How to Start Doing Crosstalk and Not Die Trying!

February 25, 2019
Pablo Roman
Dreaming Spanish

In a previous post we introduced the concept of Crosstalk and we outlined why you should try it. However, it’s complicated to start doing something on your own without some guidance and concrete advice. In this post we are going to describe what the first time doing Crosstalk feels like, and how to make it easier for both partners.

The first thing that you are going to need to do is to find a suitable partner. As we mentioned in the first post, the ideal is a person who can speak a language that you are learning, and who wants to learn a language you can speak. If you can’t find anybody who wants to learn a language you speak, you may have to pay somebody for their time. This person can be in your circle, but you can also use apps or websites to help you find a language exchange partner. Some of the best apps are Tandem and HelloTalk, since they will help you find people who live near you.

When you start doing Crosstalk with a new partner, you want to make sure that there is a common understanding of what will be going on during your conversation. Make sure that the other person knows that you each are going to be speaking the language that the other person is learning.

As was mentioned in the original post about Crosstalk, it is better if both people are at roughly similar levels at their respective target languages.

Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit down where you can hear each other well. If you both are at an intermediate level already in your respective languages, you may opt for doing a video call instead.

The first time they do Crosstalk, some people find it harder than others to speak in a different language than their partner. When you start doing Crosstalk, you may find that your partner keeps switching back to English or switching back to a language that you two have in common, just because it’s easier to communicate that way. But if you allow yourself to switch back to English or to another common language, you’ll soon realize that you end up spending a lot of time speaking in that language just because it’s easier. Part of the point of doing Crosstalk is finding new ways and learning newer strategies to communicate without using a common language. So what I recommend instead is not switching to a common language whatsoever and just sticking 100 percent to the language that you’re supposed to be talking. That way, you will have to learn those techniques to communicate, and while you are becoming a better Crosstalk partner, you are also becoming a better teacher.

You will find that some people will manage to stick to their language for a while but then switch back to the common language. I find that a gentle reminder usually works to get them back on track. I have “Crosstalked” with a few dozen people and I have always managed to get my partners to speak their language after reminding them gently two or three times. You can ask them gently to switch back, but you have to be firm and stick to the premise.

When you do Crosstalk as a beginner, or even starting to learn a language from zero, you want the other person to be drawing and gesturing everything. If the other person doesn’t have any experience having a conversation and communicating in a completely visual way, the best you can do is start doing it yourself. When I start doing Crosstalk with a person who hasn’t done it before, I begin by telling them about myself. Maybe I’ll start telling them about the place where I grew up or something about my life, something that’s visual and that’s easy to communicate. After I tell them about where I was born and what it was like growing up, I go ahead and ask them to tell me about themselves, about the place they were born and about what was it like for them growing up there. Since they have already seen me draw my family and draw my house and my school, they will proceed to basically do the same, imitating what I’ve just done.

If you’re a beginner in the language, you need the other person to do this to make everything very visual. It’s better than for the other person to be a beginner so you can demonstrate this to them. They need to see how it works. They need to see it done. If the other person is already at an intermediate or advanced level then it’s going to be harder to demonstrate this, since they won’t need you to draw everything, and they won’t be seeing how it works. One option in this case is to resort to a third language that you can speak and that your partner can’t understand. If you can’t speak any language that the other person doesn’t know, you could still try showing the person some video demonstrations and hoping they will get it. It’s not the ideal situation, and I recommend finding Crosstalk partners who are at a similar level to yours.

One thing that sometimes happens when you make somebody realize that they can communicate without words is that they focus so much on the drawing that they forget to talk. It’s happened to me at least four or five times. My partner would be so focused on telling me a story about them and forgot to actually speak. You want to make sure that your partner continues talking. Here, too, a gentle reminder will usually be enough. Just let them know that you would prefer they keep talking so you can actually hear the language.

The last problem that I found when starting to do Crosstalk with a new partner is for them to completely refuse to draw. Apparently some people are really embarrassed of drawing. I’ve only once found such a person, so I hope it’s not as much extended phenomenon. If it happens to you, though, there may be some things you can do to make sure that they don’t feel embarrassed. One idea is to try drawing very badly yourself, showing them that it’s okay to draw very simple stick figures and it’s not necessary to be a great painter. In my case, I couldn’t get this specific person to draw, and, because my level at the language was not good enough, we had to give up on doing Crosstalk together. Luckily, this shouldn’t be a problem you encounter often. 

That said, even though being good at drawing is not a requirement, being able to effectively communicate things by drawing is important. I’ll give more specific drawing tips in a future post, but let me give you some general tips for now to get you started. The first tip is just watching other people draw. For example, you can watch some of my own Spanish videos:

Another good example are Alice Ayel’s videos in which she also draws quite a bit:

By watching a few of these videos you will get some experience seeing how you can manage to convey meaning without relying on words. Another way to improve your drawing is to find a book that teaches you how to make simple drawings. There are several books that teach you how to draw simple faces with expressions so that you can communicate emotions. They also teach how to make other simple drawings including animals, items of the house, etc. The best books are the ones that teach how to make drawings with a pen. They teach you simple drawings that are easy to understand and fast to draw since you don’t need to fill in the color. In particular I like Kamo’s books, like “How to Draw Almost Every Day.”

One additional trick that I recommend is sticking to conventions. For example, every time you draw a house, try drawing it the same way. This will make it easier and faster for the other person to understand. Another example is a family tree. It’s better to stick to a standard way of representing family and kinship so that the other person doesn’t have to figure out every time if you are talking about your spouse, or about your sibling.

Finally, I want to give you some recommendations about what the best topics are to talk about. If you are starting to learn a language from zero, or you are an early beginner, it’s better to stick to topics that are concrete, rather than abstract. It’s better to talk about things that are very visual. One example of a concrete topic would be the different parts of your house, things that happened there, etc. In general, any topic related to a physical space or object or any story that consists mainly of physical movement and actions is ideal for this stage of learning.

Some topics are too abstract and are therefore not very easy to talk about. Work is one example of this. As a teacher, it may not be too hard to draw yourself in school teaching, but if your partner works in an office it’s going to be very hard for them to communicate what they do. Maybe they will draw themselves in front of a computer and then get stuck. Many jobs, especially administrative jobs, cannot be easily represented visually. You can still try talking about work, but if you find that it becomes difficult to communicate it’s better to leave it and go on to some other topic. This recommendation applies to any situation. If you’re getting stuck and you do not understand what your partner is saying or your partner does not understand you, it’s okay to switch topics. Just go on to the next topic and talk about something easier. 

Some easy and funny topics that most people like talking about are times when you were little when you were naughty. Times you stole something, times you got hurt, or times when you got in trouble for something you did. Since these are stories with movement and physical actions, they are easy to talk about when doing Crosstalk. Another topic is just surprising things that happened in your life, like that time when you met somebody at a place where you were not expecting to meet anyone. You can even talk about love and relationships. That’s a topic that many people are interested in talking about.

I hope with this post I made it easier for you to try out Crosstalk and get started with what I consider to be one of the best ways to start learning a language and one of the best activities to improve your knowledge of the language at any level. I’m sure that if you try it out and do it with some consistency you will find it useful both for your language learning ambitions and for your teaching.

Posted By Pablo Roman | Dreaming Spanish

I fell in love with learning languages while living in Japan. After learning Japanese to proficiency without traditional studying, I decided that a better way of learning languages is possible and I wanted to look for it. After one year in Bangkok learning Thai and experiencing a much more natural input-based method to learn languages, I decided that I wanted to help popularize these kinds of methods. In 2017, I started producing my own content that people all over the world can enjoy while learning.

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