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How to practise a foreign language for free without travelling

| 28 comments | Category: learning languages

4d1

Those of you who have been following this blog and reading some of my best tips, know that sometimes I focus on advice for those of you already abroad. Even though you don’t have to be rich to be able to travel to another country to learn a language, sometimes it just isn’t desirable or possible right now for some people.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t get a head-start and practise, and even improve a foreign language to a pretty good level while at home! In this post, I’m only going to discuss free practising methods, rather than learning ones, because it goes without saying that you can invest hundreds or thousands in audio courses, group classes, software etc.

Some people even learn from pure input TV/listening/reading in the foreign language (I’m not a fan of this method since I prefer to focus much more on two-way communication, even from the start, but others have sworn by it), and of course there’s always good old fashioned self-study. Depending on the person, these may work well for learning the language (apart from self-study, none of these methods have ever worked well for me, and I have my own way of studying), but for actually practising the language, they all fall short.

Don’t you need to be abroad to speak a foreign language?

Of course not! Most major (and even some minor) languages are much easier to come across than you think! You may live in an English speaking country (or otherwise), but it is filled with people from all around the world, some of which may be happy to help you learn, as well as fellow enthusiastic learners at the same level as you.

Below, I’ll be mostly referring to the Internet as a means to meet these people, and not as the tool for actually practising. But you can also add people who are abroad to your MSN/Skype to engage in some interesting two-way conversations, and find penpals through some sites like polyglot language exchange. This helps a lot with your written language, spelling and grammar, but the priority should always be on spoken communication (in my opinion). Unless you live in a village in a mountain, if you try hard enough you can find opportunities to practise in person! If you live in a major and especially a capital city, you have no excuses.

Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to speak Portuguese, but this was while I was living in Paris. Using a variation of some of what I say below both there and in other countries, when I arrived in Brazil for the first time I was already able to communicate with and understand the locals pretty well! I have been able to regularly practise any language that I choose in almost any location because of this.

But there is nobody who speaks that language where I live!

Actually, I take back what I said about the being in a village on the mountain being the exception to being able to practise a language. All you really need is just one person to converse with and even if all you have is a fellow villager also interested in that language, you are already on the right track! As long as you have both studied at least the basics, there is a chance to practise what you know!

Believe it or not, the person with whom you practise does not have to be a native. If you want to reach the intermediate stage of being able to converse in a language that you are currently uncomfortable about speaking, it can actually be better speaking with non-natives. Seriously.

I learned most of my Spanish (my first foreign language) thanks to the French, German, Italian etc. Erasmus students when I was living in Valencia. Of course, we were all in the country already, but you can motivate yourself to speak the language no matter where you are. It turns out that it is easier to speak with other learners! Spaniards tend to speak quite quickly, and as any native speakers, they use complicated words and turns of phrase that makes any language rich and expressive. However, in the early stage, trying to understand all of that may be too much work, and very simply being able to communicate is a barrier that needs to be overcome first.

My other foreign friends spoke slower, used more basic vocabulary that I was extremely likely to know too and most important of all, since they were at the same level as me, I didn’t feel embarrassed or intimidated when speaking with them and could relate to them much more as a learner. Although you can only really improve your language skills very well with natives, learners can help you with parts of the language they are more familiar with and you can return the favour.

Some natives (luckily not Spaniards, and definitely not Brazilians) can be very impatient and unhelpful with you if you are in the early stages of learning their language. If you practise with other learners, then you can reach the stage of speaking quite well without the same kind of pressure (which you get from total immersion and does indeed speed up your learning process). Thanks to my other foreign friends, I reached the stage of being able to communicate well enough to be able to start conversing with actual Spaniards after a short time, which you should always keep in mind as being the end goal (i.e. speaking with natives, and conversing with other learners as a bridge to reach that level).

Language meet-ups

It’s important to remember that the purpose of a language is communication, and thus requires you to be social. If you are introvert, you should still try hard and there are many ways to get out there and meet new people. So, how do you meet natives or other learners? There are so many resources, that it’s impossible to list all of them as this depends on the city you live in. A little digging and you will find something. In the mean time, I can suggest a few websites and other resources that have been useful to me.

logo_82Meetup.com This site’s goal is to gather people with similar interests, to get unplugged from the Internet and to actually meet up in person to share and discuss that interest. It has many regular meetings based on a huge range of interests and is especially popular in English speaking countries. One of those interests is of course languages and you may find that there is already a regular meeting for the language you wish to practise (usually meeting up in a bar or restaurant). If you don’t see a language meeting in your city then suggest one!

final-logo2Couchsurfing.org I have already written an entire post about how Couchsurfing can be used to learn languages, in such a way that is especially related to non-travellers! You can host natives of the language in your home for a couple of days, or if that idea scares you, then you can still be a part of an amazing international community by attending the regular meetings, or suggesting one, in the groups and meetings page of the site. These meetings already have an international crowd, which may have lots of people willing to speak the language you wish with them. But you are also more than welcome to suggest meetings especially to practise a particular language.

Basically any modern social networking website (including Facebook; by searching for your city’s name + the language and then clicking “Events”, but especially by clicking “Groups”, e.g. French in London) can be searched for meet-ups that may include particular language meetings. And if they don’t, then take the initiative and create one! Or contact the members individually (without spamming or being a creepy guy only contacting girls) that are a part of a language interest group and ask that person if they want to meet up for an orange juice or coffee (or a beer if you must) and speak in the target language.

It doesn’t have to be through a social networking site; you can put an ad up on Craigslist or your country’s equivalent (there are several in the links at the bottom of this page, as I discussed in trying to find accommodation). I’m sure there are other sites I have overlooked so feel free to mention them in the comments!

Then of course, there are the ways that don’t require any use of the Internet! By word of mouth, or asking your friends you may see that someone shares a common interest in learning the same language and you can arrange to meet up to try to chat and practise whatever you know. You can also put up advertisements, especially in universities. If you feel you are ready to talk with a native, you can of course get private lessons, but to avoid paying for them, you could arrange for a tandem exchange.

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I’m hoping this post will remind people that travelling is not the only way to be able to practise your language. I have several other ideas not discussed in this post that I’ll talk about another time.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there now and find someone to speak your target language with :) Leave me a comment to let me know how it went! If you think others may benefit from the ideas in this post, then please share the link through facebook/twitter/stumbleupon! Thanks! :)

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  • Glavkos

    Hi Benny …regarding my experience on the matter i must admit that i could not really practice russian via skype whenever i tried. Usually russians were willing for the first time to speak with , but not for a second or third session …i am not sure why that happens …i would agree surely with you that it is better to meet and practice in person…

  • rachel

    i agree that face-to-face communication is the most important part, but i think “pure input”, as you put it, can be really helpful for those of us on the shy side. that way you get to the point where you feel like you won't have to blank out and say, “uh…what?” quite so soon. and for those of us who tend to be self-conscious about our accents, it's a low-energy way to get an “ear” for how things should sound. so i would highly recommend it as a first step for people who realistically aren't going to get up the courage to find real people until they feel more confident.

    by the way, i've really been enjoying your blog since a friend pointed it out to me a couple of weeks ago!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hey Rachel! I'm really glad to have another reader and commenter! Thanks for your contribution and I hope you enjoy later posts and write some more comments! Check out previous posts to get a better idea of my learning method :)

    I am pretty sure that several people will mention my passing comment about “pure input”, so I'll expand on that now.

    Rather than embracing your shyness and very slowly acquiring a language by yourself, it's better to just get out there and meet people! Believe it or not, I was extremely shy when I started travelling (an all boys school and an inactive social life at university will do that to you), so I know the preference to try to magically become fluent in the comfort of your home. This is a pipe-dream though. The only way to get over shyness is by socialising more. It's a harder process than staying at home with a TV and listening to your ipod audio course, but as I said in this post, language is social. This is especially true for Latin languages, where cultures are generally much less shy than ours, and you would have the cultural as well as the linguistic issue when moving there, so getting over shyness is doubly necessary.

    Being self-concious about your accent is a non-issue with other non-native learners, that's why I suggest practising with them so prominently in this post, and leaving native conversations for when you get over the confidence barrier, which you will with enough practise :)

    I'm not saying to abandon input methods, but that they should be combined with two-way communication; the basis for actual communication. No matter how much you listen to, or how much you learn, you will still have that barrier of confidence to get over if you have never spoken.

    My German understanding was quite good thanks to my 5 years of studies in school, but I was too shy to speak when I was there because of absolute lack of experience in trying; I basically may as well have not learned anything in school, since nothing would come out whenever I opened my mouth, despite understanding well and all the hard work I had put in. I could understand announcements and the TV, but I couldn't actually have a basic conversation with people. Even after 6 living months in Spain, I still wasn't speaking any Spanish until I decided to force myself to really try.

    To this day my German is still at a “good inactive level”, but I simply never speak it, despite so many opportunities. This is because I haven't tried to get over my confidence issue for German (a problem I intend to tackle soon enough).

    Even if pure input somehow gives you perfect understanding, you are still way way off being able to communicate. Pure understanding is not good enough, unless you are only interested in a language for literary reasons. You may as well waste less time and get over the confidence issue in the early stages :)

  • http://otevotnyelv.blog.hu/ Balint

    I'm using the input method to get perfect, contemporary and understandable input – it has nothing to do with shyness. Going out and starting a conversation with (almost) totally strangers can be hard, I admit that, but not when you try it with the right person!

    That's why I try to “filter” my new “friends” in the given languages. It takes time, but if I don't have any interest in the person, why bother? The language itself won't give a common ground in the long run. I have to be interested IN the person, in his/her life, way of living. Why bother if not? After all, as Benny put it too, one learns a language to meet new AND interesting people which he/she shares ideas and has common way of thinking.

    If you meet the right person, you won't feel embarrassed, what is more, you have a motivation to know more about the person! And from that point, you don't learn the language, but you are making friends – a solid language knowledge just the “byproduct”. :D

    I've already made some friends through meetup.com and other sites (internet does help a lot to find people! :D), and they are not only language partners but rather friends. So I think, this helps a lot. :D

  • rippedelastic

    Hi Benny!
    I'm an Erasmus student in Spain right now, also from Ireland (although not UCD :P Also I'm in Granada for the year, not Valencia like you were) and similarly getting to grips with what I hope is my first language of many! Very luckily I discovered your blog quite randomly within the first month of getting here. You'll be pleased to know I have given up English, even with my English housemate entirely (however not for phonecalls from home and whilst using facebook unfortunately :( ). And of course every few days of disilusionment and despair that I experience here in Spain, related to how I think I'm not learning anything, are interspersed by days of HUGE optimism, thinking I can understand about 90% of what the lecturer says :P But it's early days yet, and I do hope to come out of it fluent. I was a bit confused by your first post about your background and then this one, both describing when you became fluent in Spanish. Was it because of your erasmus, or during another period in Spain after you left UCD?

    Anyway, the real point of my post is; when I get back to Ireland, I intend to go full force into learning Irish. Like 95% of Irish secondary school leavers, I have promptly forgotten the language I was forced to learn for 12 years. And despite the general sentiment of anti-learning Irish and Irish only being a language for purists, quite gung-ho nationalists and very old folk living in the darkest depths of rural Gaelige-speaking Ireland (as of course I'm sure you're aware of!), I want to learn it again. Fluently this time, and through the sense of my own enjoyment and ambition to learn what's supposed to be my true mother tongue. I have always wanted to learn Irish, and found that that was something I just couldn't do in secondary and primary school, in that particuarly way it was taught. Perhaps if I knew of the Benny Polyglot method of learning languages things would have been different :P

    Now, I should just say now I have NO intention of getting you to give opinions on the fairly awkward and exasperatingly endless arguement surrounding a nation's inability (and refusal) to speak it's own language, despite it being in the national cirriculum, don't worry! All I want to know is how YOU did it? Seeing Irish as one of your languages, and seeing the videoblog of yours where you went to the Donegal for Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish week for anyone reading this unfamiliar with Irish), I assume you tackled learning it the same way you tackled the others; through complete immersion for so many months (unless you actually went to a gaelscoil or kept up diligently practicing Irish since you left secondary school, in which case you need only reply to this comment with that and save yourself reading the rest!) When I ever bring up the subject amongst friends, it's the same lament that I have from everyone; I WISH I could learn it but I don't know where or how… (or simply “I hate Irish and I never want to hear/speak it again, regrettably). Perhaps then you have the answer as to how I can learn again!

    If you did take your usual immersion route to learn Irish at the level you have now, where did you go, where everyone speaks irish? How long were you there for? I haven't been able to find any record of your adventure learning Irish like I have for your other languages.

    I'm already making plans next year to start learning though; when I finish my erasmus and get back to college in Ireland, I want to start an Irish house; have only Irish as our medium of communication in the house, except of course when the typical English-speaking guest pays a visit, and when we have to go to our lectures through English. I have found enthusiastic volunteers as housemates, one with Irish as their native language. It'll be like another Erasmus! :P So I do know exactly the kind of frustrating beginnings I'd be up for with understanding the housemates, adhering to the Benny Polyglot method naturally like I've been doing here in Spain :P

    But besides doing that, do you have any advice as to what else I could do, perhaps based on what you did? Do you have any idea where there is media available in Irish? Books, films, things like that? Or did you spend three solid months in a house in Ireland watching TG4? :P

    Many thanks, and I LOVE the blog, needless to say!
    Helen

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hi Helen!! :) Thanks for your lovely comment!
    Re: Spain… one of my biggest regrets is that I unfortunately never had an Erasmus year and all 4 years of my studies were just in UCD. I did however socialise with Erasmus, not just in Valencia, but across Europe :) Not sure what part is confusing in my posts about that story. I graduated in 2003 and moved to Spain with no Spanish and never having been there before. Tried to speak Spanish for 6 months and then finally started just speaking English as you would have read.
    Re: Gaeilge… to make you feel even more confident about being able to speak Irish, know this: I took ORDINARY LEVEL (not Higher level) Irish for the Leaving Cert, and still only got a B. After learning a few European languages I thought it was high time I should learn my own, so I investigated the immersion possibility. It's a little bit of a vicious circle, with getting a job in the Gaeltacht needing you to already have Irish, so I saved up a grand and gave myself an entire 3-week intensive immersion at the courses offered by Oideas Gael, and of course applied the “Benny polyglot” method of speaking only in Irish, despite the low level I had. My motivation to improve was further pushed when it turned out that not only Americans and Brits, but JAPANESE people at the course were speaking Irish better than me when I arrived!! It kind of does come back to you and you jump up the levels each week very quickly, especially if you are motivated and hard working (for the first two weeks I skipped going to the pub with everyone so that I could study, but then the last week I was out every night practising over a fine pint of OJ!!)
    I claim that fluency is achievable in 3 months starting from scratch, but even an Ordinary level B is far from starting from scratch, so there was no work involved in getting used to basic vocabulary, the sound of the language, grammar etc. and it was not that bad. 3 weeks was enough for me to get over the speaking barrier enough so that when I went back again the next summer I was confident enough to make that video and casually converse as Gaeilge! I still have plenty of work left to do, but I've made up for my school days :)
    Irish is by far the hardest language to practise abroad that I speak, but I use the Internet and do meet up with Gaeilgoirí whenever possible. I tweet as Gaeilge regularly, read Irish blogs and watch TG4 over the Internet. I also have some stuff as Gaeilge with me as I travel.
    Glad to hear you are liking the blog, don't forget to pass it on to other language lovers!! I'll eventually write about Irish when the time is right! You'll be glad to hear that I have a very silly video waiting to be edited about learning Irish (similar to the Italian one I made over the summer), but putting it together will have to wait for the moment.

  • Shane

    Again another interesting and informative article. I've had a similiar experience in learning French with a Chilean friend of mine. I was never afraid to speak to him in French since we had the same level. Also, he was able to relate French to his native Spanish when we weren't sure about some vocabulary….very interesting

  • Elthyra

    Sneaky link to 'Parisians' made me laugh, I admit :D
    Shyness is always a problem, especially here in Paris where as you have noticed people aren't really friendly. I love practicing languages with other non-native students, we have fun yelling silly insults at each other in Russian. I know most teachers use a the 'pure input' method a lot, talking to students only in the foreign language and only sometimes explaining grammar points. In my English class we sometimes have sessions with a native speaker to practice having conversations in English.
    Great post, as always :D
    *is off to check meetup.com*

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad you liked my sneaky link ;)
    I think I'll have to write a post about getting over shyness to speak a language, since it is something that affects a lot of people, including myself in the initial stages.
    Enjoy meetup!! In Paris there is also the “polyglot club”, a separate website/community that meets up regularly to practise languages. A bit of googling, facebook searching etc. will reveal them.
    Thanks for the comment!!

  • Mysterycheez

    Since I don't have much opportunity to speak Italian right now, I do like to get a lot of input from videos and recordings but I think it's also important to try to speak, even if you don't have someone there to speak to. Currently I am working on Italian but I have been studying German for the last few years and for a long time I felt too shy to try to speak. I thought that at least if I listened to the language a lot it would help. This has some value but I learned that no matter how much you listen to the language and even if you understand, you won't automatically be able to get the words out when you need to, even if you know what you want to say! The foreign language has different sounds than you are used to in your native tongue and I actually find that unless I have been practicing saying the words, my mouth just won't cooperate! I really think there is some element of muscle memory involved. Also, saying the words, even if in the beginning all you do is repeat what you are hearing, will solidify structures in your mind.

    You might be better than you think you are! This past summer as well as the year before, I was in Germany. I have had many people very amazed at my language ability and found this to really boost my confidence.

    It's hard for some of us, but let's get speaking ;)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Federico-Amicucci/1556832009 Federico Amicucci

      Hi!
      If you want to speak Italian with me I’m available!

      I’ve found a lot of English guys with Meetup!
      Good trick!
      Thank you Benny!

      • Annette

        Ciao Federico!  Anche a me piace “meetup”.  C’è ne uno “meetup” per parlare l’italiano nella mia città e ci vado qualche volta.

        Grazie per l’offerta di parlare con me in italiano!  Se vuoi, puoi
        vedere il mio profilo su Lang-8 per sapere il mio livello nella lingua: 
        http://lang-8.com/annette

        You can also feel free to send me a message through that site, if you like.  :)

        Grazie!

      • Annette

        Ciao Federico!  Anche a me piace “meetup”.  C’è ne uno “meetup” per parlare l’italiano nella mia città e ci vado qualche volta.

        Grazie per l’offerta di parlare con me in italiano!  Se vuoi, puoi
        vedere il mio profilo su Lang-8 per sapere il mio livello nella lingua: 
        http://lang-8.com/annette

        You can also feel free to send me a message through that site, if you like.  :)

        Grazie!

      • Annette

        Ciao Federico!  Anche a me piace “meetup”.  C’è ne uno “meetup” per parlare l’italiano nella mia città e ci vado qualche volta.

        Grazie per l’offerta di parlare con me in italiano!  Se vuoi, puoi
        vedere il mio profilo su Lang-8 per sapere il mio livello nella lingua: 
        http://lang-8.com/annette

        You can also feel free to send me a message through that site, if you like.  :)

        Grazie!

      • Annette

        Ciao Federico!  Anche a me piace “meetup”.  C’è ne uno “meetup” per parlare l’italiano nella mia città e ci vado qualche volta.

        Grazie per l’offerta di parlare con me in italiano!  Se vuoi, puoi
        vedere il mio profilo su Lang-8 per sapere il mio livello nella lingua: 
        http://lang-8.com/annette

        You can also feel free to send me a message through that site, if you like.  :)

        Grazie!

  • Annette

    Benny, this post was so helpful! Thanks so much for posting the meetup.com link. I checked it out and I found a group near me for practicing Italian! Yay!

    Annette

  • rippedelastic

    Cool, thanks for the reply! That DOES make me feel more confident, seeing as I got a B at ordinary level too :) I'll be trawling through the internet for the resources available then, and see how much I can learn out of that (and the irish house idea) without having to take a formalised course; something that never worked for me, besides me not wanting to spend 1000 euro aswell :S And yeh, I really look forward to your post about Gaelige when you get around to it, it'd be really useful!
    Thanks again!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the comment and the follow up e-mail :) So glad to see you are meeting like-minded individuals. There are language learners everywhere ;)

  • http://alysiasblog.wordpress.com/ Alysia Raine

    Benny, I know that this is an 'older' article of yours, but I must really thank you for this one in particular. This article is so helpful to me because I want to learn German fluently without having to actually travel there and live there (I actually would love to live in Germany, I just don't have the money to do it). In the past couple days I've been using (http://www.mylanguageexchange.com/Default.asp) and (http://www.polyglot-learn-language.com/) and made more than 8 contacts with people from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. I actually just had my first conversation with one of my contacts on Skype (half the time we spoke English and half the time we spoke German) and it was really exciting! Thanks again for writing this article!

  • http://www.MyBeautifulAdventures.com/ GlobalButterfly

    So inspiring! I can attest that Meetup groups are quite helpful in learning languages. And there is nothing better than CSing.

  • Fabin1453

    try http://www.mumeye.com to meet different language people it will be useful to meet someone who you dont know and you can communicate in real time

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Doesn’t surprise me – I also lived in India and saw some reactions to Hindi in non-Hindi regions. Right now I’m in the Philippines and outside of Tagalog (the official language of the country) regions, people barely even speak it, even if they understand it fully.

    There are assholes everywhere. Shrug them off and continue as before ;)

  • scholastica buluma

    Me llamo scholastica de Kenya. Hablo ingles, frances y Swahili pero no hablo muy bien espagnol. lo me gusta mucho. Tengo 37 anos. Estoy soltera. No es casada.

  • Petar

    Hi. This blog is awesome. I am from Serbia and student f Russian language. Now i am first year. I speak with two guys via skype who know exelent russian so they teach me. I teach them serbian. So, one time we practice serbian and one time russian. I think that that is good What you think?

    and i also decided from now on to speak only Russian when i am with my friends on university who knows Russian. I will speak russian and in the markets, transportation etc.

    What you think about that?

  • Олжас Ибраев

    English in exchange for Russian. I can help with Russian. I want to learn English

  • Solano Henrique Rocha Sampaio

    Let’s go pratice Portuguese. Add my Skype solano.gv or my whatsapp 553391692811 I’m wating for you.

  • http://fluentin3months.com/ Brandon Rivington

    I would very much disagree that “active methods of learning words is cumbersome and boring.” Do want to know one of the most active, most fun, and most effective ways to learn words? Speaking to people! You might be surprised as to how many new words you can pick up just by listening for them in conversation or by being corrected by a native. Thanks for reading!

    –Brandon, the Fi3M Language Encourager

    • Shampa Thakur

      Thanks Brandon for your valuable feedback.