Language learning

16 tips for talking to native speakers

Last week I asked on Facebook what everyones biggest struggle regarding learning languages is. The main response you guys gave me was finding native speakers to practice with and getting up the courage to speak to them when you find them. I’ve put together my best tips for practicing speaking in your target language.

Image courtesy of Arne Halvorsen on Flickr

Image courtesy of Arne Halvorsen on Flickr

1. Check your university. If you don’t go to university, check the closest one to you. In the language building at my uni there’s always heaps of notices on the pinboards looking for tutors or conversation partners in different languages. We even have a club that you apply to, state your languages, and they team you up with others to make use of each others native language. I’m sure this isn’t a unique idea, so there’s probably something similar near you.

2. I had a couple of friends who made up their own language exchange. They’d change it up every so often – sometimes they’d both speak in one language, sometimes they’d both speak in the other. Sometimes they’d both speak each others native language (so the Spanish speaker would speak in English and the English speaker would reply in Spanish). They’d have whole conversations this way. I think the main thing that made this a success was first, they were already friends so there was no awkward ‘get to know you’ beginning and second, they’d just do whatever was fun that day. They didn’t force it.

3. This is similar to the first point. Check or a local meeting site. You might find someone else has started a conversation group near you or you may have to start your own. This can be a useful way to find people to practice with. Or maybe you could put an ad in the local paper or on their website in your target language.

4. Try Skype. This is a little harder to manage if you don’t already know someone you can call but it’s still possible. You might have to check out language forums around the place to find someone. Check out this great video from a few days ago if you need some inspiration!

5. I’ve never tried this next tip. It was just an idea I had while writing this list, but I reckon it could be worth a try. Find out if there’s a restaurant near you that serves food from the country your language is spoken. Often you’ll find the people working in these places are from that country (but sometimes not, so you’ll just have to check). Go along and order in your target language.

6. There are several websites that can help you if you can’t find anyone local. helps you find people to chat with. lets you record yourself speaking and send it to a native speaker for feedback, thoughI’m not sure if you can have actual live conversations. My Language Exchange, Italki and Verbling are worth a try as well (though I’ve never used these sites myself, so I can’t tell you how good they are).

7. If all that fails, you could always try to find a tutor or language teacher. Yes, you’d have to pay them. But this path does have several advantages over the others. If you’re paying someone, they’re not going to bail on you last minute. They know what they’re talking about when they correct you. They can give you more concrete advice and give you things to work on by yourself.

But then what about when you’ve found somebody? Now that’s taken care of you’ve got to get the guts to have an actual conversation with them. Don’t worry, I’ve got tips for that too –

8. Let them know straight up what level you are. Tell them how long you’ve been been learning, what you have trouble with, what you just can’t get yet. This way you won’t be worried about them ‘figuring out’ how bad you are and can concentrate on just doing your thing.

9. Make sure you know how to say things like ‘could you speak a little slower?’ and ‘could you repeat that, please?’. And then when you know how to say them, make sure you use them when you need to!

10. Practice your pronunciation. Make it as easy for them to understand you as possible. Don’t stress about it, but do your best. Remember that you’re doing this to improve and to do that you have to put in the effort.

11. If you’re doing a more formal language exchange you’ll have to decide if you want structured topics or a more natural conversation. Both have their uses – if you choose topics in advance you’ll be able to work on your vocabulary before hand but if you choose to go with the flow you’ll end up learning things you’d never think of otherwise.

12. On that note, don’t stress about your vocabulary too much. If you don’t know all the words you need you’ll still be able to converse. You might find yourself saying ‘the thing on the top of the house’ if you can’t think of the word ‘roof’, but your meaning will be conveyed and the person will probably suggest the word you need. You’ll always come away with new knowledge – which is the whole point, right?

13. If confidence is the issue, try working your way up to talking to native speakers. You could begin by talking to someone who isn’t a native speaker but has a higher level of knowledge of the language than you do. This will help you get used to using the language in ‘real life’ situations and you’ll probably find it’s not that scary! Then the next time you happen upon a native speaker you’ll be ready. I did this with Spanish – I would get embarrassed and flustered speaking to people from Spain, but speaking in Spanish with my friend from Brazil was fine.

14. Make sure you know how to say things like ‘oh, you speak ________’ and other ‘opening lines’. This will make it easier to jump into a conversation when the opportunity arises. You won’t have to worry about how to bring it up, you can just jump in. Easier said than done, I know, but this will give you one less thing to stress about.

15. Perhaps start out with short, structured conversations. Things like asking for directions or a recommendation. This would obviously work best if there’s a good sized community of your target language speakers near you. You’ll get to practice but won’t be stuck if you don’t to be – you can just thank the person and move on with a little more confidence.

16. Accept that you will make mistakes. Embrace them. Mistakes are only indicators of what you still need to work on. Try to remember them and work on them so you don’t make the same ones next time. Even if you do – who cares? Speaking is not about perfection.

I hope this helps you get out there practising your language. Let me know how it goes if you use any of these tips!

What’s your best tip for speaking to a native speaker? Let us know in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “16 tips for talking to native speakers

  1. This is a great list. I’ve been over here in Taiwan learning chinese and sometimes i get so nervous talking to people about things that Im not familiar with. Its mostly because im just aftaid to make mistakes, which i do, daily. But in reality people are generally really happy to talk to you and that youre trying. They dont mind that you say something dumb or your grammar sucks, theyll just correct you and move on. If you can make a good friend that speaks the.language, thats the best way because then youll forget about being embarrassed and the language will flow more naturally. They also wont be worried about offending you when they correct you and youll learn more colloquial speach this way.
    Great article 🙂

  2. Pingback: 22 Great Posts For Language Learners from 2012 | The Everyday Language Learner

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