Thursday, May 6, 2010

How can speakers of lesser-studied languages quickly get good input from native speakers on social language-learning websites?

Milena, a native speaker of Serbian, made a great point in the comments of my earlier post entitled "Twelve simple tips to quickly get good input from native speakers on social language-learning websites". The post emphasized how helping others learn your language can get them to help you learn theirs, but Milena points this out:
Well, this basically means that we, native speakers of languages that are not popular at all, do not have much (or good) chance when it comes to this point. :)

(I can, of course, correct basic English writing, but I wouldn't trust myself correcting someone's article usage, for example, and also, it is quite hard to find a speaking partner, since I'm not a native English speaker.)
So what's a native speaker of a language that's not widely studied to do? Well, it'll certainly be harder, but you can still pull it off by adapting the tips in that earlier post to your situation. How to do that, after the jump.

(But before I get into that, Milena, you wouldn't happen to be studying German, would you? Several posts back I got a comment from a native-German speaker who is studying Serbian. He or she posted anonymously, but I might be able to get you in touch with him or her if it'd be helpful.)

The big minus of speaking a less commonly studied language is that you lose much of the benefits of tips 6 (Help others) and tips 7 (Give your best helpers VIP treatment). What that basically means is that you need to put more effort into making the other tips productive for you.

First, you're going to have to play the numbers game more than most. That makes tips 1 (Make lots of friends), 2 (Become friends with those who have few friends) and 3 (Send friend requests when you need help) all the more important. You might need to follow those tips to a greater extent than those whose native tongues are more commonly studied.

Tip 5 (Send requests for help when you need help) is also going to be key; I find that people are often willing to help me, even if I've never helped them, and even if they're focusing on languages other than English so that I'm not even really able to help them.

To give you an example of this, let's take another look at my list of correctors on Lang-8. As of this post, my top corrector is 小小, with 7 corrections, whereas I haven't done any corrections for her. The reasons I haven't done any is because she's focusing on Japanese, and there are so many Japanese native speakers on Lang-8 that it just doesn't make sense for me to try to help when I know that they'll take care of it for her better than I can. Thinking that this situation was a little one sided, I sent her a quick note (I've translated both of our messages from Chinese):
Please write something in English so I can correct it for you! There are already so many Japanese people on this website that I don't think it makes sense for me to correct your Japanese. Your corrections for me are so good and so many, that I'd love to do whatever I can to help you as well!
To which she replied:
Haha, thank you. My English isn't that good, so my plan is to finish studying Japanese before studying English again. … Helping others is a good thing, so I'm happy to continue like this.
So, as you can see, there very much are people out there who are willing to help you without receiving anything in return. They're harder to find, but seek and ye shall find.

As you find those people, tip 8 (Say thank you) is key. Make sure you show them how much you value their help! Although not exactly a thank-you message, my little message above conveyed that meaning pretty clearly, and I imagine that I'll see more corrections from 小小 in the future.

As for you making corrections in a language other than your own, I say go for it. That doesn't mean that you should run afoul of tip 13 (Provide quality input) (I added that one in the comments), but on sites like Livemocha and Lang-8, you're pretty sure to find people whose mistakes are much worse than yours. (And, Melina, in your specific case, there are tons of people whose English is tons worse than yours, so make corrections at will.) Go in and pick out all of the easy written mistakes and, if you're not sure, Google around a bit to make sure you are.

I do this from time to time myself. I've been "teacher of the week" in numerous non-English languages on Livemocha (something that's not very hard to accomplish, I presume). The extra impetus to provide quality input makes me check and double check everything, just so I know I'm not screwing up anything. So far, I don't think I've had anything revised by a native speaker, although they've certainly picked up issues that I didn't see.

To further demonstrate that you don't need to be a native speaker to help someone out, on sites like Livemocha, I'll often get messages from, say, a Chinese speaker looking to learn French, and asking for me help, or inviting me to a chat. Why they pick me for that, I'm not sure, but I certainly would rather practice that with them than English!

Lastly, and this probably qualifies as a new tip to be added to the list in its own right, hunt down those people learning your native language! They are out there, somewhere. Find discussion boards with people learning your language. Find a blog covering your language. Email teachers teaching your language to get connected with their students. Be aggressive and do whatever you need to do to find a language partner. Once you find some, instead of relying on language-learning sites to bring them to you, you can bring them to the language-learning sites yourself.

Does anyone else have any good tips to add for speakers of less commonly studied languages? If so, drop a line in the comments!


  1. I'd just like to say, "I wish non-native speakers would STOP correcting people."

    I see SO many corrections on Lang-8 that are -wrong- or pointless (the original was perfectly fine and sounded fluent) and they are almost always non-native speakers, where most of the correct corrections are from native speakers.

  2. I actually haven't seen that many on Lang-8 (I've seen them more on Livemocha) and I rarely get them myself.

    I'm not sure that the problem is so bad that I'd implement a blanket ban, but I have seen those people that go willy-nilly trying to correct a language that they're just not equipped to correct. I fully agree with you on those people.

    For those who do have the skills to pull it off, they need to be extra careful to make sure they're doing it right. When I provide even a simple correction in a language other than English, it takes me a long time because of how much I check it. If you're not willing to do that, you'd be better off not correcting anything outside of your native language.

  3. Hi Vincent,

    thanks heaps for the response to my comment.
    I have nothing to add - simply, one needs to use social skills to compensate for the lack of opportunity to help.

    As for the non-native speakers corrections, I think it is OK in the situation 'advanced correcting total beginner'. In any other case, it is definitely not the best idea. (I do 'cheat', though - I use my partner (native English speaker) to correct something I am not 100% about :D ).

    no, I'm not learning German. I'm learning Russian, Spanish (both intermediate) and Mandarin (beginner).


  4. I am the German speaking Serbian learner you were talking about. I am Sina and can be found on Livemocha and Lang 8. I do understand Milena very well. When I write a Serbian exercise on Livemocha I get at least 8 responses, but I correct every day many Serbians who are learning German and I am their only corrector!
    As for non-native speakers correcting exercises: as long as they declare themselves as non-native speakers I think it is OK. Thanks again for all the work you are doing

  5. Hi Sina!
    I hope Serbian language is not giving you too many troubles :)

    For me personally, situation with writings is not too bad, since, as I said, I can correct basic English. The main problem is finding conversation partners...
    At the end I just decided to turn to paid online tutors :)

    good luck with Serbian!
    (just in case - if you need a conversation partner for occasional, short conversations, I could give you my skype ID. I do not have much free time, but usually have some spare time in the morning, which is evening in Europe).


  6. @Milena: I definitely agree that, when a non-native speaker is correcting something, there has to be a pretty decent gap in abilities for it to make sense. I wouldn't say that the correctee always has to be a beginner though. For example, my wife could probably do a good job of correcting intermediate and perhaps even some advanced English learners.

    And I do "cheat" in the same way you do sometimes. For instance, I had my native-Japanese-speaking wife make a recording or two using my account on RhinoSpike. I hope the recipients weren't too confused by the mismatch between my profile pic (showing me, a clearly non-Japanese dude) and my wife's voice.

    I'm also curious... which service did you use to find a paid online tutor?

    @Sina: I'm sure they already thank you profusely, but it's certainly a kind thing you are doing to help out all those German-learning Serbian speakers. I just hope you don't get too overburdened!

  7. @Vincent

    I started with (I'm still doing Mandarin with an online teacher I found there - 1h per week, in addition to the studies on my own). I also occasionally use, for Spanish (when I want to practise some grammar points and get corrections and explanations straight away).
    For Russian and Spanish I'm now settled with . It took me few months to start using tutors there because lingq's rates are much higher than the classes I could find on edufire, for example, but I realized that 15-20mins conversations that I can get on lingq are just what I need at this intermediate, 'no man's land' point (you can't get short conversations on edufire).
    Finding an online tutor that suits you is not always straightforward - with some people you just do not feel comfortable talking and your brain goes totally blank :).

  8. @Milena: Sounds like you've got some good insight on finding paid native-speaker tutors online! Any chance you'd be up for doing a guest post on that topic? If so, drop me a line via the email link at the top of the page.

  9. Learn English OnlineJun 23, 2010, 9:18:00 PM

    Hi Milena, Thanks for posting helpful information.
    If you want to improve your conversational skills, it is important to speak as often as possible with native speakers of English.