Learning a Language Without Access to a Native Speaker

How can we learn to communicate without the opportunity for interaction?

By Kelsea Mucherino 

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a widespread loss of jobs across Europe, leading to thousands of people seeking employment. This has caused a massive spike in the number of people who have decided to undertake the daunting task of learning a foreign language. This is supported by evidence from Google; according to Google trends, between the start of the pandemic and now, interest in:  

  • “language learning with YouTube” has risen by 750% 
  • “Language learning solutions” by 450% 
  • “Best language learning tools” by 300%  
  • “Learning language with Netflix” by 250%  

By now, many people have realised that having a foreign language under one’s belt can give a highly competitive edge when applying for jobs, and also opens up the possibility for remote work (or even face-to-face work, eventually) in a wide range of locations around the world. So, it is no surprise that many people have made an attempt to do so while lockdown restrictions kept many people inside and glued to their screens.  

Unfortunately, learning to communicate in a foreign language without human interaction is very difficult. Even with all the time and motivation in the world, it is no easy task to learn a foreign language without being immersed in the language or having access to native speakers to practice your skills with. And, even if you memorise large amounts of vocabulary words and grammatical rules, this is still not enough to be able to communicate in a foreign language. Language learning is truly interactional in nature, but what do we do when the “interaction” piece of the puzzle is missing?  

Fortunately, it is very possible to hone your communication skills, even without being in the presence of someone you can practice with. Even if you are currently taking foreign language classes, you may find it especially difficult to put into practice what you’ve learned outside of class. Below is an activity you can do on your own in order to develop communication skills in a foreign language using resources you have available to you right at your fingertips.  

Before you start practicing, it is important to keep in mind that successful communication requires a different part of your brain than where knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is stored, and thus requires different ‘studying’ techniques to be used while learning. We highly suggest supplementing your communicative learning with concrete and explicit grammar exercises to help you gain accuracy when speaking, but the following method is designed to help you access the part of your brain that deals with contextual learning rather than the part where rote memorisation (vocabulary and grammar rules) are stored.  

With this method, we encourage you to focus more on phrases and multi-word units rather than individual words in order to get a general ‘feel’ for the language. This will help you develop something known as native-like selection, or the ability to choose the most ‘natural’ sounding way to say a sentence to the native ear.  

Research has confirmed that that watching TV and films in your target language does at least somewhat make up for a lack of ‘authentic input.’ Earlier research also confirms that the language in films tends to correspond to the way native speakers talk in real life, and thus can provide a context for learning the social functions of a language. Applying the following learning methodology is thus a fun and effective way to gain exposure to your target language while increasing your repertoire of vocabulary and phrases you can understand and use while interacting in the future.  

  1. Start by identifying an interesting film or series that comes directly from the target language community. It is imperative that the film or series you choose is an authentic source, that is, made by native speakers of your target language, so you have a native source of input for your learning. Make sure that there are subtitles available in both your native language and the target language.  

Note: We suggest doing this exercise using a series with episodes between 20-30 minutes long, but if you are brave and want a challenge, you can try with a full-length film or longer TV episodes. For the purpose of this blog, we will use ‘episode’ to refer to the media you will be consuming.  

  1. Now, this next step depends on your language level. If you are a beginner, start by watching an episode or film with subtitles in your native language first. You need to be able to understand what is going on in the story before you make any attempt to focus on learning the language. Get a general gist of the plotline and try to pay attention to which words and phrases are used in which situations. If you are an upper-intermediate or advanced learner, you can skip this step if you feel comfortable enough and go straight to the next step.  
  1. Once you have an understanding of the storyline of what you are trying to watch, now you can begin focusing on the language. Switch the subtitles to the target language and watch the same episode or film again, directly after you watched it the first time. This time, you will have previous knowledge of the plot, which will allow you to focus your attention on the target language itself. 

You should be able to recognise words and phrases in the target language that you recall from your last watch through. As a very basic example, if you watched a film about a cat but did not know the word for ‘cat’ in your target language before, you should easily be able to recognise the word now when ‘cat’ is referred to in the episode.  

Note: Do not worry if you still do not understand much of what is being said, as this is common – simply being exposed to the language and knowing what is happening in the story is part of the learning journey. Re-watch the episode with subtitles in your native language and the target language as many times as you need to – this will be different for everyone.  

  1. The next part we cannot stress enough: repeat, repeat, repeat. This means identifying new phrases and expressions that you wish to learn and doing a bit of talking out loud to yourself over and over again. It may feel awkward, but trust us, this is a great way to improve your communication skills. Once you have identified the phrases you would like to learn, write them down along with their meanings. Replay this particular part of the episode over and over while trying to imitate the phrase exactly as it is said on screen. While you repeat, ask yourself the following:  

In which situation is this word or phrase being used?  
How do native speakers pronounce this word or phrase?  
How do their voices change when saying the phrase (intonation, tone, etc.)?  
Is there a direct translation of this word or phrase in my language?  

Answering these questions will help you improve your pronunciation of course, but an added benefit is that it will also help you understand the pragmatics of the phrases, that is, in which social contexts they are to be used and which social functions they fulfil. Repetition is essential as it serves to drill it into your memory.  

Undoubtedly, taking the time to practice your communication skills using TV and film can teach you new vocabulary, expressions, idioms, and even help you understand the use of certain grammatical structures. An added benefit is that by being exposed to authentic media from your target language community, you will also have the opportunity to learn about the culture.

If you enjoyed this method, feel free to leave your feedback below. Stay up-to-date with the LFLO project for useful resources that will support you on your socially-distant language learning journey. You can find out more at https://www.learninglanguages.eu/, and don’t forget to follow us on our social media channels:

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