Welcome to the second post of my series on “How to get speaking practice in a foreign language, and get fluent as fast as possible.” For Part 1, click here.
A Few More Words on the Language Power Struggle
Alright, so in my last post I talked about the language power struggle, which for many of us can be a significant barrier to fluency, and can bring frustrating experiences and even loss of motivation. Remember that an attitude where a person is interested primarily in the personal satisfaction they can get from accumulating greater and greater command of the language can lead to exploitation of the kindness of speakers of the language, and may quickly become offensive. It’s important to be sensitive to both your needs and those of the other person.
As a rule of thumb, I would suggest seeing a new language principally as a means of relating with people, forming new relationships and learning about a new culture.
Before diving into resources to help you get actual speaking practice, I’d like to share a particularly relevant excerpt to this topic from the book written by Earl Stevick, “Success with foreign languages: seven who achieved it and what worked for them.”
Frieda: I’ve had very, very good Arab friends, and that helps. I think one very important factor was that I lived with a girl from Kuwait for a year. She wanted to speak English around the apartment, but late at night, she’d get tired, and slip into Arabic very quickly.’
Earl: ‘You outwaited her!’
Frieda: ‘I didn’t have to outwait her. She’d be the one who came up with it. I was very careful not to force it on her, or on any native speaker. You know, they’re in America, they want to practice their English on you. They can get very upset and feel threatened if you speak with them in Arabic.’
Earl: ‘Maybe they feel exploited?’
Frieda: ‘Mhm! And it’s very important, because I’ve seen it happen a lot of times. People who want to practice the other person’s language push too hard, and get very bad reactions from people, and they develop a real hate for the culture.’
Earl: ‘This means that it takes a lot of sensitivity and patience, and at the same time energy, and energy and patience are two commodities that it’s hard to manage at the same time!’
Earl: ‘The primary frame of reference is the human relationship. The language is only secondary.’
Frieda: ‘That’s right!
Bottom line: always pay attention to the context and the sensibilities of the person with whom you are speaking. If you are in America, and a person approaches you and starts speaking in English with a strong Spanish accent, responding to them in Spanish can be insulting to them. Practice the way you approach others, praise them on their language skills (English or otherwise), and be honest with them. Tell them you’re trying to learn their native language and you’d love to get the opportunity to chat with them in their native tongue.
Recently, Richard Simcott asked the following question on his Facebook page, Speaking Fluently: “Have you ever fibbed about your native language, or languages you speak, to practice a language? Were you ever caught out doing it?” A funny and instructive example of how people can react when responding to others directly in their native tongue came up in one of the comments:
“It reminds me of a story my aunt told me. My auntie and her husband (both from Argentina and Spanish speakers) were visiting NYC. My uncle asked someone for directions and since his accent was so strong, the man automatically spoke in Spanish (he was Cuban). Feeling insulted, my uncle responded: “moochas gracia” (with an American accent). We still laugh about it.”
Alright, so after this long digression, it’s time to dive in the subject of how to meet and communicate with native speakers.
Shyness and Anxiety
The first barrier to speaking with natives in their tongue is shyness and anxiety. Indeed, there is such a thing called “Foreign language anxiety,” and to many, building up the courage to speak in a foreign language is a huge challenge in itself, never mind looking for natives to practice with. So how do you deal with this?
Well, my next post will partly deal with this topic, but a good start is to get used to speaking the language as soon as you can; get the language on your tongue. In Benny the Irish Polyglot’s words, speak from day 1. Simply reading out loud is already a good start. Why? Because the more you wait before speaking the language you’re learning, the more your inhibitions kick in, and the more self-aware you become in regards to your accent and the mistakes you make.
Just to throw an example, have you noticed how nobody feels shy to say newly-learned insults and swear words that a buddy taught them, in a foreign language in which they have next to no knowledge of? But believe me, as you progress and you reach a low-intermediate level, most wouldn’t just call out random words in the foreign language to a newly-met acquaintance anymore. This is just a simple example I’m giving here to make the point that at the beginning stages of a language learning journey, you have much lower inhibitions than at later stages. You don’t really yet fully grasp what you’re saying, and you don’t really care whether you’re making mistakes or not. Generally speaking, then, the sooner you speak, the easier it’ll be for you to speak in the future, and you’ll be better able to overcome your inhibitions and anxiety.
Many East Asians in their 20s have been learning English for over a dozen years, and most of them have almost never gotten spoken practice during all those years. When they finally meet with a native English speaker, they are so self-aware of their accent, of grammar rules, and of the mistakes they know they will be making, that they often just freeze and can barely say more than a few disconnected words. Many feel embarrassed and just chuckle as soon as they blurt out a word in English. Don’t fall into this trap! Speak as soon as you can, preferably with real humans. For most of us, it’s always a bit embarrassing at first to speak in a foreign language, but you will very quickly get comfortable and you’ll see how much progress you’ll be able to make by opening your mouth as often as you can!
So, that’s it. You’ve been learning the language for a couple of weeks/months, you’ve studied basic words and phrases and you’d love to meet people with whom to practice your newly-acquired skills in your target language. Besides language practice, though, I’m sure many of you simply love to get to know new people, make new friends, and learn about a new culture and worldview. So how can you accomplish that?
The internet has obviously such an amazing array of websites and blogs that it seems the obvious choice for meeting people, and I find that it is indeed an amazing resource and I’ve been able to connect with amazing people through this medium. Your imagination is the limit, but let me scratch the surface and let’s have a look at a few different ways you can get to meet people on the net:
1) Blogs. Blogs are an amazing way to connect with people. One of the reasons I created this blog was in fact to do exactly that. But besides having your own blog, you can easily connect with other people through their own blogs. The easiest way to do this is to match your interests with those of the people you want to meet. This method best works when you have reached an intermediate level in the language (i.e. you are able to hold your own in everyday conversations) and you live in the country speaking your target language.
For example, I’m a huge travel enthusiast, and I love reading travel blogs, especially blogs that deal around world travel and photography. Since I’ve been learning Korean for a few years now, and it’s the language that I’ve really been trying to get immersed into nowadays, I’ve been recently reading a couple of excellent travel blogs written by Korean world travelers.
By leaving comments, following bloggers on Facebook/Twitter, and connecting with them (something as simple as sending an email telling how much you appreciate their stories or adding them on Facebook, mentioning the same thing), you can easily connect with these people and end up meeting with them around a meal or a beer! I’ve managed to meet an amazing Korean world traveler recently, and through her I’ve been introduced to other Koreans who share similar interests.
Usually traveling is a great hobby that can bring people together, and since it’s not an extremely specialized subject, it’s always an easy and fun topic to talk about—even in a foreign language—with fellow like-minded people. And if you are learning a foreign language, chances are you do enjoy traveling. Other hobbies that might be good to connect with people include music, photography, board games such as chess (easy to join a club), hiking or any type of sports, gym training, yoga, ethnic food, etc. Clubs and community centers are always a safe bet.
Don’t have a hobby? Make one! Find bloggers who blog in your target language about any hobby you might be interested in, and who might live nearby. Then contact them!
2) Meeting websites. There are a variety of meeting websites on the web. Probably two of the most well known are Meetup.com and Couchsurfing.org, and you of course have at your disposition any of the modern social networking websites that are excellent tools to contact and meet new people.
- Meetup is essentially a networking portal that facilitates offline group meetings in various places around the world. It allows members to find and join groups unified by a common interest, such as politics, books, games, movies, etc. It’s a great website, and although it is true that it’s mostly populated by Westerners, it’s not only for native English speakers. Just by having a quick glance at the Seoul Meetup homepage, I’ve found groups catering for ethnic Chinese residents (also welcoming Chinese language learners), meditation, language exchange cafés, climbing, paragliding, etc.
- Couchsurfing is another well-known social networking website. It offers its users hospitality exchange (i.e. you can find a couch to sleep on for free, or offer yours) and social networking services. A quick glance at Wikipedia shows that as of 2012, English was spoken by 71% of registered Couchsurfers. French (18%), Spanish (17%) and German (15%) were also spoken widely.If you happen to have an extra couch in your apartment, and you’d love to meet travelers and get some foreign language practice, this website is a wonderful way of doing just that. If you don’t have an extra couch or are not interested in inviting guests at your place, simply scour the forums, where members can seek travel partners or advice. CouchSurfing’s main focus is “social networking” and members organize activities such as camping trips, bar crawls, meetings, and sporting events.
- Lastly, as Benny has mentioned on his blog, “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.”
3) Language exchange websites. These are websites built for the purpose of helping individuals find language exchange partners, language tutors, or professional language teachers.
- Italki.com. Italki is a website that I’ve personally been using and I’ve found it really great. It’s still in its early stages, and as such the community can still be small, especially for non-mainstream languages. Nevertheless, it still remains an excellent way to find language exchange partners (all for free), or you can pay to take classes through Skype with language enthusiasts or professional teachers. The hourly rate for a one-on-one lesson over Skype can be amazingly cheap (for Chinese, for example, it’s easy to find tutors charging under $5 for an entire hour, sometimes as low as $2-3.) For professional teachers, expect a rate anywhere from roughly $8 to $20 an hour.
- Verbling.com. Verbling is a website that uses a conversation style known as chat roulette, where you are connected completely randomly to a stranger and can start to video or chat to them. It’s free to use and register. As of February 2013, the website is available for learners of 11 languages—mostly European languages, with the exception of Russian, Arabic, and Japanese. Benny has a great and detailed review about Verbling, so I encourage you to read it.
- Fiverr.com. Fiverr is a well-known global online marketplace offering tasks and services starting at $5. If you type the language you are currently learning in the “Search” box, chances are you will find several services—including translation and tutoring—for your language, all for the modest sum of $5. To narrow down your search results, type in the language you are learning, coupled with the word “Skype”.
There are a LOT of other websites out there that will provide you with the opportunity to meet with language exchange partners/tutors over Skype, so if you are not satisfied with any of the three options outlined above, feel free to search for another website through your favorite search engine.
If you live in the country that speaks your target language, or if you live in a city that is multicultural enough to have a large community of speakers of your target language, there are many ways to meet with them.
One of the easiest ways is, as mentioned a bit earlier, to join clubs and community centers. Gyms, for example, are always a nice way to meet people. If you enjoy weightlifting, for example, simply join a gym and you will undoubtedly find yourself, soon enough, talking with others who train at the same facility. Yoga, martial arts, calligraphy, public speaking, chess; additional options are endless. A quick walk around your neighborhood, or a search in Google will provide you with most of the information you’ll need to get started.
Pubs and bars are another way to meet up with speakers of your target language. People who are already a bit tipsy are always more talkative and open to strike a conversation with “foreigners”, and if you offer to buy a drink to any person sitting out there, you’ll quickly find yourself a lot of people with whom to interact.
How to Deal With People
The last point I will talk about in this post is that of approaching people. For most people, it’s not easy to just go out there and start speaking to strangers. The first thing you should keep in mind is that most people are just like you. They are afraid to approach others.
Social skills are a thing that can—and has to—be practiced. A lot of excellent resources are available, either in the form of books or blogs, to help people develop their social skills and confidence. Scott Young has a great post on how to be more social. Benny also has a great one on how to inject some personality into your conversations, and another one on how to get over shyness and overcome fears of meeting new people.
As far as books are concerned, I’ve found that one of the best one on interpersonal skills out there is the well-known classic written almost 80 years ago by Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. It can truly be a life-changing book. It basically teaches a number of fundamental principles on how to handle people and make people like you, among others. It’s a rather short and easy read, and it might be one of the best $16 you’ll ever spend.
Although I have other reading recommendations, this post is getting a bit long so I’ll stop here for now. Don’t worry, though, since I will be writing specifically about the topic of social/interpersonal skills in a future post.
So that’s it for this second post on my series on “How to get speaking practice in a foreign language, and get fluent as fast as possible.” If you haven’t done so yet, take a look at the first post of the series. And please, I’d love to hear your experiences on the topic. How easy/hard is it for you to meet with others? Which websites do you think are the most useful? Share your thoughts with the community. Speak up!