Because the best way to learn a language like a native speaker is to speak with one
For me, the hardest part about learning Chinese has been separating the vocab and structures used in different settings (i.e. which are Kǒuyǔ 口语 ‘spoken language’ and which are Shūmiànyǔ 书面语 ‘written language’), as well as how to use them. This is an important distinction too, because who wants to come off sounding like Confucius while you’re talking with a group of Chinese friends about things like girls, sports, or going out. Although some people may disagree, I’ve found that the easiest way to solve this problem is to actually go out and use the language you’re learning. Here’s my advice on where and with who you should practice speaking.
If you have the option to live with a native roommate when you study abroad, you should definitely take it. Roommates are invaluable, not only for learning a language, but also for learning more about the youth scene in the country you’re studying in. I’m sure you’ll be able to ask just about all of your friends for homework help or to teach you some native slang, however, you’ll probably develop a stronger relationship with your roommate than with just about anyone else you meet abroad.
Because you’re more comfortable around them, you’ll be able to practice speaking without worrying about making mistakes. You’ll also be able to ask them to help you understand what to say in certain situations or talk about certain topics that you might not be so comfortable talking with others about.
It seems the older people get, the thicker and harder to understand their accent becomes. I’ve found that for the most part in China, kids speak very clearly because they’ve yet to be negatively influenced by the young adult slang or old age slur. Native kids are also usually fascinated by foreigners, and with the amount of questions they have, you’ll never run out of things to talk about.
The one draw-back is that they may want to practice their English with you, so unless that’s what you actually volunteered to do, tell them you’ll set aside 5 or 10 minutes before you leave when you can chat with them in the mother-tongue. I would suggest volunteering at a school, community sports league, or through an organization like scouting.
This originally spawned out of one of my CET language practicums from last semester, when our teachers dropped us off at a park where we were supposed to chat with and interview people above the age of 60 (ish) about topics like: life as an elderly person in the U.S. vs. China, family planning a.k.a One-Child Policy, and unemployment – none of which are extremely comfortable to talk about. But it’s an exercise that I definitely recommend.
Skim your textbook for conversation topics, go to a park (seeing as that’s where old people spend their days), find someone who looks like they might not be afraid to talk with you, and chat away. You’ll not only get the opportunity to practice speaking, but you might get a little lesson in history and culture as well.
Club members or teammates – especially locals:
It can take a bit of courage to sign up with a sports team or club, especially if members are mostly locals, but it can do a lot in terms of raising the level of your spoken language skills. For one, it makes learning more enjoyable, and from an academic standpoint, since you’re interacting with people about something you enjoy doing, you’re more likely to remember the words, phrases and grammatical structures you run into.
In addition to the comradery and friendship that comes with joining a club or sport, you’ll probably also learn about many aspects of spoken language that you just can’t find in a textbook. The benefits of joining a club or sport are much greater than what I’ve listed here, but in general, just keep in mind that it’s almost always easier to communicate with people who have similar hobbies, play the same sports, or simply have the same interests as you.
Taxi drivers – in my mind the ultimate test of language proficiency:
To someone who has never studied Chinese, when a taxi driver speaks, it sounds like his tongue is paralyzed and he just slurred and entire sentence into one long word. To someone who has been in Beijing for 9 months now, when I hear a Taxi driver speak, it sounds like his tongue is paralyzed and he just slurred and entire sentence into one very long word.
That being said, my ability to understand the man behind the wheel has increased greatly, which means I’ve made some decent progress in my time here. I’ll admit, some cab drivers aren’t in the mood to chat with foreigners, but for the most part, although hard to understand, they’re very friendly.
They also see a lot of things driving around for 10 hours a day, so in addition to practicing small talk, you’ll probably also get an interesting story. Because you’re able to work on both your listening and speaking, you’re killing two birds with one stone.
In the middle of nowhere:
I read an article a few months back, “American students abroad pushed out of ‘bubbles’“, that mentioned a story about a group of Nebraska students who were dropped off their first morning in China in a distant corner of the city they were staying in with $5 and instructions to find their way back home alone.
As long as you’re with at least one other person, I think this is a great idea, especially in China. Very few people here speak English, and the ones that do might not be able to use it to give you directions. This type of exercise will allow you to both interact with the people in the city/community where you live, as well as force you into an environment where you have no other choice but to speak the language that you’re studying.
Although you probably use Skype almost every day to communicate with friends and family back home, you may not have realized that it’s also a great tool for language learning as well.
One of the easiest ways to utilize Skype for language practice is to get the usernames of other students in your classes, and add them as contacts on Skype. When you have a new text to read over or an upcoming oral exam to prepare for, call each other up and practice while avoiding English. You can also use the conference call feature to add more than one classmate to the conversation.
Another option is to join Skype language exchange sites like The Mixxer, which are designed to connect language learners around the world. It’s a place where you can find a basic language partner, or a professional language teacher who will work with you via Skype. This means you’re no longer location dependent, so someone from Idaho can get connected and practice with someone from Barcelona, Spain.
Markets of any kind:
Whether it’s farmers markets full of people scoping out the selection of locally grown food or ethnic herbs and spices, or the Silk Market where every aisle is a gauntlet full of reaching arms, Gucci pamphlets, and alternating shouts of “Come back” and “You’re so handsome”. People who work at these markets love chatting with customers, even if it is only about the price of items they’re selling.
Although in most cases they can speak English, they would probably still rather speak their native language anyway. At the silk market, the person running the stall always tells me he or she gave me a discount because I can speak Chinese. I don’t know if this is genuine or just part of the show, but I always feel like I really do get a discount, and even if I didn’t, I probably still paid under $10 for whatever I bought, and I got to practice speaking (in a loud, energetic, and occasionally scary environment).
Any place where members of the opposite sex hangs out:
This could encompass a lot of different places, but I’m referring more to clubs or bars where the goal of going there is to actually socially interact with other people. If you see a good-looking girl (in my case) at a bar who doesn’t speak English, you then have two choices: 1) be the wallflower from the 6th grade dance (fail) or 2) speak to her in whatever language you’re learning.
You’ll probably get bonus points for taking the initiative to talk with her as well as for learning and using her language. In addition to getting some practice, this is also a great self-confidence builder – Don’t be the wallflower from the 6th grade dance.
Cultural or heritage events:
In an effort to preserve the local culture, many communities have heritage groups that teach others about the traditions of that area, whether it’s a neighborhood, city, or an entire country. These groups often meet on a regular basis, and they put together events to display various traditions like dress and clothing, singing and dancing, and cooking and eating. (They may also offer language classes!)
While you’ll probably pick up on some culture if/when you chat with old people in a park, if you really want a deeper understanding and fuller experience of local culture, this is a great place to you get it.
Remember important holidays as well since more often than not, there will be huge carnivals, festivals, and parties held to help people celebrate like the ones here in Beijing during Chinese New Year where you can take advantage of the large crowds to strike up a conversation with completely random people. As with many of the other methods I’ve mentioned above, community heritage groups are a great place for meeting new people and actively practicing your language skills.
In the end, the best way to learn a language is to study vocabulary and grammar, and then go out and use it! Speaking with actual people is that it helps you fill in the gaps and make connections in a way that just can’t be done by constantly studying with your nose in a book.
And possibly just as important, you’ll learn how to how to negotiate everyday life situations, you’ll develop and strengthen new relationships, you’ll gain self-confidence when speaking in public, and you’ll get a much deeper look into the local life, history and culture of the country that you’re studying abroad in.
Where else and with who else can you practice speaking a language? If you have any ideas (and of course questions or comments) leave them below and I’ll get back to you!