We’ve all heard it before. When learning a new language, the most effective way is to start speaking the language as quickly as possible. Although I do agree with this statement — especially if you’re conversing with a native speaker — you need to make sure you’re doing it correctly in order to get the most out of it. Sometimes jumping into the deep end and figuring out how to swim later is going to do more harm than you realise.
“But I want to learn a new language as quickly as possible!”
Yes, I get it. You don’t like the idea of slowing down, but there are some important things to consider before you even begin thinking about speaking to a native speaker.
Building up your database
Eager learners cut to the chase and start talking to a native at the first opportunity. That conversation sounds a little something like this:
Eager learner: Hello
Native speaker: Hey, how’s it going?
Eager learner: Sorry, understand I not.
Native speaker: Oh, okay…. bye.
Okay, so it’s not going to be that ruthless, but what you’ve just witnessed is a wasted opportunity. What could’ve been a 5-minute conversation about where to find the local supermarket, became an awkward conversation that ended abruptly. Not having a basic foundation to work from will make the experience slow and frustrating. It’s important to have a basic knowledge of words and sentences before you start conversing with any native speaker. Rather than speaking and writing, the first few exercises you should be focusing on is reading and listening. You want to build up a database of words and phrases first, then once you feel confident with them, you can give those words a test run by conversing with a native speaker.
How do you build up your vocabulary database? Learning the 1000 most common words in your language is a great starting point. 80% of everyday language is constructed using only 20% of the language. Here’s one effective method that allowed me to learn the 1000 most common words in only a matter of months. Another effective way of building up your database is learning common phrases as well. Once you start to get confident with both words and phrases, you’ll be able to recall the words whilst talking to a native, making the conversation seamless. If you feel that there are still gaps when speaking, it’s a sign that you need to go back and build on your database. Expose yourself to the language as much as possible. Read books, articles, and comic books. Listen to audiobooks, music, and podcasts. Take note on the spelling, pronunciation, and rhythm of the language. What is important is that you close your mouth and open your eyes and ears.
The reason I learned another language was to surprise my multilingual girlfriend. I only had a few months to surprise her as I wanted to do it on her birthday. I focused on building up my database first, then when I felt confident enough with a few words and phrases, I started to talk to native speakers. It was liberating to be able to hold a conversation for a few minutes than for it to continuously stop, and start, and ruin the flow of my learning. Was I able to surprise her? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
What happens when you focus on speaking and writing?
Prioritising speaking and writing first can lead to all sorts of problems. Let me explain. Say that you’ve started learning a new language. You’ve immersed yourself in the culture, and you have picked up a few phrases. Now, you can even translate a few words. Feeling confident, you decide to write in your journal using only the new language. It reads a little something like this:
“Today a great day. I go visit my friends. We watching very funny movie. I am laughing.”
For someone who has only just grasped the language, this is great! Sure, there are grammatical errors, and the tenses are all over the place, but that’s understandable. After all, everything is still new. So what’s the problem? With no one to correct your writing, you’re going to constantly be making mistakes and not pick up on what is wrong with what you just wrote. From now on, you’re going to assume that the phrase, “we watching very funny movie” is correct, and so you will use that structure to write new sentences:
“I running to shop.”
“She reading scary books. ”
“They swimming in pool.”
By spending time on our database first, you’ll come across sentences that are in the correct format, allowing you to recognise what’s wrong, and what isn’t. How is it that children are able to learn a new language? When I was young, I didn’t read through a grammar book and study what a ‘conjunction’ is. Children are exposed to children’s books, they hear their parents talking to them, and they hear the people around them interacting with each other. For years, they are exposed to the correct way of conversing.
This doesn’t mean you have to live in the country for a few years in order to pick up the language. I know quite a few people that have moved to a different country and never really integrated themselves into their new environment. Even after 30 years, they can’t speak the native language as well as a ten-year-old! As such, you can expose yourself by reading native books, watching films and talking to the locals online. You don’t need to be in the country for that.
With any skill that you’re trying to learn, feedback is essential. When conversing with native speakers, it’s important that they constantly correct you on what you’re saying. Remember the poorly constructed phrases I wrote earlier? It’s important to share your written work with natives, let them critique your work and give you constructive feedback. That way, you can understand where you are going wrong. The same applies to talking. Once you’re confident about speaking to a native, make sure they stop and correct you every time you say something wrong. Otherwise, you’re always going to assume the greeting, “Hello my friend, how are you very much?” is always correct and will use it on every person you meet.
What to bring to the table
I find that it’s important to be prepared when speaking to a native speaker. Similar to the wasted opportunity that we mentioned earlier, you don’t want to spend 60 minutes talking to a local and come out of the conversation with nothing learned. An exercise that I like to do is write out a paragraph or two in my chosen language. It could be something as simple as writing about what has happened during the day. I’d then take this paragraph to a native speaker and ask them to correct any mistakes. With an exercise like this, you have to check your ego at the door as there are going to be tons of corrections — especially if you’re relatively new to the language. The first time I did this, my paragraph was riddled with mistakes, and I was told that even a seven-year-old could write better than me, but I knew I had to continue doing this as it was beneficial for my learning.
These corrections helped me understand where I was going wrong. Now that I’m aware of them, I should be making those mistakes less frequently. This technique is a simple feedback loop that will speed up your learning rate. Getting constant feedback is important to the development of your learning, and it should be included in not only your writing but also when you talk as well. I favor writing feedback exercises over talking because it can be difficult for the native listener to constantly stop you when you make a mistake whilst talking. Sometimes he/she let mistakes pass, and you don’t get the right amount of feedback. With a pen and paper in their hand, I find they’re more comfortable correcting your mistakes. Some people are too shy to say that you’re wrong. Hence, make sure you decide on the right person to give you feedback.
Where can I find native speakers?
It’s all well and good to know what to bring to the table before you sit down with a native speaker, but where exactly do you find one? The obvious answer is in their homeland, but what if you can’t afford to take frequent trips out to the motherland? Don’t fret, below are a few options that’ll do the job.
This is a website that I’ve been using for quite a while now, and I’ve never had the need to leave the house — or even my pajamas. iTalki connects learners with teachers. From Swedish to Yiddish, there are a plethora of different languages to learn from and an endless amount of native speakers to converse with. It’s easy to set-up, and once everything is confirmed, you share Skype details with each other and move the conversation over there. Just remember to keep in mind everything I mentioned before you look into this. You don’t want to waste your hour because your foundations are weak!
If online isn’t your thing, and you’d prefer face-to-face interaction, then finding local communities in your chosen language would be for you. Meetup is a website that brings people together based on what you enjoy. You can start a group yourself or join one locally. It’s a great way to meet new people with similar interests.
Friends and Family
Do you have any friends or family that can help you with your chosen language? Are you not asking them because you feel embarrassed? Nonsense! Put your ego to the side and ask for some help. You’ll be surprised that a lot of them are willing to give their time to you. When I started learning Swedish to surprise my girlfriend, I reached out to my cousin who is half Swedish. We talked on a weekly basis, and she really helped me out at the beginning. Since surprising my girlfriend, she’s continued to help me.
Conversing with a native is essential to further your understanding of a language, but it should not be your focus if your foundations are limited. Make sure you first dedicate time to learning new words, then take it up a gear and learn common phrases. Always ask for feedback, and don’t be ashamed to make mistakes — we all start somewhere!