Don’t Rely on Your Native Speaker Partner Too Much for Second Language Learning!

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By Melissa Dedina
Photo credit: Wonderlane

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.

In this series of posts, I have listed 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 is the final post in my series of articles about how to strengthen a faltering language. You can find the rest in the Multilingual Living Language Refresh 101 section.

Head to the next section to take a look at the role that native-speaking partners play in strengthening our languages. There you will also find the conclusion to this series and links to each post.

Native Speaker Partners

Native speaker partners: don’t rely on them too much! By which I mean don’t expect them to take the place of your language teacher.  If you are dating or married to someone who can explain every finicky detail of their language to you, that is fantastic and I envy you.

If you are like most people I know, the most common answers will be, “I have no clue” and “You just have to feel it.”  And that’s fair enough – I can’t explain why an irregular verb is irregular or exactly when you use definite or indefinite articles, either.  You just have to feel it!  (The good news is you eventually DO start to feel it.  Don’t despair.)

A native speaker partner may not be able to explain fine points of grammar in the detail you (okay, I) would want, but they can serve as a fantastic source of recommendations and encouragement to immerse yourself in the books, movies and music mentioned above.

In my case, I couldn’t use my husband as my language model as in #4 in this post because he is a native speaker of a related, but not identical language, so even more than most people he is unable to answer the more detailed questions about Czech beyond, “Uh, I think I’ve heard people say it this way.”

He was (is), however, a rich source of cultural information and specific book and movie recommendations. When we got married, he insisted on watching the news every night (how unreasonable!  how selfish!), so I had to watch, too. Periodically he forced me to sit down and watch a movie he remembered from his childhood or made me listen to his CDs.  Some of these were in his native language (Slovak), but most of them were in Czech, the community language. I found it helpful (if painful at first) to watch them with him sitting there so I could ask what was going on and if that person just said what I thought they did.

Even if your partner isn’t patient enough to sit down with you and actively work on your language, he can help to point you in the right direction for what books, movies, TV shows, music, etc. are really worth your time.


It seems to me that whatever methods you choose to strengthen your language, passion is the key.  If you are a passionate dictionary reader, that is fantastic. But if, like me, you’d rather read a good book, or play a computer game, or watch The X Factor, then do that – just do it in the other language!  Find ways to join your passions with your new language.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.  Do ask a lot of questions, preferably of a lot of different people (to get a good sense of the possible answers AND to avoid overly annoying any one person).  Learn to love the language, the history, the people, the things they love and the things they find beautiful.

I am hardly a dedicated student in the studying sense, but I love my new language and country and people respond positively to that.  I have seen the same movies and heard the same music (if somewhat more recently than people born here!), I laugh at the same jokes and quote the same commercials.  I make mistakes and my vocabulary is not wide enough (oh! if you only knew), but it is the other things that people remember and that make them slowly forget I am a foreigner.

I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts on how to keep a second language alive. If you missed any of the posts in this series here they are for your enjoyment:

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?

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