Learning foreign languages is challenging and I found that unfortunately, a lack of structure slows learning.
Many teachers are great. Some, not as much. And even if you do not have a teacher locally available, there are places like iTalki where you can find and pay for lessons (which can be very reasonable).
Sometimes it’s actually fairly easy to find native speakers in the language you would like to learn. For example, most Chinese people learn English and many would like to practice their English with native speakers. Therefore, you also potentially have a large number of Chinese people to practice Chinese with.
Many people want to learn English, so if you are a native speaker, there are quite a few languages that you can in turn practice through ‘language exchange’.
On HelloTalk, between March and June 2015 (four months) I have talked to 354 people.
That’s a lot of people! Must have learned a ton from the conversations?
Sometimes, yes. But not always, in fact, not usually.
I have been learning Mandarin Chinese for sixteen months. Not the world’s easiest language! For three of those months, I worked on it every day for on average about two hours. During that time I learned a lot, used many resources, and shifted strategies at different times.
Sometimes this happens,
1. 2″ audio was “hello, how are you”
2. Response， 你好 （Nǐ hǎo）
3. “What’s new with you?”
It’s possible that the expression I used was not understood.
However, this conversation shows something that happened a bit, conversations just ended.
Another thing that happened was I practiced and become comfortable with certain phrases.
What I said in Chinese was,
(nǐ jīntiān zuò shénme?)
(what are you doing today?)
I said some version of that phrase incorrectly, was corrected, and then learned the correct way of saying it. I ended up learning a few phrases well.
Also, you might notice that I used Chinese and the other person used English. Technically we did both need to be understood by the other person, but neither of us was challenged too much.
So three problems so far,
1. Conversations consisted of introductory ‘small talk’ and ended quickly
2. Reliance on phrases I already knew
3. Lack of examples of native language from native speaker
Listen Speak Game
One day I had an idea that was a bit rough, but potentially useful. It involved listening, writing, and speaking. And also challenging students learning languages.
I asked this to a few language exchange partners,
How about if I send an audio message in English, then you write what you think I said. After that, I’ll correct it and then you will record it and send it to me. At that point I could help with pronunciation.
Here are a few responses I got:
.9. Good，I love that
wow .That’s really a good idea ！
Why not,we can try it
Ok, good idea！
So I tried out the game with some people.
Two people, A & B.
Person A natively speaks language 1 and Person B natively speaks language 2.
Person A wants to learn language 2 and person B wants to learn language 1.
The two people switch off between the two languages.
The idea is to challenge the other person a bit while gauging their level and adjusting.
You can do this in person or over an app, in terms of apps, I highly recommend HelloTalk
Let’s say that we start with language 1, spoken natively by Person A.
1. Person A records a sentence (or a few if person B is advanced)
2. Person B writes that sentence out.
3. Person A corrects the sentence.
4. Person B looks at the correction and then reads the corrected sentence out loud.
5. Person A corrects pronunciation
Then switch roles and repeat the process
1. Person B records a sentence (or a few if person A is advanced)
2. Person A writes that sentence out.
3. Person B corrects the sentence.
4. Person A looks at the correction and then reads the corrected sentence out loud.
5. Person B corrects pronunciation
You probably should introduce yourself and learn a little bit about the other person before trying the game. That way, you will have some idea of their level in your language as well as have some ideas of what to talk about during the game. Be a good conversationalist! Try to pick topics for the sentence that the other person might like talking about.
If person B, gets almost all of the sentence wrong, it was probably at too high of a level.
If person B gets the sentence(s) perfectly correct, it may have been too easy. Try something that is a bit harder, but at the same time useful, next.
If you use an app, this game can be played ‘turn by turn’. You can send a recording or write a message without the other person responding immediately. Sometimes it is difficult line up schedules.
Sometimes, like for me, we know certain phrases that we can say perfectly. Those can also artificially inflate the appearance of knowing the language better than we really do.
The correct button in HelloTalk is very convenient. It allows you to rewrite only the parts that need correcting and automatically shows what is changed, added, deleted using colors that are clear.
You get to the correction button by clicking on a message, it’s the ABC with a checkmark.
Easy English sentence
Challenging English sentence
Mistakes and Frustration
If played correctly, both people should make mistakes and be corrected. If there are zero mistakes, there is no challenge.
You want to move a bit out of your comfort zone.
If you move to far away from comfort, you get to the point of extreme frustration. If a player gets one word right out of 15, the level of the sentence should be adjusted.
The speed at which you speak is another variable. You may need to speak slowly or you may want to speak at a natural pace (which can be fast) depending on the language level of the other player.
Correct mistakes, but be encouraging at the same time. Learning languages is challenging. If both players keep in mind that mistakes can be sources of learning, the game will go more smoothly.
So far, I have played this game with Mandarin Chinese and simplified characters.
But I see no reason why it would not work with most languages.
With Chinese, you will need to be able to write some characters, which has a bit of a learning curve. But it’s not as hard as you might think, especially if you can speak at least a little bit and have set up an electronic device to convert pinyin to characters. Potentially, even if you do this person to person, you may want to use a device in able to get the characters. Or if you can write characters well, go for it!