other people are a huge part of what makes life worth living. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing people in my life, and those friendships all had to start somewhere.

I’m sure that you’ve missed out on meeting  amazing people because of a fear of approaching them, or simply not knowing what to say. These simple strategies will help you meet more people using Luxembourgish.

I hope they are useful for you!

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