My Idea For a Trick to Make Absolutely Sure You Learn The Language While In The Country

I have just come back from my stay in Greece where I tried to learn Greek (more on the results of that in my next post) and that experience got me thinking about this: those of you who go to foreign countries and try to learn the local language will know that learning it will not come by itself: you actually have to put a lot of work in; and even then sometimes it’s very hard. In this day and age of English as the international language, speaking opportunities are scarce and even then conversations end prematurely due to your low level of the language or you just don’t seem to be able to discuss difficult topics. At the end of the day, you end up staying in the country and not learning much if any of the local language. That’s where I got an idea.

Hire a Teacher – But Not a Traditional One!

Let’s cut to the chase here. I always thought that it would be possible to speak your way to fluency if only you had somebody willing to put up with you. If only you had enough hours, you could just keep speaking and speaking and getting corrected, making small improvements, etc. until you finally speak the language. In theory, this seems possible, however, in practice, you don’t do that with strangers because they are not there to teach you, and you rarely do that with friends because you are usually with them for something else, not for language learning (language learning, and especially at the lower levels, tends to become the central activity and not just a side benefit of communication). That’s where having a teacher who would speak with you just for language learning would be very useful. But what do I mean by a teacher? Here’s the trick:

Just Pay Somebody to Talk With You!

You are in the country, that means that there is no shortage of people who speak the local language. Moreover, you don’t need skilled labor because practically everybody speaks without mistakes and can be easily learned from. That means that you have a huge supply out there for you – and that means, in turn, that you are going to get a very decent price.

Imagine a newspaper ad you could publish (preferably in the local language too, let’s take Czech as an example):

Looking for a Czech native speaker to practice for 2 hours a day. I pay the current minimum rate of $4/hour. No qualifications except Czech as a native tongue needed. There is a trial period of one week.

How much attention would that attract? I imagine, if done in the right way, quite enough. You would make it clear that you want to pay somebody to speak to them in the local language, you will end up paying very little for that and if you want to, you can just choose a person you like speaking with.

You wouldn’t need anybody professional or language teachers or anything (perhaps these would be better in some ways but it would cost you a lot of money too). Just get anybody (well, perhaps do some anti-serial-killer profile scanning).

Why Not Just Find Some Friends To Practice With For Free Instead?

A lot of people are going to say that you don’t need to pay anybody to learn the language: you can just practice it. Sure, you can find friends and presumably you should do so but finding friends to learn the language and speaking it to somebody you pay for are not the same thing.

Here are some of the advantages of just paying somebody to learn the language in a country:

  1. you get somebody to practice with and thus you learn the language guaranteed – you might not be lucky enough to find good friends that would want to practice with you, or even if you do, they might have holidays, work, diseases, your schedules might not match up, etc; this, however, means guaranteed consistent (which is a great bonus) practice
  2. no need of worrying about them switching to English – just make it your policy that you stick to the language no matter what and your employee will have to comply because it’s their job after all, or you could just find one who doesn’t speak English for better results
  3. you don’t feel guilty about not speaking the language well – after all, you are paying somebody to listen and to communicate with you so they have to put up with you while with friends you sometimes feel awkward with asking the same thing for ten times or just let some things slide and that impedes your learning
  4. you get absolute flexibility in choosing what you want to talk about and what kind of things you want to learn – with friends or strangers, it doesn’t work like that

In summary, if you think about it, in most cases and for most people, you get a lot higher quality language learning than you would otherwise get from just meeting people, you remove most of the guilt or awkwardness for not speaking the language well and you can guarantee consistent progress for yourself. That sounds like a good strategy to me.

Even Better Than Language Exchange Partners.

Well, you would say: “get an exchange partner instead!” That’s a possibility too and that is most of the time an awesome thing to do but I can see a couple of problems with that. For a couple of them: exchange partners can be hard to find, they can just keep having other business and put off your meetings making them irregular and sometimes scarce – that happens a lot, in my practice, they also are interested in learning your language so during discussions they might want to switch to your language to get some more practice instead of helping you learn and finally, the fact alone that you can’t concentrate on just learning another language and you have to speak yours too – that doesn’t help either.

The Perspectives Of This Approach

It might be hard to get through the initial burden of paying somebody to learn the language you want to learn while it seems that you can do that for free but, if you think about it, you get it for way cheaper than most of the language courses you might have taken in the country anyway would cost you, the practice is a lot more concentrated and you are guaranteed to learn the language while in the country which is the most important factor in here.

How do I imagine this? You could just go to any country and know that you will learn the language of that country. You could set a period of a certain stay in the country, find a timeframe of practice that works with you and just hire somebody to help you. If you choose so, you could even then move from country to country and learn a lot of languages like this because you would know that you would be guaranteed to learn the language in every country instead of just leaving it to luck of meeting the right people (which might not happen at all).

In fact, you could even do all of this inside of your own country by hiring some immigrants or just fluent speakers and getting them to speak the language with you. You just have to select some topics, explain to them what you want to do, give them some rules and here you go.

What do you think of this idea?

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  1. Sounds like a great idea. The only problem I see is when you pay someone, their is the matter of the law and tax. Scary ><

  2. I am not sure that in practice this applies for small deals like that. Somewhat like buying milk from a local farmer.

  3. Language partners have all the same benefits, assuming you are also teaching them the language… With 1 exception: You pay with your time instead of money.

    For most of us, that’s a good trade. For rich people, I’m sure they’d rather pay the money and keep their time.

    I have a language partner and we speak almost every day. We switch languages every day so we each get a chance to practice. We very quickly became friends and got to know each other, so it isn’t like talking to a random stranger. We have actual, normal conversations daily.

    We also have a set time that we talk. Occasionally something happens that one of us can’t make it, and that’s okay. We talk often and long enough that missing a day here and there is fine.

    Now, granted, we aren’t talking in person. We live on opposite sides of the world. And this article was talking about actually living in a country that speaks your target language. But even if I were, I’m sure I’d find a few language partners to talk to regularly, rather than pay someone.

    The key point to both situations is the contract. Sure, it’s a bit informal, but both sides know what to expect from the situation, and that makes everything go smoothly.

  4. I agree absolutely with you. The other person has to have an incentive to speak with a stranger and accept him correcting his errors at the same time. Are you sure that 4$ is enough ? I think that none will accept with less than 10$ …I tried that recently trying to speak on Skype with non-professional trainers. It works, as long as, your purpose is just to speak fluent with a simple manner.

  5. I absolutely agree that this is a good plan if you really don’t have the time or inclination to mess around and you just want to get someone to help you NOW. Honestly, I would go the language exchange partner route and have someone help me with their language in exchange for helping them with their English: 30 minutes in Spanish, 30 minutes in English, or 15 in Spanish and 15 in English, you get the idea. The problems with language exchange partners you mentioned above can all be effectively neutralized by getting enough of them such that if one flakes or is only available once every two weeks, you still have enough of them so that you can practice for an hour or so every day. This does require a bit of work on your part to get the 15 or 20 or so that you’ll need so that you can get daily practice.


  6. Of course, the pay depends on the country. I guess, $10 sounds fairer in Greece. Still, this is not really professional labor and it does not require any but the most basic of skills (just speaking: something, that most people do for free everyday) so I think you could get away with a small pay a lot of the time.

  7. Well, if you can find and keep a partner, that’s fine. I’m just saying that for a lot of people that’s not really a viable option. Also it is worth considering that your chances of finding a language exchange partner drop heavily if you speak not a common language. For example, if you are native Slovenian, your chances of finding one, say, in Brazil, are next to nil.

  8. Well, as I mentioned in the last comment, it is also progressively harder to get exchange partners if your native language isn’t English or Spanish or some of the widely-spoken languages that people want to learn. Good points, though!

    I think I’d also still go the exchange-partner route if I could find a good way to do it. Just because I’m such a cheap-skate. :>

    (Well, and maybe because I would like it more that way: I guess the interaction between you and the other person is still different if you don’t pay them).

  9. I often found that if my language skills are very low, people want to switch to English. What worked for me, of course, it takes some determination that you will make yourself understood is that I just act like I don’t speak English. After all, it is not my native tongue anyway. And of course, it is quite rare that people would want to speak Hungarian with me. It helps a great deal to actually communicate in so many areas. I want to eat, they want to sell me food. But I found that many people are just very interested in chatting with me because I care for their language.

  10. I think this is an excellent method for learning. If you’re a person who’s pretty self-directed in terms of your language learning, a native speaker with no preconceived notions of “teaching” is probably a lot better than a “teacher”. I’ve had experiences with private teachers who would keep explaining something that I’d already understood, or try to teach me a concept that I just wasn’t interested in at the time. On the other side, I’m also not a big fan of “language exchange” situations. It just feels somehow unnatural to me to switch languages with someone. I’d rather pay someone with money than with my time, but if you’re a poor student with lots of time on your hands then by all means do a language exchange.

    I essentially did this when I lived in Japan. I posted an ad for a teacher, stating a preference for college students. I quoted a price that was about 1/3rd of what I was making for teaching private English lessons (supply and demand helped me out there). I met probably 4 or 5 potential teachers and chose the one that I got along with the best. She did happen to have been trained as a teacher, but essentially I directed the lessons myself. I won’t say that I achieved perfect fluency that way, but I do think it was a good study method overall.

  11. It’s great to hear from somebody who has actually done that. I think there is a point to paying with money as oppose to paying with your time: you can use that same time to do whatever you do well (presumably it’s not unskilled teaching of your native language) and earn even more money than you pay for your own language lesson. Very economic and makes sense.

    And as a side note, the nature of money is such that people are more responsible about it so you are likely to get better quality lessons.

    Oh, as another side note, I checked your sites. I liked the idea of the proofreading one, it just makes everything easy… provided you can get the answer fast. I got an idea, though: do you plan to extend it to other languages? I could see some ways how it could work. Oh, and good job there with PhraseMix too. Added you on Twitter.

  12. Thanks, Linas. Extending LetMeCheckThat to other languages is definitely something that makes a lot of sense. But first, we have to get it working in one language. As you said, making sure that the turn-around time is within about 5 minutes is key. There’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem there with making sure there are enough proofreaders to handle all the jobs, and enough users to make it worth a proofreader’s time. We’ll see how it goes!

  13. Great idea. Some resources to further explore this topic would be the Peacecorp On-going Language learning manual, several of Greg Thompson’s small books, and Peter Pikkert’s LACE manual – all free downloads and all focusing on learning language in the community and using what they call, a language helper.

  14. I think it may be cheaper to start a course first i.e. found a class where the total beginners are welcomed (probably in the capital city) and get some part-time teachers… If your school’s method be a ‘natural’ one, the teachers do not need experience or qualification, just attractiveness… and the classmates do not need to be of a same type/tongue.

  15. I think it may be cheaper to start a course first i.e. found a class where the total beginners are welcomed (probably in the capital city) and get some part-time teachers… If your school’s method be a ‘natural’ one, the teachers do not need experience or qualification, just attractiveness… and the classmates do not need to be of a same type/tongue.

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