Language Exchange

The price is right

I think the most important component of a learning a language is speaking. Obviously, unlike a subject such as history, you don’t learn speaking by studying grammar or doing exercises, but by practice.

The way to get free lessons is to set up a language exchange with a native speaker of the language you want to learn. The US and Canada are full of immigrants who want to learn English. They may study grammar all day but lack the ability to speak.

For example, if you want to study Japanese, find out if there is a community of Japanese immigrants in your town. They may have a website or newspaper. Check Japanese markets or restaurants. You can pick up the newspapers there or just put up a little ad.

Or you can visit a university or college in your town. Go to the English department and see if they have ESL classes (English as a second language). Then you can ask around and find the best place to leave your ad. You probably want to leave an email address and not a phone number because it can be more difficult to communicate on the phone.

Set up the place to meet, like a Starbucks or quiet coffee shop. If you want to save money on coffee, maybe the lobby of the library – an area that’s quiet but where you won’t get shushed.

Bring a notepad and think of some easy topics to start with. I recommend that you spend the first half of the lesson speaking the language you want to learn. Try not to speak any English at all until you’ve reached the halfway point of the lesson. Then switch to English so your partner can practice.

If you set up a regular schedule, you will learn much more quickly and for free! You might also make a good friend in the process.

How to Learn a Foreign Language for Free

…or close to it

Speaking and understanding a foreign language is a skill from which everyone can benefit. You may travel to the country where the language is spoken, you may appreciate the music and movies in that language, or it might just look good on a resume. Whatever your reason, learning a foreign language is a difficult but rewarding task.

Taking classes is the traditional route. But, for a variety of reasons, this may not be your best option. Maybe you don’t have the time or money, or maybe you don’t want to take the risk of having a bad class or teacher. You are in luck – there are plenty of ways to learn any language you want, for free (or close to it).

The most important thing to remember is that you must approach the language from several fronts. Buying a book and doing exercises is certainly better than doing nothing, but you can study that way for years but still be lost once it becomes necessary to actually use the language.

There are, more or less, 5 essential components to learning a language: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and grammar/theory. You can get grammar, theory, and reading out of a book.

For the other skills, you will find that free resources are often your best resource. For listening, you can find plenty of podcasts online in almost any language. Also check out iTunes education, a free collection of educational audio and video. Just open iTunes (it is free for Mac and Windows users) and click on “iTunes U” – part of the iTunes store.

Of course don’t forget movies and music. You can watch foreign movies with subtitles in either English or the original language, and the lyrics for almost any song, whatever the language, can be found with a quick Google search.

Next week I will write about the best way to learn speaking – a language exchange with a foreign student or immigrant who is studying English.


Language as Culture

More than a Communication Tool

People often talk and write about language as being more than just a means of expression. Often language allows the idea to exist in the first place.

One of the most vivid illustrations of this was in George Orwell’s 1984. In the book, the totalitarian government was creating a new language. Called Newspeak, it eliminated many words, like “freedom,” with the idea that if the word didn’t exist, then the concept wouldn’t exist.

To give real-world examples, let me use the concept of love. In Spanish, “I love you” can be expressed in many ways. If you love something, like a food or a sport, you say “Me encanta…” For a person, there are two main ways to say it – “te quiero” and “te amo.” They both translate to “I love you” in English, but have subtle differences that can be hard for English speakers to grasp.

My other example comes from Korean. There is a word in Korean called “chung,” which is somewhat like love but definitely not the same. It’s more like the connection between people, like an old married couple who hate each other but don’t split up. That’s chung. Like the differences between “te amo” and “te quiro,” it can be hard for English speakers to understand because the word, and therefore the concept, doesn’t exist in our language.

Maybe you’ve heard the cliché that there are twenty words for snow in some Inuit language. I read somewhere that it is actually a myth but, true or not, it illustrates my point; different languages reflect different ways of thinking about the world around us.

Mexican Spanish

"Also, be prepared for lots of bad language, “groserias,” especially around men."

Don’t be surprised if you have studied Spanish for years and then one day you are in the middle of a party somewhere in Mexico and you have no idea what anyone is saying.

You don’t even have to be in Mexico for this to happen. But if you learned Spanish in public schools in the US, like me, and then traveled to Mexico (or the part of your town where the really good tacos are), then you must know what I’m talking about. Mexicans from all walks of life use a huge amount of slang.

In school I remember lists of verb conjugations. How boring. When you get to Mexico, one of the first things you may realize about the language is that the “vosotros” form is completely useless.

Another very important thing to know, maybe the most important, is that in Mexico when you don’t understand someone and have to ask “What?”, you don’t say “Que?”, you say “Mande.” I’ve traveled to quite a few countries in Latin America (Spain too), and Mexico is the only place they use this word. But they use it all the time.

Also, be prepared for lots of bad language, “groserias,” especially around men. Keep that in mind - certain words will get you huge laughs in drinking parties full of guys, but could deeply offend the pretty girl you are trying to meet.

One of these words you will hear around guys for sure is “Wey.” It means dude, but it is overused like how an American teenage girl overuses “like.”

This heavy use of slang is especially true in Mexico City, which they call D.F. - you pronounce it “day-ef-eh.” Almost no one says, “Cuidad de Mexico.”

Remember, when you don’t understand, don’t sulk or despair – simply ask. “Mande?”

Hard Languages for English speakers to learn

Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic.

Ever since I couldn't order myself a Turkish kebab properly in Austria, I've had a dream of becoming fluent in German. I achieved German proficiency in college, and liked to think that I spoke quite well when I had a few beers at the campus pub. I never achieved fluency then, though, even after studying abroad in Austria for a few months.

German is hard. I've always wanted to know what fluency in it would be like--it's got to be a total mind trip for someone as obsessed with the English language as I am--but the time and place haven't been right yet. I think it will happen someday.

But in the immediate future, I'm trying to learn Mandarin Chinese for teaching in China for the next few months. It isn't as difficult in terms of conjugation and verb tenses as is German--or English for that matter--but it requires a whole different written system, which is perhaps a bigger cognitive overhaul than learning some new conjugations.

Infographics, in conjunctions with, has made a helpful visual about the languages that are the easiest and most difficult for English speakers to learn. German isn't on the list, but I'm sure it would be in the Easiest category, along with Dutch and Spanish. According to the graph, these languages are the closest to English, and proficiency can be achieved after 23-24 weeks, or 575-600 classroom hours.

The medium proficiency languages were a little more surprising. In order to achieve proficiency in these languages, English speakers need to spend 44 weeks or 1,110 classroom hours improving their foreign language speaking and comprehension. Languages in this category include Hindi, spoken by 182 million people, Russian, spoken by 140 million people, and Vietnamese, spoken by 68.6 million people.

Unfortunately for me, Mandarin, spoken by 1.2 billion people, is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. The language has four tones that change the meaning of words that sound similar to English speaking ears. Plus, the language is hard to learn to read and write in that there are thousands of unique characters that one has to memorize to become proficient. Other languages that are particularly difficult for English speakers to master are Korean, spoken by 66.3 million, Japanese, spoken by 122 million, and Arabic, spoken by 221 million people.

What languages do you speak? Was this chart helpful in contemplating the next language goals you might tackle?


Big Differences in Language

Translating isn’t enough

Have you ever used Google translate for sentences, or worse, an entire paragraph? Maybe what you got out didn’t exactly make sense. Then, did you then send the translation to a native speaker of the language?

If so, then you know that online translators turn blocks of text into complete nonsense. At best, you will get decipherable caveman talk – “he go eat hamburger.” At worse, you will utterly confuse the person you are corresponding with or fail your university language class.

Sentences can’t be translated word for word because the nuances of syntax and grammar must be understood to convey meaning. Online translators don’t have a brain and don’t understand the greater meanings of sentences and paragraphs. Sentences are much more than the sum of their parts, words.

So, what can you do if you need to translate something? If you have no knowledge of the original language, then you should probably hire a professional translator. Try the language department of your nearest big university. Or, if you want to try to get it for free, you can look in some online language forums.

If you do know some basics of the original language, then look for any repeated words and translate them one by one in an online translator. They may key words of your text that can give you a hint about the overall meaning. Go word by word until you get a good idea of what it’s about.

This method will get you by if you just want to get a general notion of what your text is about. Unfortunately if precision is required, then there is no substitution for a professional translation, and it will cost you.

Cuba Libre

Adventures in Communication

Using a foreign language is an adventure. When you sit in a stuffy classroom listening to a stuffy teacher, it can be like any other school subject. Maybe boring, hopefully interesting, but no substitute for real practice. When you get out in the world it is a communication tool. To use it successfully you need to embrace mistakes.

I remember one of my first months living in Mexico. Every Wednesday I went to a bar near my house to listen to a jazz band. The band even let me sit in on guitar with them. It was a nice time and I got to meet good people. The bar staff knew me but we had never really talked.

Late at night the bar would often run out of beer. One such night after my two-song moment I ordered a Cuba Libre – a rum and coke with a squeeze of lime.

“Mande?” the bartender asked, ‘what?’ in Mexican Spanish.

“Un Cuba libre por favor.”


“Cuba libre!!!”

He didn’t understand so I repeated the order many times, trying to be heard over loud music and talking. Finally I yelled “Ron y coca.”


“Rum and coke!!!”

The bartender said, in bad English, “You aren’t Mexican?”

I said no.

“You speak English?”

I said yes. I found out later that the bar staff had thought I was Mexican but just always really drunk and slurring my words.

He leaned in and told me, “Here in Mexico we don’t call it rum and coca. We call it Cuba Libre.”

I really wanted to explain that I had been ordering it like that in the first place, but all I could do was laugh.

Learning the Basics

Some Travel Advice

I like to travel and have traveled to many countries. Naturally, people sometimes ask me for advice. With questions and concerns about destinations, money, food, and safety, something they may not think about is language. There seems to be an idea that English is widely spoken all over the world, which simply isn’t true.

What is sad about this idea is that often the same type of person who believes that people in foreign countries should know some English also believe that all visitors to the US should speak English too, especially immigrants. A little hypocrisy perhaps?

Even in places where English is spoken, like Europe, it is still a really good idea to learn some basics before you travel anywhere. It will open doors. It will be fun. And it is simply polite.

Have you ever seen someone trying to communicate with a person who doesn't understand, and they respond by speaking even louder? Or they try to explain what they’ve just said by explaining it with even more incomprehensible words? Not cool.

To travel anywhere in the world and communicate, you need an open mind, a few basic phrases, and a good understanding of body language. Pointing at menus is basic body language for travelers.

Before I travel anywhere, the first phrase I practice and memorize is “Do you speak English?” Even if you are pretty confident that they do, it is still polite to ask it in their language.

“Do you speak English” is your most important phrase. Even if the answer is “no,” you have still established that, although you don’t speak their language, you have at least made the most basic effort to communicate in it.

Then you can get into the other basics such as “hello,” “goodbye,” “where’s the bathroom?” and “another beer please.”

If you know some basics of any language, please leave a post!