Going Native! – learning languages with native speakers

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As you might know if you’re a regular visitor to my blog, I’m no longer a Londoner – in fact, I’m currently writing from my new flat in Lviv, Ukraine. For the last three weeks I’ve been taking a road trip across Europe, from London to Lviv, taking in various different cities along the way, including Prague, Brno and Krakow, and now I’ve finally settled down for the next few months in this charming Ukrainian city. So, I’m pretty excited, but also slightly terrified about how I’m going to survive here with my almost non-existent knowledge of Ukrainian and/or Russian. Unlike in the past where I’ve mainly been learning languages for fun or as part of my studies, now I’m learning in the ‘real world’, with the fairly significant motivation of actually being able to get around, buy food and meet people in my new home.

This has got me thinking about different ways of learning languages, and how differently you learn when faced with real native speakers and actually living in the country, rather than by learning from a book or app. Not that books and apps can’t be pretty good ways to learn, but they can’t ever fully substitute the experience of living in the country and surrounding yourself with people speaking the language. Or at least that’s the theory! I’ll report back in a future post about how my Ukrainian-learning is going – at the moment I’m getting by with a few Ukrainian words I learned from uTalk, and a handful of Russian words I learned last time I was in Kiev.

That’s all very well, you may be thinking, but what if you aren’t actually living abroad right now, and you can’t just jump in a car and drive off to somewhere where you’re surrounded by the language 24/7? Well, if you can’t go to the country, then the next best alternative is bringing the country to you! I recently came across a new language-learning platform called GoCambio which seems like quite an intriguing solution to the problem of finding native speakers to learn and practice with.

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So, what is GoCambio?

Basically, GoCambio is a kind of CouchSurfing for language-enthusiasts. I already love the idea of Couch Surfing – for those of you who don’t know it, you can sign up to either allow travellers to stay at your place, or to stay at the houses of other users in other countries or cities. This is basically the same idea – you can either sign up as a Host or a Guest. Hosts provide a place to stay for a foreigner who wants to stay in their city (free of course), in exchange for language lessons. Guests get a place to stay in return for their language skills.

A few years ago I did a really similar thing: when I was on a work placement in Munich, a really kind colleague offered me her spare room for a few weeks in return for helping her son with English. This was a mutual exchange as I got a free room in return for just chatting in my own language – so I think I kind of got the better end of the deal! But in reality it can be quite tricky to organise something similar. If you do find someone who speaks the language you’re learning, they probably don’t want to spend so much of their time speaking to you in your really low level of French when they could just speak to you in their perfect English. The perfect alternative is to organise a tandem-style exchange. i.e. you offer to teach someone your language and they teach you theirs – I’ve done this a lot in London with French students and it can be really fun. Hopefully I can also find someone in Ukraine to exchange languages with. But the idea of organising something like this by exchanging your spare room for help with a language is quite a unique one.

How does it work then?

At least for now, GoCambio is totally free for both Hosts and Guests. To host someone, you just need space in your house and a willingness to spend some time learning with your guest and helping them to get to know your city. Simply sign up on the website, add the language/s you’re learning and you can start looking for someone. Or, if you’re in the mood to travel for cheap, paying with your skills instead of money, then you can post your profile and hope that someone’s interested in learning your language. If you sign up as a guest/teacher, then you have to do a short training course, to ensure that the language lessons provided are effective and good quality.

My thoughts

There are 100s of different methods for language learning, and I’ve only managed to review a small handful of them on my blog, although I do try to include anything that I’ve tried that I think is genuinely helpful. Over my 15 years or so of studying languages in various ways I’ve tried pretty much everything going, and in my opinion there are much better methods available now than when I was at school. Books and teachers do play an important role, but face-to-face contact with native speakers is one of the most useful ways of learning in a dynamic ‘real-life’ way. Unless you have a structured program and a lot of dedication, books won’t get you very far. Of course, though, without actually sitting down and studying some grammar / memorising some words, just chatting and interacting with native speakers isn’t enough either. So a combination of the two is probably the way to go. In fact, in my opinion, just surrounding yourself with the language in as many ways as possible is the optimal solution.

Hosting a foreign guest for a while probably isn’t for everyone, especially if you live in a small place, but if you have the option to try it, this is a great free way to get one-to-one lessons with a native speaker and hopefully make a new friend in the process. With this programme, the guest has to give you 2 hours of language lessons per day during their stay, which is quite intensive, so it should definitely be a quick and effective boost to your language skills.

If anyone’s tried this or a similar way of learning, I’d love to know if it was successful for you. Let me know in the comments!

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