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3 Ways to Improve Speaking a Foreign Language Online

by Hongyu Chen

Learning to speak a foreign language is difficult. While there are a plethora of resources online such as Duolingo to teach you the bare bones of grammar and vocabulary, one still must bridge the gap between textbook skills and the real world.

Practicing Speaking a Foreign Language in the Real World

Most of the resources on speaking a foreign language tends to come from face-to-face interactions. Maybe a bilingual family member or close friend is willing to have a chat and switch languages every so often. Perhaps, in the context of a formal class, there is a teacher who polls the class for questions a few times per class and corrects students’ mistakes.

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: there is no substitute for real world practice. It is, after all, for the majority of language learners, the primary purpose: whether it be to better enjoy the fruits of travel, or to have more success in the business world.

However, learning to speak a foreign language through common real-world interactions way can be a chore.

  1. Close friends are hesitant to correct mistakes - While talking to a friend about common interests, time just seems to fly by. In the heat of the moment while talking about the local sports team that won, who wants to explain the differences between who and whom? When telling a crazy story about what happened last week, who wants to correct your pronunciation of “thirsty”?
  2. Formal instruction is sporadic - Even in a “small” class of 30, students may only speak up once, or even not at all during an average class.

Whether you’re learning a language for the first time in high school, or already have tons of language learning experience under your belt, here’s a guide to how to get better at speaking a foreign language - done straight from a computer.

Speechling - Unlimited Pronunciation Coaching

Speechling is an online resource for unlimited pronunciation coaching. It does not aim to provide an in-depth resource for grammar or vocabulary. However, what it does do is help students learn to speak a language. Whether trying to reduce one’s accent, or getting ready for travel, Speechling can help make the difference between whether you’re understood in a foreign language.

It has a massive collection of thousands of sentences spanning simple travel phrases to more involved sentences that illustrate grammatical points. For each sentence, there are top-notch vocal actors that say the sentence in crisp, high-quality audio. Because men and women speak languages differently, users can also pick the gender that they wish to hear the audio.

The way Speechling works is simple:

  1. Record your own voice right from the browser or smartphone. After doing so, you can listen to yourself and the native speaker side by side. You can also see the waveforms of yourself and the native speaker.
  2. Save your recording for coaching.
  3. Within 24 hours, a certified language coach gives pronunciation feedback. All of your saved recordings are on the site, which lets you look back across months and see how far you’ve come.

Speechling also offers hundreds of the most common travel phrases, from ordering in a restaurant to asking for directions.

Pros

Cons

iTalki + Verbling - On-Demand Tutoring

For people with more money and desire more formal classes, there are two online services for taking private lessons over Skype. iTalki and Verbling allow you to schedule private lessons with language teachers all across the world.

There is a differentiation between “professional teachers”, who often command a degree or certification in their language, and “community tutors”, who do not. Some teachers have a scheduled class, and others just offer conversation practice.

Both platforms offer classes for around $10-30 an hour, depending on the expertise of the teacher. For certain languages like Spanish, community tutors can be found for as low as $4 per hour.

Setting up a class is fairly straightforward:

  1. Browse a list of teachers. You can read their biographies, student reviews, and past history on the website. Oftentimes, they have a video explaining how a class would work.
  2. Choose a teacher. Finding a teacher is just one click away.
  3. Schedule a time on the platform. Both the teacher’s schedule and your own will be visible. You just need to schedule a timeslot that the teacher will approve.
  4. Get on Skype/Hangouts/etc. The lesson then happens at the scheduled time, over a third-party platform.

These platforms also offer language exchanges. However, I would not recommend trying to find a language buddy via these websites, and they are very tedious. Instead, I will cover that in the next section.

Pros

Cons

The third category of learning a language is via language exchange websites. These websites look to help find language partners for language learners. One such platform is Tandem.

Language exchange is a fairly straightforward process. Say Alice is trying to learn Spanish and knows English as her native language. Bob is trying to learn English, and knows Spanish as his native language. In a standard language exchange, Alice would get together with Bob and teach other languages.

Usually, this process involves the following:

  1. Set up a profile. Fill out basic demographic info, take a picture, and state which languages you know and which languages you are looking to learn.
  2. Find a language learning partner that you’re happy with. This is done by browsing through a list of people.
  3. Agree on a schedule. Which days to meet? Nights or weekends? Do we speak in one language for half the time, and the other language in half the time, or one person talks in one language only?
  4. Get on a third-party platform such as Skype/Hangouts/etc.

These platforms are above all great for making friends all over the world, as in asking questions in a foreign language you can really get to know a person. However, this comes at a cost, because your language learning buddy may not correct all your mistakes.

Pros

Cons

What’s best for me?

As with many questions, it depends. There’s nothing saying, first of all, that you must use just one of the three. For someone who doesn’t have a lot of money but a lot of time, language partners might be the best way to go. For someone with some money and some time, language pronunciation coaching reigns supreme. And for someone, with an unlimited budget, why not all three?

As mentioned earlier, there is no substitute for real world practice. If language learning were professional boxing, learning online and fixing pronunciation errors are like lifting weights in the gym and sparring. You won’t know whether you’ve passed the test until you use the skills out in the wild.

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