Studying a language is only half the battle; putting it to use is the more challenging and rewarding aspect of the language learning experience. Some of us may have the fortune of having friends, family, or community members who speak the language we are learning, but for many students, speaking the foreign language they are studying may equate to making a trip to a foreign country.
If you think that you have to go to Paris or Montreal to speak French, think again. Consider the people that you see riding the T, walking in the Common, and eating on Newbury Street every day. There’s a good chance that you regularly cross paths with native French, as well as Spanish, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Hindi speakers, to name just a few of the many languages spoken every day in the Hub. Although exact numbers would be hard to estimate, the residents of Boston surely endow the city with a great linguistic wealth, and many of these foreign language speakers are probably interested in learning the language that you speak, be it English or another.
The most logical use of this tremendous human resource is a language partners program. A language partner is someone who offers you the chance to practice his or her native language in a relaxed, conversational setting in exchange for the opportunity to speak with you in yours. In a way, a language partner is like a pen-pal; the relationship is founded completely on the mutual desire to communicate, with the substitution of the written word by the completeness of verbal and gestural communication.
We say the completeness of verbal and gestural communication because the most beneficial language partnering is based on face-to-face interaction. Language partners who are found on the internet can be a great thing, but communication via telephone or Skype can never be as rich as it is in person. Of course many people are (rightfully) nervous about meeting in person with somebody whom they do not know, which is why institutions like language schools or universities have an important role. These institutions act as more than just a request switchboard; they vet applicants, make sure that appropriate, compatible partnerships are formed, and provide a safe space for learning to occur.
Language exchange is a wonderful tool if used sagaciously. It is best to seek out and participate in an exchange once you have reached a “low intermediate” level in which you can hack your way through an elementary conversation. An exchange cannot take the place of the classroom experience and should be thought of as a chance to practice rather than to learn. By no means must you have a complete mastery of grammar in order to participate in an exchange, but it is important to remember that your partner is not a teacher!
So what are you waiting for? If you’ve got your bases down in a foreign language, it’s time to start talking, right here in your city!