Interacting with native speakers

It’s probably fair to say that speaking effortlessly with native speakers is the holy grail for most language learners. Who doesn’t want to saunter down a leafy avenue in Buenos Aires, stop off for a quick drink in a local bar and shoot the breeze with the locals?

Here are some things to remember about interacting with native speakers.

  • New Year gathering, Brazil 2004

    New Year gathering, Brazil 2004

    Find a sympathetic listener. A sounding board. Someone who will patiently listen to you and try to understand. It’s the role of the mother with the child. It’s a support figure while you try to make sense of the language. It gives you your first steps in producing the language, allows you to try stuff out, test hypotheses, figure out what works, and generally explore the sense world of the language. It could be a friendly colleague, a girl/boyfriend or a language exchange partner. Find one online here.

  • There is a school of thought that says “don’t start speaking too soon”, and this may be good advice if you feel uncomfortable with speaking in the early stages. The important thing to acknowledge is that as you delay speaking you miss out on a huge number of learning and “sense forming” opportunities. This learning compounds over time, just like interest in a bank. For this reason, my approach is to find a sympathetic listener as early as possible. It has to be someone nice, someone that you like, who won’t judge you. With this person you can take your first baby steps in speaking and get some words out. Try to accept the fact that you don’t look stupid – quite the opposite – you look courageous for trying to learn the language. And keep your eye on the goal. Visualising yourself conversing fluently in a number of months should be valuable motivation to keep going.
  • Find someone who’s willing to answer your questions. And ask them questions! A “how do you say xxx?” person. Currently for me I sit with the local Arabic staff at lunchtime in the office. They appreciate the enthusiasm and are happy to answer my questions. Or I just listen and absorb the sounds of the language. It’s a luxury to have that. If you don’t, it’s a resource worth paying for. Not a teacher – but someone who can answer your questions. If you can’t pay, make it a language exchange. Exchanges have been possibly the single biggest resource in my learning. I like to do, say, 1-hour In the language you’re learning and then give 1-hour in English in return.
  • Speaking is tough because it happens in real-time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for it. Before going into a speaking situation, try mentally rehearsing what you’re going to say and if there are any important words you don’t know look them up in the dictionary beforehand (useful for opening bank accounts, let me tell you!).
  • Exploit technology and your most creative study ideas, like this one and this one, to help you improve the way you interact with native speakers.
  • Discourse (written or spoken communication) varies enormously between languages. In Japanese you have aizuchi (あいづち)- nodding and ‘ahhh’ noises rather than full responses, together with intense, polite listening – which can be off-putting for those used to Western styles of interaction. The sooner you get used to the way people speak in your target language, and learn what the signs and silences mean, the better. No amount of audio courses and self study will prepare you for that reality on the ground.
  • …but speaking on it’s own isn’t enough. You can coast on beginner’s luck for some time, but when you reach higher levels you need to start to read as much as possible. Speaking happens at a fast pace, and you need to slow down the process in order to learn something from it, hence reading. Find something on your passion and commit to a certain amount every day, no matter how impenetrable. The only certainty is that it’ll never get easier if you never do it. Love martial arts? Find an Jujitsu website in Portuguese or an Aikido YouTube channel in Japanese and read the comments. The reason – if you love the topic you’ll keep reading. If you keep reading, you get more exposure.

Do you have anything to add? Leave a comment below!


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