One of the real challenges to learning another language is finding occasions to use it. As was mentioned in my other articles, children are naturals at learning language, partly because of the way that their brains are developing, but also because they are absorbing it through their surroundings and are using it to try to communicate with the people around them. In order to become fluent in a language, we need to not only study and listen, we also need to practice speaking.
This can become a real challenge, depending on what language we are studying and where we live. For example, my wife and I have become fairly conversant in Spanish, but we have access to a great number of native Spanish speakers here in Kansas City. If we were wanting to learn another language, say Japanese or Russian, our progress would be hindered unless we could find someone nearby (actually, several someones) with whom to practice.
As I mentioned in my article about immersing yourself in the culture of the language you want to learn, part of the challenge in learning another language is learning the thought patterns that produce it. As one example, in the English we might describe the small, red car, but in Spanish (and other Latin-based languages) you say the object first and then describe it – the car small red. Without practice, you may end up using the same thought and speech patterns of your mother tongue. While your listeners will probably still be able to catch your meaning, it isn’t proper grammar and actually takes a lot more effort since it isn’t flowing naturally. The more you are able to speak the language and get accustomed to the flow and rhythm, the more easily and naturally it flows.
Another effect related to learning a language that is in common use in your area is that you will be accustomed to how those people speak the language. That can be both good and bad, depending on why you are learning and what you plan to use the language for. For instance, we started learning Spanish in a part of Kansas City that had a lot of people from the rural areas of Mexico, so we learned their style of speaking. After two years, however, we were able to go live in Ecuador for about six months. It was funny, and a little frustrating at times, that the people there often had trouble understanding us, since Ecuadorian Spanish is somewhat different from rural Mexican Spanish. After we returned to Kansas City, our friends noticed a huge improvement in our Spanish, but they all commented on how we now sounded like Ecuadorians! One key is to learn how the people around you speak, but also to try to find sources of correct, proper speech. For instance, television newscasters and many audio recordings are a good source since they are designed for a wide audience, often without a focus on a specific region or audience. (To verify this, watch a variety of national and local newscasts. Virtually all of them speak with the same accent!) This will help you get a handle on the language without quite such a limit on where it can be applied.
This can also be important when you consider how you want to use their language. For example, someone who wants to learn French has a lot of options, depending on where you want to use it. In the past, France had a lot of colonies and they all speak a different form of French. If you want to visit France, you will need to learn one style, but I can tell you from experience that Canadian French is completely different, as is the French from Africa or Haiti. In Kansas City, we have a large Haitian population, as well as many African immigrants, and they have two, distinct styles of speaking. So, practicing with the people who you intend to converse with is an important part of learning to communicate.
Another advantage to actually finding native speakers to practice with is that you will learn practical language. It is very interesting that my wife and I have learned Spanish together, and both of us have become fairly fluent, but in different ways. There are many words and expressions that she uses that I don’t quite understand, and vice versa. While we are in no way sexist or segregating ourselves, she has had a lot more opportunity to speak with women while I have had more conversations with men. Partly, this is due to the way groups tend to form based on gender (especially in the Latin American culture) and partly due to common interests. So some of the practical application of language that we have learned is different, based on the conversations and practice we have had.
Finally, if you do have the opportunity to live or visit another country where they speak the language you are learning, take every opportunity to use it. Even if the other person speaks to you in your language, speak to them in theirs. It may be that they want to practice too! But don’t let that stop you from practicing. I have had many conversations where each of us was speaking the language we weren’t fluent in – to the benefit of both of us! And don’t give in to the temptation to fall back on your mother tongue, or to gravitate toward others that speak it, perhaps in your tour group or at your hotel. Get out there and mingle with the locals, speak their language and practice, practice, practice!