I found a great post earlier on dideablog about paring down what you actually need to learn to become conversational in a language. While the author applied this specifically to Romance languages, I think these are great tips for just about any language. My favorite tip is the first:
There are lots of verb tenses in any language. However, you will eventually discover that you only need a strong grasp of a handful of them. Normally teachers will teach you about all the exceptions to the rules. My advice is to forget about this and pick out the verbs you need to know.
When it comes to tenses I have discovered that in the Romance languages you only need to know 7 maximum, and that is at a near native standard. I have learned that learning the Present and the Past are the first 2 most important tenses to learn. This is followed by the imperfect tense.
While working with Hungarian I discovered that some tenses and word orders that, while technically correct, just aren’t used as much or don’t feel right in general conversation. dideablog described this by saying
It’s like in English, more people will tend to say:
“I am going” rather than saying ‘I will go’.
That seems like a pretty apt description, though context makes a difference. “I’ll run next week” and “I’m going running next week” are both correct, but really I’d only use the first sentence if I was putting it off for some reason.
In any case, it pays to have a language partner who understands that you are not just looking for technically correct, but that you want to know the commonly used constructions. It saves time because usually there are only a few common ones, and it makes it easier to be understood when you say things in a more familiar way.
Instead of asking, “Did I say it right?” try asking your partner, “Is this how you would say it?” Notice the conjugations and other usages that you hear most frequently, and focus on those first. And, of course, most importantly, if you don’t know, ask!