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 Skype to engage in some interesting two-way conversations, or 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 while in France 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, and 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).
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.
Meetup.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!
Couchsurfing.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.
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! Thanks!