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Any Language Anywhere, hack 1: Social network language search

| 34 comments | Category: learning languages

The time for excuses is over. Stop studying your language too much and go out and speak it! It’s the only way you’ll make real progress.

Think you can’t speak it because you can’t travel? Travel is quite easy, but speaking your target language without leaving your home town is too easy. The countless opportunities are right under your nose!

There are so many ways to practise a language without travelling, and to prove this, I am currently in a non-capital city in Colombia and intend to speak seven non-Spanish, non-English languages every week. (I’m speaking almost entirely in Spanish the rest of the time, but that isn’t actually the mission). So far, this has been so easy it’s not even funny.

I have included most of my best tips for speaking a language without needing to travel in the Language Hacking Guide, but I will outline some of them on the blog too, starting with this one: social network language search.

Search and you will find

After moving into my apartment in Medellín, I got online and within five minutes had found people in the same city who speak the supposedly hardest languages of my set to practise: Irish, Esperanto and Hungarian.

Five minutes.

What I did can be summarised very simply: I went into some social networking websites and searched for people who speak those languages and wrote them an e-mail to meet up with them.

Yes, that’s it. It’s not quantum mechanics I’m talking about here; anyone with a mouse and keyboard can do this.

If you think of the many online social networking sites available, you’ll notice that they all have a search function. Sometimes these are quite basic (like in Facebook), but other times you can set criteria for who you are looking for. When you sign up for some of these sites, if you can select the languages you speak then you can also very likely search for them.

Couchsearch

My favourite site to do this with is Couchsurfing. I’ve already talked about how useful Couchsurfing is for non-travellers for hosting speakers of that language and using the site’s frequent meet-ups to meet foreigners to practise with, but I’m talking about something different today. Do a “Couchsearch”.

Log into the site (creating a profile is free of course, but take time to fill it out properly and add photos), and go to Advanced search. All you need to fill out is the language of interest and the city you live in. Couchsurfing has over two million members so it’s very likely you’ll find what you’re looking for.

The vast majority of Couchsurfers can’t host, and many simply have their status set to Coffee or a drink. So I take them up on that. I ran a search for “Irish” in Medellin and saw another Éireannach and e-mailed him to meet up. Then I searched for “Hungarian” and a local who has intermediate level and specifically states on his profile that he wants to practise Hungarian, got an invitation to do precisely that. Finally when I searched for Esperanto in Medellin, the guy’s Couchsurfing profile was actually written in Esperanto!

Now keep in mind that these are “uncommon” languages and I still found speakers! A search for German (I’m in South America remember!) for example, currently yields 72 results. What do you think the chances are that at least one would be up for having a coffee with me and speaking German?

Many other networks

Couchsurfing just happens to be a network I am very active in myself since I host Couchsurfers and am a traveller. But there are many social networking sites and you can do something very similar on many of them. You can even get around the lack of a language search by simply putting the language name into the search as it could be written on someone’s profile.

Make sure to do several combinations when trying this. If I was searching for French here for example, I’d actually try writing three possibilities: French, français and francés (Original language, in English, and in the local language of Spanish in my case).

If you are a part of an online university network, online chess players network or whatever it may be then try to search for the language and your city and you may be surprised! This has worked in combination with other websites that I’ll be talking about in more detail in other posts for other ways to meet people. Think of any social networking site, or website that connects people and see how you can search it for languages.

Then there are language specific sites. Polyglot learn language for example is primarily a penpal site for language learners, but you can search for city and languages and I just found someone who speaks Hungarian in Medellin, but log ins on this site are less frequent so you may not get a reply depending on who you write to. Some sites like Livemocha let you search for countries but not cities. I got several results for Esperanto in Colombia, but they could be at the other side of the country. However, it’s a start.

Listing all the possible sites you can do this on would make this post ridiculously long, but most popular websites that allow you to search and send messages can work fine to find people who speak or want to practise particular languages.

Just say “hi”!

Meeting people online might have been weird or associated with desperate guys looking to get laid in the 90s, but times have changed and the Internet is a normal part of everyone’s lives now.

It isn’t weird to meet up with people you first wrote to online. Everyone in the photo above are Couchsurfers that I met thanks to the website (several of them are still close friends of mine), and many of my friendships in recent years started thanks to some mouse clicks.

The Internet is a means to connect people. The friendships don’t have to stay on computers – after that initial hello in the café, which may feel weird for some, it’s as good as if a friend had introduced you in a party.

So just say hi! Write them an e-mail and hit them with your Italian or Spanish or Japanese etc. Say that you would love to practise the language and I’m sure the common interest will mean they’ll be keen to share their language with you, or learn it with you.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a native. I personally learned the vast majority of my Spanish (my first foreign language) by practising with Italians, Germans, French etc. who were studying in Valencia as Erasmus students. I don’t need to meet a Hungarian in Colombia – another traveller or a local with about the same level as mine is fine. It’s all about practice.

Other learners can correct you just as well (or even better in some situations), and this practise is a good way to ease yourself into speaking without the pressure of a native speaking quickly. But if you can find a native then do go for it as that pressure will force you to improve quicker.

If you’re afraid to approach strangers, keep in mind that it’s so much easier on a computer to just send an e-mail. The worst that can happen is that they decide not to reply and you’ve lost nothing but the couple of minutes it took to search and write a quick message. Just be sure to write a personal message based on things you read on their profile, and don’t turn yourself into a copy and paste robot.

And guys; don’t just write to girls, that’s pathetic! You are more likely to get some spoken practise if you are more flexible about who you meet up with. It’s just a coffee or drink so don’t over-analyse it too much.

If they do reply and agree to meet, then you have gained so much by opening the doors to a chance to speak your target language without ever needing to buy a plane ticket.

There are many other ways to practise a language without travelling of course, but I’ll get to those later ;)

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Any other websites you can recommend for searching for individuals? (Note that I’ll talk about Skype conversation partners or group meet-ups another day). Have you used this, or do you think you can give it a try?

Let me know in the comments and share this suggestion with your friends on “The” social network (Facebook) so they can see how many opportunities to speak are right under their nose!

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Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them :)
Just keep in mind that I’ll delete any rude, trolling, spammy, irrelevant or way off-topic comments. Also, use your REAL name, not a brand or business one, and don’t link to your site in the comments unless it’s relevant to this post.
If you have a general language learning question, please ask it in the forums. Otherwise please use the search tool on the right for any other question not related to this post.

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  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    Hey, man! I was meeting people online in the ’90s and it had nothing to do with getting laid. =P

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Cool. I was online since 94, but never actually met anyone I had talked to online until I first went to the states in ’01.

      • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

        By the end of ’99, I had met several people, both local and far away, whom I first knew online. Gosh, remember ICQ? It seems so long ago now.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          ICQ! Good times :D I actually did meet someone from ICQ to practise French with, but that was five years ago. I was using it in the previous millennium too, just had never met anyone initially.

        • ivyespalier (Randy)

          …ICQ is still around……..

      • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

        By the end of ’99, I had met several people, both local and far away, whom I first knew online. Gosh, remember ICQ? It seems so long ago now.

  • http://tastyinfidelicacies.blogspot.com Jewel

    I tried to set up social networking with Arabic speakers, but that proved disastrous when the only thing they wanted to talk about was marriage. I explained each time, Ana zowja. ya saddiqi, but to no avail.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Ah yes, the cultural problem arises! In this case I’d recommend trying people *learning* Arabic, since you’ll converse with other westerners. Otherwise if you are doing chat-only with no voice then say you’re a man – my friend Moses (I interviewed him for the Language Hacking Guide) does the opposite and says he’s a girl in chat programs – he tells me that he says he’s “already married” and that actually seems to do the trick. I don’t know what you wrote means, but if it’s “Not interested”, I’d replace it with “I’m married and my husband is in the house with me” :P “Not interested” means “try harder” in many cultures :P

      • http://tastyinfidelicacies.blogspot.com Jewel

        A funny aside, Benny: I have an Iraqi neighbor, and that was one reason I wanted to learn Arabic. She speaks excellent English, and her daughter is all-American. But she often talks via Skype to her family back in Iraq. One day, my 15 year old twins were visiting her daughter, and H and her brother were online talking to one another. He saw my red headed twins walk by and told his sister he was going to marry one of them. Case closed, no debate. She told the girls that her brother was going to marry one of them, and they said, ‘no’, of course, but she told them that in Muslim culture, once a man has made up his mind, there was going to be no changing it. So I had her explain to the brother that in our country it is illegal to marry at 15, and since they were too young, he might do better finding a nice Iraqi girl to settle down with.
        2 years later, he did, and she is lovely….and not my daughters.

        • Lama MUKHTAR

          Hi I just wanted to make it clear that ” in Muslim culture, once a man has made up his mind, there was going to be no changing it” is certainly not a “Muslim” culture thing. It could be an Arab thing specific to their family. Nothing in Islam suggests that mumbo jumbo. They just conveyed their ideas incorrectly.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Very good. Randy put me onto Badoo and Sonico, I believe he said those worked far better for him than Facebook, have you tried either of those, yet?

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I liked Randy’s post about using dating sites for language practice, but I won’t quite go there myself. Remember the goal of this post is to encourage people to use networks they are already a part of. I’m a traveller so Couchsurfing works for me. If someone happens to already use dating sites, then expanding on that would go with the idea of this post.
      If I was on Badoo, it would be for 90% dating and 10% language practise for example, but I still have a preference for good old face-to-face first when it comes to chatting a girl up :P Also, I think girls using sites like Badoo just to practise a language would get frustrated very quickly by all of the guys coming on to them so quickly. Perhaps in this case these sites are more suited to guys than girls to practise a language, since the guys can keep the conversation general, whereas girls would have to deal with it always coming back to how cute they are or whatever.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Yes, it’s universal! Glad to see it applied in classrooms :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Aren’t there horror movies about staying at home alone and getting attacked? :P Actually I’d say there are WAY more of those than meeting-people movies…
    As I said, this image of the Internet being full of axe murderers and rapists is one from the 90s. Now the Internet is full of normal people, and even better – people you share so much in common with. That’s why I like Couchsurfing; I share so much mentality with them so meeting them after exchanging an e-mail or two is fine since we have so much to talk about. Any site that lets you see what you share with those people will be useful.
    Best of luck with your mission!! :) Think of it this way; you know me only online, but if I was passing through your town you’d probably say yes if the opportunity came to meet up! Lots of people way more interesting than me online!! ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Aren’t there horror movies about staying at home alone and getting attacked? :P Actually I’d say there are WAY more of those than meeting-people movies…
    As I said, this image of the Internet being full of axe murderers and rapists is one from the 90s. Now the Internet is full of normal people, and even better – people you share so much in common with. That’s why I like Couchsurfing; I share so much mentality with them so meeting them after exchanging an e-mail or two is fine since we have so much to talk about. Any site that lets you see what you share with those people will be useful.
    Best of luck with your mission!! :) Think of it this way; you know me only online, but if I was passing through your town you’d probably say yes if the opportunity came to meet up! Lots of people way more interesting than me online!! ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Thanks Mike!! :) I’ll have to try this one too. I had come across it before, but never really used it. It would fit with the idea of this post perfectly!

  • http://www.axisofawesomeblog.com Trever Clark

    Hey everyone – What are your thoughts on taking language lessons (that you pay for) over Skype? There are a ton of websites that offer this kind of thing (some look more legit than others), but I don’t know anyone that’s tried it…

  • http://philintheblank.net Phil Paoletta

    Hi Benny,
    That is a brilliant use of Couchsurfing. You also might even be able to start a group in Medellin for each particular language. This could lure in interested people who might not have made specifications in their profile and it would also create a regular platform for setting up meetings etc.

    I also agree with you that it is in fact not strange at all to meet people from an online network. Once you do it a few times, it becomes quite comfortable. CS in particular is great because it is based solely on making connections and it largely discourages people seeking economic or romantic relationships.
    B well, Phil

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Send me an e-mail via the contact-form or @ me on twitter.
    Not sure what you mean about learning more about my “program” though. My language learning method is to speak immediately and my method just reinforces that and explains how it’s possible. You are better looking at the Language Hacking guide for suggestions. Anything I’d say in person would just be bullet points from that, and I prefer not to talk shop when I’m out ;)

  • Vasili Nikalayeu

    Don’t read the comments 

    answer  right away

    I studied Spanish at my Uni and graduated it WITHOUT the slightest idea HOW TO SPEAK the language. I could do written or even oral translation, but communication was a disaster.
    I picked up World of Tanks and went to the EU server (I am from Belarus and speak Russian, you see) and joined hispanic clan. Speaking on Mumble/TeamSpeak is pretty easy and you can also enjoy a MMORPG to its most. Just don’t be shy to make that first step =)
    So if u play this game – don’t stick to English-speaking clans guys…

  • http://www.facebook.com/youri.dejoode Youri De Joode

    Hi Benny how’s the mandarin going?

  • http://twitter.com/reifentyres reifentyres

    Hello,i found your site through search,yours site is excellent and a nice website…

    The contents are nice &will grow higher in future…

    thanks,

    http://www.reifen.ms/

  • http://porelcarrilbici.blogspot.com/ Eynar Oxartum

    Vi certe konas Pasportan Servon. Ĝi ja estis tre grava por praktiki esperanton! Kaj multaj esperanto-parolantoj estas lingvo-amantoj, kiuj scipovas kaj amas aliajn lingvojn.

  • Doitsu DaiSuki

    What if you’re socially retarded like me and you can’t even word a proper email because you’re absolutely terrified? ;__; any ideas?

  • “M”

    And also seriously puts women at a disadvantage, getting less practice time then than men.

  • Calvin Kocher

    Probably not surprising, but I can’t find any other Indonesian speakers in Paraguay on Couchsurfing. Any advice?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Find speakers online!

  • Felipe Vargas

    Hey Benny, what social networking sites can I go on to speak with natives for free?

    • LaurenModerator

      Hi Felipe! We really like to use italki, where you can get a completely free language exchange–if you speak to someone in your native language for 20 minutes, they will speak to you in their native language for the same amount of time! You basically just create an account, go to the “Language Exchange” section, and search for speakers of your target language. Totally free :) Good luck!

  • Meredith

    I’m a sophomore in an American high school. My cousins speak fluent German (& live in Germany) and I would love to be able to learn enough German to not only visit there but to attend college in German-speaking Europe. Is this an unrealistic goal or something I can actually achieve?
    (I should add I already went through two levels of Rosetta Stone(not getting very far comprehension-wise) over 6 years ago, but remember the basics.)

    • LaurenModerator

      Hi Meredith. That is DEFINITELY a realistic goal. For so many people, using language courses like Rosetta Stone just doesn’t result in fast or lasting results, but there are so many other things you can do. To get started, try setting a specific short-term goal for yourself, and try using resources that get you to start by SPEAKING the language rather than just studying it. Good luck :)

  • Merinda

    I’m learning Korean and found Twitter to be a great resource for meeting people and practicing Korean. I’ve even made a couple of friends, we even shared Christmas presents this year. It’s been a good way to practice reading and writing in Korean. I just started posting in Korean and found people to follow, by looking at their previous posts. It’s a low stress way to make friends who aren’t creepy Internet trolls.

  • Paris Williams

    There is one thing I don’t understand; how am I supposed to speak the language to natives if I haven’t studied it? Sure I’ve already learned a lot of vocabulary, but surely you have to study things like word order, and practice constructing sentences etc. before you go out and speak it?