On Monday (13th October 2014), I hop on a flight to _81ffa8ff_ – after which I’ll be hanging out in Asia for several months. Those of you subscribed to the email list will find out precisely where we go next, and what we’re doing, before anyone else 🙂
But as you know, I’ve been very busy this year on the_c40b8719_ in several countries. This has been a chance to meet aspiring language learners and offer my answers to any questions that may come up.
There was one stop though, in Hartford, Connecticut where someone asked me a question about how to learn a language when there are no speakers nearby. I, of course, suggested that they get on italki and find native speakers for some “virtual immersion” via Skype. But this person had already tried that, and couldn’t find any native speakers on italki or on any site for that matter!
So, how do you get language practice when native speakers are genuinely hard to come by?
Cue: Brandon, the Language Encourager
This also happened to be the one stop on the tour where I got to meet our Language Encourager in person for the first time – Brandon – who helps me with all your language questions (just send them as a reply to any of my emails, after you sign up. We are happy to help with any language learning woe… we’ve heard them all!)
Brandon actually lives in New York, but wasn’t around when I made it there, so he drove to meet us in Connecticut instead.
So when I was asked by a language learner how to get language practice when you can't find a native, he put up his hand and said that he actually had a good answer to that question, and I let him take over.
Simple idea, but very effective: Find other learners
Brandon initially had the same issue with his project to learn Icelandic. It’s a country of over 300,000 people, but they are not so likely to be on language learning sites that offer free exchanges, since their English is already likely to be very good.
He tried to find natives to practise with, but hit a brick wall no matter where he went.
And then he tried something else – he searched instead for other non-native learners of the same language. The numbers suddenly went up dramatically! He had his pick of dozens of people he could Skype for practice. Maybe they didn’t grow up speaking the language, but while Brandon needed to get momentum he could speak with people who were at the same level as him or much higher.
It turns out the Internet has quite a lot of high level Icelandic speakers, willing to help you out!
My own story: Learning Spanish from anyone but Spaniards
The way I learned my first foreign language successfully, long before Skype, actually relies on the same principle, even though the lack of native speakers wasn’t the problem (I was living in Spain after all). It’s that they spoke too fast and used phrasing that was too complicated for me.
I actually learned the majority of my Spanish (initially) from French, Brazilian, Italian and German students who were also learning the language (they were living in Spain as part of the Erasmus student exchange program). They were more likely to speak slowly to me, and as fellow learners they knew the words I was more likely to know, and could rephrase things simpler than a native speaker could.
In fact, native speakers can sometimes be terrible at helping you learn their language if they don’t have teaching experience. They may not know why a term is phrased a particular way – and may not be aware of how complicated something is from the learners’ perspective.
This is definitely true in Spain. No matter how many times you tell many Spaniards to speak slowly, they will not realize they are doing it. It’s discouraging for an absolute beginner!
Try to get practice with those the same level as you or higher
With all this being said, you still need a good strategy when choosing who you practice with. As a beginner, I would be very flexible for languages that are quite restricted in finding speakers online, because any practice is better than no practice. And remember: you are practising and not studying. Imperfection is to be embraced. 😉
The great thing about being a beginner is that pretty much everyone with any experience knows (a little or a lot) more than you do, so everyone can be your teacher!
For instance, are you learning Irish, or Cherokee, or Quechua, or Maltese? These are languages that may have their fair share of native speakers, but they can be notoriously hard to pinpoint in person and even through online practice (Don’t forget that you can listen to them through streamed radio, and read articles in these languages online easier than you think)
But once you cast your net wider and include fellow learners – the world is your oyster! Use the language option on italki (and untick native speaker), or select it as a language they speak on Couchsurfing for in-person meet-ups, or use any other language or social site and search for speakers and be flexible and you may even get better practice than you would with a native, as a beginner.
You can also get in touch with groups of fellow learners on sites like Meetup.com, or find learners in other ways, such as those who came to my book signings, who got loads of language practice with one another, as you can see in the photo (At Word bookstore in New York City)!
And of course, you do this so that when you do get time with a native (if you can find them), you can truly take advantage of it thanks to all that practice you’ve gotten in advance.
Let me know – have you tried out this technique before? Have you noticed your level improve when you practice with other learners? Tell me in the comments below.