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September 10, 2005

Skype: a must-have tool for language learners

Skype is voice over internet software: you use the software to speak with others who are running the same software.

So what. That stuff's been around for years. Last time I tried voice over internet, the quality was pretty low and laggy (but what do you expect from 14.4 dialup?). It was much easier and less frustrating just to pick up the phone and call.

As a result, I've overlooked Skype for a long time. What's the point? Phone rates are cheap enough (especially on my AT&T VOIP line) that I can just call my friends and relatives. No hassle, no need to convince them to install the software (then troubleshoot it for them), no need to wait by the monitor for them to sign in.

A few months ago, though, I read an article which made the magic connection: Skype + native speakers = language learning happiness. That convinced me: practicing a target language with a native speaker is an important part of learning. I downloaded Skype that day...but how do you find those native speakers? I tried contacting a few posters at the Skype forums, but never got a reply. For several weeks I had Skype and a new headset ready to go, but no one to talk to.

Fortunately someone at Dickinson College (somewhere in Pennsylvania) got the bright idea of putting together a searchable database of language learners. You fill out a brief profile about yourself, including the languages you want to speak, then you can search for others who speak those languages and want to practice yours. It's very simple and very slick. I indicated that I wanted to practice Japanese and that my native language is English. Within a day or two I started receiving emails from Japanese who wanted to practice their English.

Speaking with a stranger for the first time can make you a bit nervous. I exchanged several emails with a fellow IT worker in Tokyo over the course of a week or two, then we decided to try Skype. His English was far better than my Japanese (he'd been studying for 5 years, while I'd been studying for a few months), but we had a good time: I helped him with his pronunciation and practiced my meager Japanese on him. Overall it was very motivational and encouraging.

Since then we've spoken every week or three. His English has improved, and I think that my Japanese has improved too. I've made a few other Japanese friends too, and last week I spoke with a man from the city of Dalian in China in my first-ever attempt at speaking Chinese to another human. He even understood what I said.

Six months ago I barely knew what Skype was. Now I'm a convert. If you're a language learner with very few opportunities to practice the language(s) you're learning, you must have Skype. Not only will it help you learn languages, it will also help you make new friends.

Permalink | Posted by Joe at September 10, 2005 10:47 PM


i'm curious, what do you do when you speak japanese on skype with your partner?

i don't think i'm ready to just free talk at the moment. still at early-beginner stage!

Posted by: heather at October 14, 2005 03:23 PM

I'm not up to the free talk level either; I'm still a beginner. Most of the time we speak English: a lot of Japanese looking for language exchange partners are interested in improving their English. During the conversation when I can ask a question or make a comment in Japanese, I do so. I'll also try out new phrases and sentences I've composed to make sure that I've done so correctly.

What I'd like to do (or see) is a collection of topics for language exchange sessions. Each side could compose some questions and think up some things to say in the target language--that'd be a week's "homework"--and then take turns in each language during the actual conversation.

However, I haven't actually gotten around to writing such a thing yet. Someday.

Posted by: Joe at October 14, 2005 08:55 PM

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