7 Fun Ways to Improve Your Second Language With Real People

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By Melissa Dedina
Photo credit: Yellow Sky Photography

Language classes are fantastic.  I know I could never have learned my second language without a textbook and a teacher to go through it with me, because that’s just how my brain works.

However, I did eventually get to the point where the classroom setting couldn’t teach me much more, and more importantly, if I had to memorize another list of words (and make example sentences from them!) I was going to poke my eyes out.

I have known people who were disciplined enough to literally sit down with the dictionary and memorize vocabulary from it, but along my language journey I made an essential discovery: I am a slacker.

What follows is a list of some of the things I did next, all of which I found more entertaining than sitting down with my arch-enemy, the dictionary.  They helped me leave the entry-hall of “intermediate” and actually join the (in my case) Czech-speaking world.

Many of these suggestions aim to increase cultural competency as well as language competency.  It’s hard to fully appreciate one without having the other – no matter how well you know the words and structures of the language, if all your cultural references are to your home culture, people will still have trouble understanding you!  Plus, no matter how much you know about the culture, if you don’t speak the language well, you won’t understand its heart.

This series of articles will appear on Multilingual Living every other week in conjunction with Language Refresh 101, which is all about how to strengthen a faltering language.

Below begins the first post in this series on how to improve a second language: today we’ll start with real, live people!

1. It is true what everyone says: Nothing beats immersion! Most of these suggestions I used were while living in-country and they worked wonderfully that way. If you too can find a way to spend time in a country where your second language is spoken, then do it!  (Don’t worry: many of these tips can be used or adapted for non-immersion situations, too.)

2. Talk to native speakers. More specifically, build relationships conducted entirely in the second language. Possibly the hardest part of learning a foreign language as an English speaker is that English is so widely spoken and so popular: everybody wants to speak English with you!

Find people who don’t speak English (or your native language) and make friends with them.  If they aren’t interested in practicing English with you, you may be less intimidated, and they may be more patient than someone who speaks your language well already.

3.  Now is the time to work on perfect pronunciation. Don’t tell yourself you’ll work on it later, because later you will already have formed habits that are difficult to break.

People were always very kind to me about my attempts to speak, because I am a good mimic and even though all I knew how to say was “Hello” and “Goodbye”, I repeated them exactly.  Many people didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t speak very well, despite the multitude of horrible grammatical mistakes I made, because the small amount I could say was delivered well!

This precise mimicry, along with the time I invested in practicing difficult sounds like ř, paid off many times over in how willing people were to forgive my shortcomings in other areas because of my success in this one.

4. Speaking of being a mimic, find someone to model your language after.  Copy whole phrases and intonations. This is the key to really good pronunciation – and pronunciation and “accent” are the key to being accepted as “one of us”, especially in places where it’s relatively uncommon for foreigners to learn the language.

5. Do the same with people on the street: be on the lookout for phrases and intonations that you like, and use them yourself!

Pay attention and you’ll notice there are specific ways people say simple things like “hello,” “thanks a lot,” “I don’t know,” and so on – the precise phrasing and also the pitch or melody used are important for authentic-sounding speech.

But be careful to use phrases in the right context: it’s easy to misunderstand the exact shade of meaning or situation in which a certain phrase is appropriate, so it’s a good idea to pick up a phrase and then listen for it to be used again, so you can judge for yourself.  Alternatively, just ask: “So can I say (xyz) in this situation, and (xyz) in that one, and what if it is about this other thing?”

6. In line with the above, ask questions of native speakers, but ask more than one person.  The answers can differ by generation, profession, gender and other things! For extra fun, ask a group of people at the same time and watch them argue over who’s right. Educational, and entertaining!

7. Even if you don’t have many native speakers on hand, the internet is an obvious place to look for a wealth of resources, most of which I don’t even know about.

People do language exchanges over e-mail or, even better, Skype.   There are also lots of “teach yourself (xyz)” sites, word a day websites or apps, and search engines and shopping pages geared to your country or language for finding other language resources.

I hope you enjoyed these first 7 tips for how to improve your second language. In the next post of this series on Multilingual Living, we will discuss how popular culture can be used to strengthen our second language. Stay tuned!

Have you implemented any of the suggestions listed in this post? How did they work for you? Do you have additional tips and suggestions for how we can improve our languages with the help of other people? Please share in the comments section!

Melissa Dedina is an American married to a Slovak, based in Prague, Czech Republic, raising a 3.5 year old daughter with English, Slovak and Czech. Melissa speaks English and Czech and understands Slovak, her husband speaks Slovak and English (and Czech, French, Hungarian and some Russian), and their daughter K speaks English and Slovak-Czech. You can follow their language learning and language mixing experiences at Where Going Havo?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tommy April 2, 2011 at 3:36 am

Good list. Currently I’m learning Russian, but unfortunately there aren’t too many Russians around here for me to talk too and I’m not traveling to Russia anytime soon. So the best alternative for total immersion and talking to native speakers I could find, is to watch tons of movies (no subtitles). Works out pretty good if you do it constantly, like a movie a day, and you already some basic understanding of the language…


2 Sarah @ Bringing up Baby Bilingual April 6, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Hi Melissa! I didn’t know you were writing over here too–I’m looking forward to your articles!

“Now is the time to work on perfect pronunciation”–I missed out on that with every language I ever studied–all through high school and college, until I studied abroad in France my junior year, I only ever had one native speaker teacher (a Spanish teacher from Argentina for two semesters).

I agree that if you don’t focus on your pronunciation (of individual sounds and/or entire words) and intonation from the beginning, it will be hard to ever lose your accent and sound native-like. On the other hand, we can still be very competent communicators with a bit of an accent!


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