The Fun Way to Learn a Language: For Busy and Broke People

MM posted last week about all the amazing benefits of learning a language. Now I’d like to recommend one great approach to complement your language learning endeavors which you can fit into a busy schedule and which won’t cost you any money: conversation exchanges.

After returning from a month at language school in Beijing last summer, I was determined to continue my progress. I checked out local language classes in London and was frustrated to find that class timings were going to clash with work and other pressing concerns (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), and that the price tag was hefty. As with all problems facing a geek such as myself, I turned to the internet.

There I stumbled across

This is a site which matches you up with people who live in your city who are native speakers of the language you want to learn – in exchange, you teach them your native language.

You can choose to chat over Skype or email, but what I really wanted was practice face-to-face, and this was very easy to organize. The people I’ve met haven’t been psychos.

Even if you are a beginner, it’ll be fine. You just have to be relaxed about sounding like an idiot. My level of Mandarin is AWFUL, having a conversation with me is extremely painful as I scramble through my tiny vocabulary, and mispronounce every other tone. To combat this I:

  • Acknowledge my ability (or lack thereof) from the start,
  • Tell them what I want to achieve
  • In return give them a kick-ass English lesson.

You can reduce your discomfort by thinking of it this way:having a very advanced student is harder for people who are not trained teachers. Or, if they are not happy with your level, find someone else and you’ll never have to see them again. Worst case you have an awkward conversation, and to be honest I do that with colleagues almost daily.

Now obviously you can arrange the meeting around your schedule – straight after work, during lunch, on the weekend. Whenever. This flexibility is what really made it work for me. Sure, not everyone will be able to do every time, so you build up a “portfolio” of teachers, and you’ll soon figure out who’s more of an early morning person etc.

Like meeting a new business client, I’d recommend clarifying what they want to learn, how harsh they want you to be. For the latter, be specific, “be picky” or “correct me” is not particularly useful compared to: “correct me every 1-2 minutes during conversation so we can keep some flow” or “correct me literally every time I make a mistake.”

A word of caution – to get the most out of these meetings, do some prep! Bring along Tim Ferriss’s grammar audit. Apply DiSSS to your language learning. And don’t think you have to be statically staring at books: I think the best ever meeting I had was where I got my Chinese “teacher” to take me round China Town so I could buy authentic dumpling ingredients, and then had her explain to me how to say all the ingredients and describe the cooking steps. I am now a dumpling pro.

A Google search reveals loads of sites out there that do similar things, Conversation Exchange is just the one with which I have personal experience (if you have experience with other sites, would love to hear about it in the comments) To be honest, you could probably do it using Craigslist. At Learn Languages On Your Own you can find an up to date list of websites where you can find a conversation partner. Give it a whirl and shake up your language learning!