Do I need native speakers?

Do I need native speakers?


When many of us start out trying to find language partners, we cross our fingers and hope for native speakers. After all, who could possibly know more about their language than a native?


In the ideal world, there would be roughly the same amount of people learning both languages. But one of the most common complaints I hear from Brazilians learning English is that there just aren’t enough native speakers around to practise with. There are simply more Portuguese speakers learning English than English speakers learning Portuguese.


This leads to many people just never starting to speak. They think that if they can’t find a native speaker, it’s just not worth starting at all.


I promise you, that isn’t true.


Native speakers often don’t know how their language works

Unless a native speaker has taught foreign learners, they probably have no idea how most of their grammar works. They know what sounds right. They know what seems natural. But they can’t explain it to someone else. If you can find a native English speaker who has never studied another language, ask them:


  • How do I know whether to use “someone”, “anyone” or “no one” in a sentence?


  • How do I know whether I should use “to do” or “to make”? Why do we ‘do’ laundry but ‘make’ the bed’? ‘Do’ a report but ‘make’ a statement?


  • What’s the difference between “I sang” and “I was singing”?


I bet you, they’ll kind of know. They’ll be able to tell you half the story or list examples, but they might not be able to tell you why.


With native speakers, you will probably get half the speaking time

If you do a language exchange with a native speaker, your time will be split in half. You will speak their language for half the time, and then they will speak yours. But if you’re both non-natives studying the same language, then both of you get to speak that language the whole time.


Non-native speakers will understand your struggles

For the same reason that native speakers don’t fully understand how their language works, they also don’t always understand how difficult certain parts of their language can be. If someone has always spoken a language with noun genders, or cases, or noun-counting particles, they just make sense. They take them for granted. It’s hard to imagine how they can be so hard for other people!


They might be sympathetic, but that doesn’t mean that they can necessarily explain things in a way that makes sense to you, or predict other things that might cause you difficulties as a speaker of your language. Having gone through the process themselves, non-natives might also have tips and tricks to memorise the rules (and the exceptions!) which a native speaker will never have needed to do.


You don’t need corrections as much as a listening ear

When I speak to a new person on Tandem, the first thing I ask them to do is “only correct me if the mistake changes the meaning of the sentence”.


It’s not about arrogance or about deluding myself that my language skills are already perfect. It’s about knowing that when we are speaking, most of the mistakes we make are things we already know. Of course, we know how to conjugate regular verbs in the present tense, we’ve bene studying them for years! But somehow, when we’re listening to other person, thinking about what we want to say, remembering all the right words and then putting them in the right order, we forget the basics.


The more we practise speaking, the easier it becomes to do all of those things at once. It’s like learning to drive. As a beginner, you wonder if you’ll ever remember everything you need to do inside and outside the car at the same time (or maybe that was just me…?) But after a while, changing the gears and parallel parking become second nature, and you don’t need to think about them anymore.


So, before you start worrying that a non-native isn’t going to be able to correct your mistakes, ask yourself the following question:


  • Am I aiming for accuracy or fluency?


If you want to prioritise accuracy, maybe you are best suited to a teacher (native or non-native) or a native speaker. But if you can’t find one, non-native is definitely, 100% better than nothing, and all conversation counts.



It’s a numbers game

As we never tire of saying at Tea with Me, the only way to get better at speaking is by speaking. There are no short cuts, and you can’t textbook study your way to spoken fluency.


We all know that the best way to make progress is to speak every single day. The more conversations you have, the better you will get. So, do whatever you can to give yourself the most opportunities to speak. Find other learners from your country. Find other learners from ANY country. You will get so much more value out of chatting every day with other learners than you will from one conversation a month with a native speaker.



What about when neither of us can speak the language well?

If you are two non-native speakers with a low level of your new language, then structure is really important. Learn words together and test each other. Prepare topics in advance. Watch the same video online and then practise what you’ve learnt together. Read this post and try some of these ideas. If you don’t know how to pronounce words, a lot of online dictionaries have audio with both US and UK pronunciations. But most importantly, celebrate that you’ve found someone to practise with, to support you, and to keep you company on your language learning journey.

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