Speaking: One of the biggest challenges?
Back in 2019, I started sending an email to listeners asking what their biggest challenges are. I’ve received hundreds of responses and there’s a trend in the responses.
#1. Listening Comprehension. Many people claim that they can’t understand T.V. shows because the conversations are too fast.
#2. Grammar. Others claim that they confuse tenses and that they need a better grasp (ability to understand and use) on the differences between the past tenses, like when to use the present perfect (I have been) over the simple past (I was), or when the past perfect (I had been) should be used.
- Learn more about The Intermediate Course
#3. Speaking. A large chunk of the responses come from listeners who don’t know where to practice English. Many claim that they live in cities where there are no native speakers and they can’t find practice partners.
Many non-native English speakers want to find a native English speaker learning their language, so that by practicing together, both parties get to learn. We call this type of meeting a tandem session.
There’s an abundance of people learning English but FEWER English speakers learning foreign languages so it can be a challenge to find a language partner. As a native English speaker and active language learner, I get handfuls of requests every day due to this discrepancy!
Yes, it can be frustrating to find a consistent language partner, but it’s not impossible. Here are some of the most effective ways I’ve gotten speaking practice in my foreign languages in the past.
ClubHouse - Free
In 2021, the app ClubHouse came out and for about two months everyone was talking about it. The concept of the app is to enable users to have live conversations with others about a specific topic and topics can range from anything political to technological, spiritual and more.
I spent about two months actively using Clubhouse for the purpose of German French and Portuguese speaking practice. I also joined in English groups to see how they’re being run.
They’re great! Groups are created by dedicated language learners and teachers who guide conversations for free. You can find everything from beginner classes to advanced topical conversations in English and there is almost always the opportunity to participate. Live conversation (hence speaking practice) is the purpose of the app!
Why it’s cool: What’s relieving for those who are shy is that there’s no video; the only visual is your profile picture. Through voice conversations it can be easier to break the ice with random people.
As an English learner you can join The English language club, which has over 100+ rooms open a week to practice or consider joining Toastmasters to practice speaking publicly.
Toastmasters is an international organization that helps people improve their public speaking skills through structured meetings. There are time takers, notetakers and more. Anyone is welcome!
I mention these two topics, but honestly the world is your oyster. You can join discussions about art, science, parenting, comedy, movies, books and more.
My one tip for anyone who joins a club – if you have a tendency to get nervous before speaking in a group setting, you should “raise your hand” or accept speaking opportunity within the first 5 seconds of joining.
If you’re like me and overthink the situation, you might not end up speaking. Bite the bullet! (act instead of waiting)
HelloTalk - Free
For the longest time I refused to admit the success of HelloTalk because I was creating an app with similar functionality. However, I’ll swallow my pride and admit that this app is great. It’s a wonderful way to meet people from around the world in an instant AND although it’s was created for chatting (without audio), it now has the functionality to speak as well.
How it works: HelloTalk has location-based functionality so you can find where speakers are of different languages throughout the world. You can learn about somebody’s hobbies and interests, places they want to travel and read their description before jumping into a chat with them.
The app also serves as a social media platform, since it allows you to post about life and culture, pictures of food and things you do.
Let’s say that you’re learning English and your interests are cooking, running and watching horror films – you can find a native English speaker with those same interests and then comment on their pictures (in English) to get your responses corrected! There’s also a built-in translator, correction software to clearly illustrate mistakes and a speaking option.
If you’re looking to connect with people with similar interests in other countries or near home (yes, you can find people who live near you as well), this is the app that’ll solve those issues.
iTalki - Paid
For years, I taught ESL on iTalki and on Verbling – two different language learning platforms. I actually met my husband Lucas on Verbling back in 2015 (hear about it here).
If you’ve reached the point in your life where you just want to learn with great material and a great teacher, that’s where it might be worth forking up (to give, usually money, when you don’t want to) some dollars for a teacher.
But before you do, make sure that you are a good learner (How to be a good learner).
My best student: Eladio Hurtado is from Chile. He took over 100 classes with me from 2016 – 2018. Outside of class, he wrote, he prepared assignments and he eventually passed the IELTS exam and got his Doctorate in England. Be like Eladio! Give credit to yourself, you can and should do the majority of your learning when the teacher is not sitting in front of you.
Top for how to learn effectively. If you listen or read (input), afterwards you need to speak or write. If you speak in class about a specific topic, consider watching a new Ted Talk about that topic afterwards or listening to a podcast about it. Reinforce the vocabulary you learned! Don’t let the ball drop.
My worst student: While living abroad, I regularly met with a student; I’d prepared a packet of learning material for him customized to his interests. In class, I taught and he spoke. While his speaking ability and overall fluency improved over time, he continued to make the exact same mistakes he was making in week 1. What made him a bad student? He never revisited what we learned in class, nor did he do the assignments I asked of him. His learning ONLY happened in the classroom and was never reinforced on his own time.
So what makes a great teacher?
While we all might agree that a great teacher is one who inspires us to learn and can answer our questions, the specifics are very subjective!
My "perfect" teacher varies based on my language level.
As a beginner, I sometimes find it useful to speak to an accredited teacher from the United States (my home country) who can compare and contrast the target language with my native language (English).
At an intermediate level, I may opt for a native speaker just because I’d want to get used to a native accent as well as improve my own.
If grammar is one of the areas I want to work on, perhaps I’d choose a professional teacher over a community teacher.
This is not to say that community teachers can’t teach grammar, or that non-native ESL teachers haven’t mastered the accent. Many have! I’m just too lazy to find them.
The beauty of language learning websites today is that you can search for exactly what you want.
- Is it a female or male?
- Should they have a certain age or certain background?
- Should they be from a specific country?
- Should they have certain expertise (Business English, working with children, exam prep)?
Seems complicated. What should I do?
If I were in your shoes, if I had an INTERMEDIATE level in English I would schedule a bunch of trial sessions with teachers (you’ll get a few free ones when you join here) and see who you vibe with.
Here are some teachers I recommend:
- Alliyah Wheaton (originally from NY – now in San Diego) – Check out her profile.
- Ali Willoughby – certified teacher.
After spending 6 years on italki and taking hundreds of classes myself, I realized that most teachers – even those with 5 stars – do not have a curriculum designed to see organized progress in your learning. Many “community teachers” without degrees may not have cool worksheets and things to do as homework. Considering that working outside of class is essential for progress, I would supplement online classes with course material.
- Business English Course (*Affiliate Link*)
- IELTS Course ($50 discount with my affiliate link)
- All Premium Content
All Premium Content is course material and lessons for episodes 001 – 150 of the American English Podcast. In them, you’ll learn the culture and history of the United States from interesting people like Stan Lee and Walt Disney to the stories of Coca-Cola, the Discovery of Bigfoot and more.
Conclusion: Why I prefer scheduled classes...
For the longest time, I kept using free software and apps to find language partners or potential teachers and I can’t even begin to calculate how much time I spent floating from one virtual space to another and from one exchange partner to another.
There were many superficial conversations that eventually fizzled out. Perhaps conversation via chat felt too impersonal. It’s true that you don’t need to face the repercussions if you stop using the app from one day to the next.
Having a real conversation in person or even a video conversation via Zoom / Skype is where connections are built. When there’s a real person on the other side of a screen and you can see them move and interact, it’s easier to maintain contact because it feels real.
So why do I prefer scheduling classes over finding a language partner?The obstacle of finding a great partner.
The first obstacle is finding a person interesting enough to talk with, the second issue is time zones, life and organization. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, jump into the free services. If you’re not, consider joining a service like italki to simplify the process.
Best of luck with your language learning!