I was surprised to learn over the past few years that I'm quite interested in languages. This has mostly manifested in an interest in different programming languages, but also in learning a new language. Largely, I am also surprised at how little I remember and know about the structures of syntax and grammar for my first language; it is only in learning a new language that I've realized that I could not describe what a "participle" is, for example.

On learning a new language

Last updated [2020-11-05 Thu]:

Learning a language seems infinitely hard at the beginning. And then it feels something like infinity - 1 less hard as time goes on. Still, it's one of the most rewarding things I have picked up in the last year.

I often stopped myself from starting, knowing that it would be a long journey to match my expectations, which in itself, was discouraging. But, I have found a lot of joy in day to day practice. End goals are important, but being surprised by my own progress has been a strong motivator.

There are many benefits to learning a language:

  • The sheer difficulty of learning a new language pushes you to reflect on others who have had to learn a new language to integrate in a new place.

  • It challenges one to reflect on language as a whole - how it changes, how understanding/misunderstanding can happen.

  • It provides insights into new cultures and new art.

  • It forces you to suck at something, which in turn, humbles you.

On using a language exchange application

In November 2020 I started using Tandem, an app for connecting people who want to learn languages. For example, if you want to learn French and can speak English, then the app will connect you with those who want to learn English and speak French. I have found this to be the best way to start practicing speaking; you get to meet real people, help each other learn, and it's free!

With that said, each person must become teacher as well as a student in one way or another when using a language exchange service. You may not be prepared to instruct or to correct someone. This document is a work in progress of exercises, talking points, and approaches to using a language exchange tool such as Tandem. Please note it is pretty biased to how I do things, as well as to a French<>English learning track.

Terms

  • Target language - The language you are trying to learn.

  • Native language - The language you can speak fluently.

Recommendations / Pre-requistes

  • Ensure you can explain what you want to learn & what you need to work on in your Target Language.

    • Learn a few hundred words and basic phrases before attempting a language exchange. Perhaps a few courses on Duolingo or try Ankiº.

  • These exercises are written with the idea of repeat practice with the same partners. They might not work as well if you are only talking to a person once.

First Meetings

  • Ask the person what they want to learn and what they are struggling with.

  • Before using any of these exercises, ask them how they want to learn. It may be that they already have conversation points or an approach in mind. Don't just assume the person will want to follow a guide etc.

  • Be sure to share this information about yourself as well to see if you might be a good match.

  • Depending on both parties' skill level, you may want to keep the first conversation short as talking for extended periods in your target language can be tiring and intimidating.

  • Being on a video call as opposed to just audio can help as you can see when the person is thinking and trying to find the right words.

Tools

  • Google Docs - Great for collaboratively workshopping small pieces of conversation:

    • I ask my exchange partner to write a sentence they want to say (in their native language).

    • Speak the sentence slowly so I can hear how they pronounce words.

    • Have the speaker try and translate the sentence in English.

    • I correct their translation, and we write out any parts of the sentence they may have struggled with.

Basics

With basics, it may be a good idea to take the conversation prompts and translate them ahead of time into your partner's native language (they may not understand the questions when you ask in your native language.)

Basic conversations should aim to be mostly present tense, and be questions that can be answered with beginner vocabulary. Here is a list of prompts:

  • How was your weekend?

  • What are some of your favourite meals?

  • What is a food you dislike?

  • What do you do for work?

  • What are some of your hobbies?

  • Are you watching any TV shows? What are they about?

  • What was the last book you read? Can you tell me about it?

I have found the following quite useful: if you are both using a Google Doc it is a lot easier to do the following:

  • Have your exchange partner write a sentence they want to say in their native language

  • Have them say it out loud so you can hear how they pronounce the sentence.

  • Have your partner try and say the sentence in your native language; they can write it down if it helps, too.

  • Go back over tricky words and practice pronounciation and flow.

Intermediate

Intermediate prompts should be open to expanding to take up a few minutes. Some of these questions also address somewhat niche but important skills (like asking or giving directions). If your language partner is happy to follow along with this guide, make sure that you are both asking each other the same question. If at any point the conversation deviates to other topics, just go with it and enjoy the ride!

Some of these questions approach being rather personal, so gge usage accordingly. Only ask questions you would be comfortable answering in return. The [square brackets] at the end of each sentence describes the intent of the question.

  • Explain to me how you get to your favourite restaurant. [directions; imperative.]

  • Describe how you would start a car (be descriptive - "first I find my keys and open the garage...") [vocab]

  • Tell me about a vacation you would like to take. [future tense]

  • Describe how to cook one of your favourite meals (be sure to say what ingredients are needed). [vocab, instructional]

Consider revisiting the questions in the basics section above. Let the conversation unfold naturally and remember these questions are just examples / suggested talking points.

For exercises, I have tried sending people an article to read, and then we discuss it in our next conversation.

Advanced

I can't yet speak to being at an advanced level myself, but I have spoken with people who are fairly advanced in learning English from their native French. I think at this level, longer conversations are more important as it improves the speaker's endurance and starts to wander into the realm of using vocabulary they might not know as well. Exercises might not be as much use here.