Any Language Anywhere, hack 1: Social network language search
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 travelled to a non-capital city in Colombia and spoke seven non-Spanish, non-English languages every week. (I'm spoke almost entirely in Spanish the rest of the time, but that wasn't actually the mission). It was so easy it's not even funny.
I have included most of my best tips for speaking a language without needing to travel in my book, but I will outline some of them here 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.
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.
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 do an 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 was in South America remember!) for example, had 70+ 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, 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. The Polyglot Club for example is primarily a penpal site for language learners, but you can search for city and languages, 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 + 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 😉
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?