Skype For Language Learning - Why You Need Less Of It

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Skype For Language Learning - Why You Need Less Of It

Do you really want to immerse yourself in a foreign language but travelling and being ‘location-independent’ isn’t a viable option for you?

Most people aren’t really able to travel around on a whim to learn languages due to work and family commitments.

Just about anybody who lives in a foreign language context is bound to pick up a decent amount of the language with a little motivation, but doing the same thing when you’re stuck in your own country is where the real challenge is.

I do notice a certain level of frustration from people on popular language blogs and forums who don’t have the luxury of being able to jump on a plane and live the life of a polyglot adventurer (and totally understand that frustration).

Apps like HelloTalk and sites like italki have really taken off in popularity lately in response to this.

I get emails all the time now from new startups asking me to promote their new site or app and almost all of them are about connecting people virtually.

This current technology trend in language learning products has a strong social focus. Just like online dating and Tinder-type apps, people want to remove not just the geographical constraints of finding conversation partners but also eliminate the process of meeting new people naturally.

I’ll be honest, as much as I love a lot of this technology for connecting with people online, I’m concerned that the Western world is becoming more and more socially inept because of technology. Too many people have forgotten (or never really learned) real, human relationship building.

The very common question that comes up in online circles is not “How can I find people to talk to?” but rather:

“What do I talk about?”

If you have to ask what to say to people then you don’t have a language learning problem.

You have a social problem.

Social apps and Skype will never even remotely compare to in-person relationships

Like I said, I love sites like italki.

But I’m going to come right out and say that even though you’re talking face-to-face with a person over Skype and that’s great, there is so much you simply cannot learn without physically being together.

I said recently that I pride myself on taking a very holistic approach to language learning.

I reject the idea that you can genuinely learn a language minus the cultural immersion aspect (which takes a very long time).

So no, you can’t genuinely learn a language in a few months. Period.

Anyone who says otherwise is after your wallet.

Human interaction is an incredibly deep and complex thing that goes far beyond simply memorizing a bunch of words, phrases and rules.

For example, you’ll never learn things like body language, proximity, the way native speakers interact with each other both in pairs and in groups, age factors, gender factors, religious and cultural factors all of which heavily influence the way people communicate.

You’ll never learn the intricate nuances and (oh so importantly) humor.

These are things that you observe by living it and being around it – a webcam will only give you a fraction of a glimpse.

The feeling I get when I hear people ‘phrasebook hack’ a language in a few months is that it’s totally sterile and lifeless.

It’s robotic, lacking any character or spirit. Communicating simply as a means to an end.

Many of us don’t need to travel to physically meet people

Unless you live right out in the boonies or are learning an obscure language, meeting people in person is not as much of a challenge these days as it used to be.

You’d be surprised just how many people from your target language community live in or near your own city (especially if you’re from the US, Australia, Canada or Europe). After spending some time in the US for example, I’m shocked that so many Americans say they can’t meet native Spanish speakers.

Are you kidding me?

My first impression coming to the States was that this is paradise for Spanish learners.

The demographics of the Western world has changed rapidly over recent years to the point where every major language and many minor languages are represented by local communities in most major cities.

It’s easier now than ever before to be immersed in your target language without ever having to globe-trot.

Or sit in front of a computer screen.

How to get connected to your target language community locally

Where there’s a will there’s a way.

If you’re out and about in a city where there are lots of ethnic groups and you’re actively seeking them out on a daily basis, you’ll find the people you’re looking for.

I always say that when you’re looking for something intently, it finds you.

There are of course lots of different options such as:

  • I use this in my hometown back home and there are lots of different options for language-focused meetups.
  • Check out classified sites like Gumtree (UK, Australia, NZ, South Africa), Kijiji and Craigslist and look for language swapping/exchange. There are often loads of foreign students needing language help in your area who are eager to meet up with you and exchange languages for free.
  • In addition to this you can use community notice boards on university campuses to advertise yourself as a language swap partner or ESL tutor.
  • Join ethnic/cultural clubs. Most of the major migrant communities in my city have a social club for their own people, but they’re usually open to everybody from the public. A simple Google search for clubs in your town should help you find them (in my smallish city I’ve attended German, Irish, Greek, Italian and Turkish clubs for example and there are lots more I haven’t been to). Call them up and see what events are coming up or if they can help you find teachers.
  • Attend ethnic churches/mosques/temples. When I started learning Arabic I used to attend an Arab church and listen to the liturgy, songs and prayers in Arabic even though I didn’t understand anything at the time. I built strong friendships and picked up a lot of language by getting involved. I also used to go for free lunch at the local Buddhist temple with my Mandarin teacher and met a lot of the local Chinese community too.
  • Restaurant and shop owners. Go down to your local Italian/Chinese/Thai/whatever restaurant and test out your language on the people who work there. Do what I do and ask them if they know anybody in their community who’d be willing to help you learn. I’ve made good friends and language exchange partners by doing this (I was able to find a Tigrinyan language teacher through a local Ethiopian restaurant owner when I’d exhausted all other options a few years back).
  • Host CouchSurfers. I’ve done this once before and it was a great way to meet native speakers.

Or you could be creative and do something like this: 🙂

A photo posted by Donovan Nagel (@mezzoguild)

I had a few of these shirts made as a kind of experiment to see how they go just out and about around town.

Will random Arabic speakers in the street react to it?

Just walking around the Portland area (where there actually aren’t many Arabs at all) I was quite amazed at how effective it was in getting randoms to speak Arabic to me.

But it wasn’t necessarily about having a t-shirt.

What it did was show me that the willingness of people is there – it’s just up to you to be proactive in seeking people out.

So instead of echoing the crowd and advising you to do X number of hours on Skype this week, I challenge you to physically meet somebody.

F**k Skype.

Go and shake hands with somebody.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Long time reader, first time commenter. Your best post yet. You have hit your stride.

I studied French in high school and college. It took me ten years to understand real life French.

I’ve never formally studied Spanish. I lived in Miami and California. I listened to Pimsleur on the way to work and just interacted with the people wherever I went. In a matter of months, natives thought I was fluent and disagreed with me when I said I wasn’t. Language is wrapped up in body language, facial expressions and the values of that culture. I lived it and lived with the people. Now, I can’t get Spanish out of my head. Sometimes I have to say it in Spanish to remember the English word.

Great post. Get out and touch somebody (with their permission of course).


προσκλητηρια γαμου

προσκλητηρια γαμου

Ok i agree partially with your opinion and i’m in full agreement with you that meeting people and speak face to face is far better than skype sessions.
The problem is that not all of us live in big cosmopolitan cities with 100’s of foreigners ready to start a conversation. I live for example in a small 30K city and although there are some foreigners no-one speaks the language i want to learn (Portuguese).
To be honest it is quite hard to find serious partners for language exchange via Skype, even on big specialized web sites. Most of the people i contact are not serious and disappear after one-two sessions...



What languages are spoken in your small town? Have you been pulled to learn that/those languages?



I do agree that Skype isn’t really an adequate substitute. You can at best learn the 10% of the language that’s spoken like that, the other 90% or so of the language is going to get relatively little out of.

That being said, as you improve your listening skills you gain access to moves that would help a bit.

For those that need it, Skype is great, but as you note, it’s not really a substitute for human interaction for the remaining bits of the language. There is something to be said for pretending to be one of the locals at times.



i like both skype other person or physically meet people ...i want to learn both chinese and english ....i live in malaysia ...i am arabic . if someone knows english and live near me we can share our languages



The question “what do I talk about” could be more concerned with tutoring topics. Once the topic is established, perhaps people manage just fine in the conversation. An argument could be made that Skype chats help real-world interaction, much like a form of practice or a type of training wheels for those who really do have a hard time in real interaction.
But your overall point is spot-on. “There is so much you simply cannot learn without physically being together” - well said. Pseudo-communicative activities, even the most life-like, simply aren’t the real thing, and there are many necessary pressures that must be dealt with only in real-time scenarios.

“You can’t genuinely learn a language in a few months. Anyone who says otherwise is after your wallet.” What? Are you saying I can’t be fluent, spending 30 minutes a day, of just 3 levels of Pimsleur???

Perhaps you have read about Daniel Everett and his time with the Piraha language? He was a missionary, and already a seasoned, highly motivated linguist well-versed in Chomskyan theory, to a people in South America. The Piraha language was notoriously difficult to learn, where some had tried to learn before but had failed. Everett was on the same dismal path as those before him when he realized what was holding him back - deep intimacy with the culture. “Suddenly something became clear to Everett: his decision to confine himself to village life and simply to learn their language was the source of his problem. Their language could not be separated from their method of hunting, their culture, their daily habits...Participating in their lives as if he was one of their children, the language came alive from within, and he began to make the kind of progress in Piraha that had eluded everyone else before him” (from Robert Greene’s “Mastery” p. 73-74). “The conclusion that he drew from this, one that would provoke much controversy within the field of linguistics, is that culture plays an enormous role in the development of language, and that languages are more different than we have imagined. Although there are certainly common aspects to all human languages, there can be no universal grammar that overrides the relevance of culture. Such a conclusion, he determined, can only come through years of intense fieldwork. Those who make assumptions from far away, based on universal theories, do not see the whole picture. It takes great time and effort to see the differences, to participate in a culture. And because it is so much harder to perceive these differences, culture has not been given its due as one of the primary shaping forces for language and for how we experience the world” (Mastery 302).

And lastly from his fittingly named book -Language: The Cultural Tool- “But if I am right, language is in the first instance a tool for thinking and communicating and, though it is based in human psychology, it is crucially shaped from human cultures. It is a cultural tool as well as a cognitive tool” (23).

Makes me happy that my professors advocated situated-learning, which is basically an apprenticeship model, and, much to my pleasure, avoided Chomsky.

Lev Vygotsky’s work in sociocultural theory is worth mentioning as well - very underrated in my opinion.

And what are you talking about? Skype frickin’ rules, dude.

Good post, keep em comin

Natalie K.

Natalie K.

OMG I agree so much with this post. I love Skype as much as the next person, but there’s no substitute for meeting people in person. And how can someone not be able to find Spanish speakers in the US???? There are so many of them here and it’s awesome! I actually want to start learning Spanish to talk to be able to talk to them.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Thanks Natalie!

If I end up staying (CA) long-term in the near future then I’ll definitely learn Spanish as well just to communicate with all the Mexicans here.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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