Posted on | January 11, 2011 | 6 Comments
Today, I had a chance to speak over Skype with Milan, the die-hard Cantonese learner. It must have been more than 3 years since we last talked. Back then we spoke in English and Cantonese. This time our conversation was purely in French and it lasted for more than an hour!
When Milan proposed this idea, I wondered since we both were learners of the language, how could this possibly benefit us at all? I accepted his ‘challenge’ anyhow, and it turned out to be a wonderful practice to me.
A Chinese immigrant fluent in English once told me that when he was still in university back in China, they had a so-called “English corner”. Chinese students who wanted to improve their English would gather at one place (not necessarily a corner) at a certain time of the week and spoke English to each other. He claimed that it helped him a lot with his English.
I was sceptical when I first heard about the idea. Who is going to correct our errors? How can we improve our accents? Shouldn’t we always aim to learn from native speakers?
Yes, we should learn from native speakers (and if you are not at an advanced level, you should consider getting a paid tutor), but there seem to be other benefits too when learners are willing to practice speaking with each other.
To many learners, speaking with native speakers can be somewhat intimidating. Speaking with a learner, on the other hand, can be much less stressful and hence easier to build your confidence. Remember, the main objective of this exercise is not to seek out errors, but to build up each other.
Language learning is a long journey, and for sure, we need comrades all along. This is like signing up for some weight loss program together. We kick each other’s behind and say, “Let’s do it together! We can make it!”
I was inspired by Milan when I spoke to him, not only in the area of learning French, but language learning as a whole. This guy is serious. He spends at least 6 hours a day learning languages!
Milan started (or restarted since childhood) his French last year, and he felt a bit discouraged about his progress. Hopefully, the fact that he started later than I did, and yet sounded more fluent than me (at least he stumbled less) would have motivated him, too!
Compared to native speakers, language learners tend to speak slower, clearer, use less slangs and easier vocabulary. This helps the conversation to flow better. Suddenly, you seem to understand a lot more than with native speakers. Now the flow gets smoother, you can say more things and get into deeper discussions about the topics.
Learners tend to correct each other less frequently than a tutor would, and this creates less interruptions in the conversation.
Corrections are necessary, but doing corrections at the expense of interrupting a conversation is often annoying and discouraging. If you have enough input practices, you don’t really need corrections during output practices. The corrections are basically ‘reminders’ of what you have already known.
Learn from each other’s mistakes
We learn from our own mistakes, but better still if we can learn from each other’s mistakes as well.
This process can be reflexive, too. You might be used to saying something one way, but then you hear the other person saying it differently. Provided you have a lot of input practices, you sense right away that he sounds more correct than you do. You learn your mistake and correct yourself ‘naturally’ without your feeling getting hurt.
An hour-long conversation would typically cost $20US or more with a tutor. Now, you get it for free (provided we don’t charge each other, and we should not). Your counterpart also gets it free. So together you save more than $40US!
One important thing to keep in mind though. Both learners must be able to conduct basic conversations. Otherwise, it would be counterproductive. A few years ago, I met an Italian through Skypecast. He could not speak English and I could not speak Italian. We ended up speaking French, which happened to be the least inconvenient language between us. But then our French was so broken that it turned out to be such a torture to both of us. I still cannot understand even today how it could last for 20 minutes. There was no way it could have given us any benefit at all.