Speaking Practice Amongst Learners

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.

Build Confidence
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!

Easy Vocabulary
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.

Less correction
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.

More Economical
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.


6 Responses to “Speaking Practice Amongst Learners”

  1. WC
    January 11th, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

    The other day, I was on a language learning site that allows users to correct each other. One of my friends who is learning English got corrections from someone who wasn’t a native speaker. The corrections were HORRIBLE. She recognized them as such, and her next posts asked non-natives not to correct her.

    The non-native blew up. He had been learning English since he was 3 or 4 years old and was convinced he was as fluent as any native. It was the worst pidgin English I have ever seen on the net. Absolutely abhorrent. In the end, it came out that EVERYONE in his community spoke English like that. He really thought he was fluent despite the fact that any native would be horrified and if he ever took an English test, he would fail horribly.

    The moral of this story is that you should never practice with just other learners. It can help you to practice with them some, but you have GOT to get native input and output as well to help fix any errors that would grow in a small community.

  2. edwin
    January 11th, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

    That’s why this “language learning site that allows users to correct each other” allows corrections from multiple people. Quite often you cannot simply rely on a single correction, even if it is from a native speaker.

    I find it amusing that many people in this “a language learning site that allows users to correct each other” post messages in their own languages. Do they want them to be corrected or what?!

  3. WC
    January 11th, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

    Ah, my friend is learning English. She’s not a native English speaker. That’s why she posted in English. So yes, she wanted her post to be corrected.

    And having used the site for a while, when you’re learning a language, it can be very difficult to tell the good corrections from the bad. There are many ways to say something, and just because someone posts a contradictory correction doesn’t mean one of the 2 is wrong.

  4. edwin
    January 11th, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

    I didn’t mean your friend. In the past, I saw a lot of people posting in languages like English and Japanese, and they turned out to be native speakers of those languages.

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