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What’s the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever? Posted by on Mar 23, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Le Typicàl Convèrsatiòn

As language learners, we hope to find ourselves in conversations on a wide variety of topics. That’s really the point of all these conjugation tables, vocab flash cards and grammar drills, isn’t it? Sure, reading a foreign newspaper is great, watching TV shows and movies in their original language is rewarding and all that, but for most of us I imagine the ultimate goal is to express one’s ideas, ask intelligent questions, and tell stories; to converse.

But when starting out your language learning odyssey, we quickly learn that not all conversation topics are created equally.

The news, for example, can seem at first like tempting, low-hanging fruit for the budding second-language conversationalist. No need to translate “Boko Haram” or “Hillary Clinton,” after all—you’ll feel you can just dive right in. But once you’ve started down the topical path, you’ll find it quickly ends in a bramble of unpleasantly specific vocabulary, such as “court case,” “election campaign manager,” “quarantine” or “state censorship.” No problem if you’re already a seasoned speaker, but not the biggest confidence-booster for a beginner.

Politics has a similar problem of specific vocabulary (“sanctions,” “military dictatorship,” “economic downturn”) required for even a cursory discussion, with the added drawback of carrying an emotional charge. Don’t get me wrong; good-natured arguments over politics, religion, and other tinderbox topics are brilliant for taking away your worries about word choice and pronunciation and focusing your attention on just speaking. But you want to have enough rhetorical ammunition to defend and attack, otherwise you’ll just be left in the corner, burning with something to say but no way to say it.

Are we then cursed to discuss the weather? Ugh, the deadest dead end there ever was. It can only begin with what the weather currently is, and end on how it might be different. Not exactly scintillating conversation, and it leaves both parties wishing they were speaking to somebody else.

So what, then, are we to talk about?

I submit for your consideration my nominee for the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever: food.

Like tasting wine, talking about food starts simple and builds steadily to more advanced complexity, all the while being thoroughly enjoyable. Everyone likes food, so it’s difficult to alienate the other person by stumbling on your grammar. Every culture and sub-culture on the planet has their own unique way of preparing, eating, and growing food, and everyone’s got their own stories about or relating to food, so there’s an infinite number of conversational roads to take.

Best of all, you can learn nearly everything a beginner needs to learn through the topic of food alone. You’ll learn simple vocabulary at first (“soft,” “yellow,” “turkey,” “soup,” “salty,” “burnt”) and smoothly work your way up to the more detailed (“bottled,” “oven-baked,” “farmland,” “preserves”). It’s hard to discuss food without discussing its origins, so geography will play a big part, and you’ll find yourself practicing all the important verb forms (“is produced,” “will yield,” “has been fermenting”).

You simply can’t go wrong talking about food. Or maybe I’m just hungry.

What do you think the Greatest Topic of Conversation Ever is?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.

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