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Having real conversations with native speakers is one of the best ways to quickly improve your language skills.
Yet I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who wait years before they take that step — or who never take it at all!
Recently I was in a room with 20 language learners and asked them “How many of you have used Skype to practise your target language?” Not a single person raised their hand.
This needs to change. Seriously, if you haven't tried it yet, now's the time to start.
So many language learners know they should start practising with a native sooner rather than later… and then just don't. Hopefully this post will light a fire under your arse!
Today I'm sharing in one post my specific strategies for using Skype to practice speaking a new language, and how to make the most out of every Skype conversation. And of course you can use these strategies without ever leaving home.
Let’s get started.
How to Find a Skype Language Exchange Partner
Your first task is to find another person who speaks your target language and who is willing to chat with you over Skype.
Italki – My favourite language learning resource.
I've written loads about my favourite way to do this, which is with the excellent service italki.
Italki is an online language learning service that connects you with language teachers from around the world. If you've been curious to try it out, take a look at my review of italki where I break down their entire system for you.
I've also written out a guide for how to choose between italki's many online teachers to find the best one for you. When you're filtering through the various tutors and teachers, pick a native speaker who lives in the country you're focused on. This will give you a direct pipeline to the authentic and modern way to speak your target language.
But I know that you've heard me talk about italki before. And while I really do think you should give it a try, there are alternative methods for finding great exchange partners, which I'll share with you now!
HelloTalk – Casually chat in your target language throughout the day.
For example, if you're on the shy side, you might try HelloTalk for a totally different experience. This app works on your smartphone, and connects you with other people learning your language who want to do a language exchange. The app lets you send voice messages or “text messages” to people who match up with your language, which is great if you don't feel like being on video. When you get a text message on HelloTalk, the app will help you translate it, and it will auto-correct your replies to get rid of the mistakes.
What I really love about HelloTalk is that whenever I suggest it to a reader, they usually get back to me with great news like “I've been chatting in Mandarin in all day!” And that's always great to hear. The downside to HelloTalk is that it doesn't offer video chats if that's what you're looking for, and you won't find professional teachers on the site – just other language learners (but they can still teach you a lot).
Join a language learning community and find an exchange partner there!
Try something for me.
Go into your Facebook account and search for “Esperanto”. Do you see that public group there with 16,000 members? Now go to meetup.com, type in your target language and your city, and click “search.” I just randomly searched for “German” in Minneapolis, Minnesota and found 3 different local communities.
In most cities all over the world, I promise you'll be surprised by what you'll find. There are communities of people everywhere who are searching for someone to practice their languages with. Why can't that someone be you?
All you really need to do to find a language exchange partner is to step outside your comfort zone.
That's the hardest part. “Finding” people is easy. Having the courage to talk to them is harder, but so worth it.
What to Expect from Your Skype Language Exchange Partner
There are basically two types of people you will practise speaking with on Skype: language exchange partners (free) or a teachers/tutors (paid).
With language exchange partners you should expect to spend some time helping the other person with your native language. You can suggest that each of you go back and forth, spending 10 – 15 minutes speaking in their native language, and then 10 – 15 minutes in yours. I recommend you set up the rules at the start of the call to keep things fair.
But keep in mind that most language exchange partners are not professional teachers and may not have any experience teaching their language to others. This is a great way to practise speaking, but you shouldn’t expect too much in terms of structured instruction or in depth explanations. And you may get the dreaded question, “What do you want to talk about?” So I recommend you arrive online with at least some idea of what you want to practise, so you'll be prepared when you get that question.
Paid teachers, on the other hand, focus entirely on helping you speak and understand your target language. While you do have to pay money, the costs are considerably less than you would pay for a live one-on-one teacher, or even a group class. Plus, you get to do it from the comfort of your own desk or couch!
With paid teachers you should be clear about what you are looking to get out of your lesson, and prepare some materials or topics that you want to review.
A bit of preparation before you talk to your teacher will allow you to focus on those areas that are most important.
Two Steps to Prepare for Your Skype Language Exchange
Step 1: Decide What to to Talk About
Whichever language I’m learning, I usually prepare for my Skype speaking practice in the same way. If you’ve gone through my free Speak in a Week course, then you know that I recommend starting with phrases and words that are specific and relevant to your own situation. Keep a list of words that are specific to you and your life, so you can refer to it when talking about yourself.
Make sure that you have practised these phrases several times, and know how they should sound. Listening to the words beforehand on forvo.com is really helpful for this.
Another handy group of phrases to have ready are those that you may need to ask related to language learning. For example “Can you please repeat that more slowly?” or “Can you write it down for me?” These will become invaluable during your first conversations in the language.
There are of course more in-depth strategies for preparing for a Skype chat, but just knowing a few phrases you want to say in advance will take you really far.
Step 2: Tackle Your Nerves
Feeling nervous? So is the other person!
One of the biggest reasons I hear that people don't take the plunge to practice on Skype is nerves!
I'm always hearing, “Benny, I'm shy!” or “Benny, I'm scared!” Well, I can't change that, but I can tell you that your exchange partner is likely just as nervous as you are.
The person on the screen won't be scrutinizing your language skills the way you imagine they will be. They won't be judging you. They won't be annoyed with your mistakes or slow speech. They'll probably be too busy worrying that you will judge them, that you will be annoyed with them. They'll be focusing on their own mistakes, not yours!
A lot of people get nervous the first time they speak with a native speaker. You'll probably never feel totally “ready” to start speaking with another person. This is completely normal.
In fact, if you feel “ready” to speak with a native speaker, then you’ve probably waited too long! Feeling a bit terrified during your first conversation is to be expected and, while I can’t give you a magic pill to take away the nerves, I can tell you that this is absolutely temporary.
Once your first conversation is over, it will only get easier. In fact, it will start to get easier in the first 2 minutes of your conversation! Just hang in there and soon enough you’ll start to get into the flow of things.
How to Set Up Your Computer for a Skype Language Exchange
When I have a speaking session on Skype, I make sure that my computer desktop is set up in an optimal way. There are a few specific windows you should be sure to keep open on your computer while you’re chatting with a native speaker:
- Your list of phrases and keywords in a notepad document
- Google Translate to use during the conversation
- An online dictionary to find words in your target language
If you have these open in tabs in your browser, or in easily accessible windows, all of the information you might need during the conversation is at your fingertips and easily accessible. This allows you to focus on practising speaking, rather than scrambling to look things up.
This might seem like “cheating”, since you have the things you want to practise right in front of you. But this is about getting used to speaking in the language. And the fastest way to become comfortable speaking and gain confidence in your ability is to open your mouth.
In time, you’ll be able to speak without those “cheat sheets” on your computer screen. In fact, using this sort of system, you’ll find yourself progressing to new phrases and words much faster than if you were always trying to reproduce them from memory.
5 Tips to Make the Most of Your Skype Language Exchange
Here are a few other tips that can help make your Skype call much more effective:
Tip 1: Open Your Mouth!
The best way to make the most of your Skype language practice is to open your mouth and speak! Enjoy getting to know someone from the other side of the planet.
It’s amazing when you think about how technology is brings this world closer together. Thanks to this amazing software called Skype, you no longer need to travel thousands of miles to converse with a native speaker!
Tip 2: Use Video, Not Just Voice
To make sure your Skype call is as effective as possible, try to have a video call.
“Can’t I just have a voice call?” you might ask, and sure, while that is technically possible, I highly recommend you arrange a video call with your native speaker.
Over 90% of communication is nonverbal, so body language can play a big part of getting your point across, or understanding what the other person is saying.
Seeing the person also gets you used to observing cultural cues that people use when speaking in that language. How someone uses their hands or shows emotion on their face can vary from culture to culture. Seeing it first hand will give you insight into the cultural nuances of how people communicate.
Tip 3: Try the Bingo! Strategy
Another way to make the most of your call is use the “Bingo” strategy, which my partner Lauren came up with. Essentially, Lauren has a list of possible things to say, and plays a bingo game with herself to try and practise all the phrases on the list. If she does this, it’s Bingo! For each phrase she uses it gets ticked off the list. (You can read all about it on her 2 Week Russian language study update here.)
Tip 4: Use Technology to Your Advantage
Try recording your Skype conversation to review later on. (To do this, always get permission first from your teacher, and don't share the video unless you get permission for that, too).
If you record your session, you'll be able to look back and figure out that word you didn't understand, or watch again to remember all the words you wanted to say but didn't know how. This way, you'll be better prepared for next time.
You can also ask your teacher to incorporate Google Doc documentation, screen sharing, or other technologies into your lessons.
Tip 5: Review Your Notes After the Call
Lastly, don't close your computer the moment your Skype call ends.
Instead, spend an extra ten minutes looking back at the notes in the Skype chat box. What words did your teacher type out that you didn't know? What new phrases should you add to your study list or Anki deck? Were there any conversation topics that you struggled with during the conversation?
This “debriefing” time is so important to make sure that everything you just learned doesn't get lost, but gets reincorporated into your study strategy.