Talk to strangers. Addressing language learning’s elephant in the room: Are you putting yourself in situations to use it?

Three years ago, I experienced a breakthrough in learning conversational Spanish. Little did I know the moment would also change my life, motivating me to bring similar breakthroughs to other language students. What happened? As you may have guessed from the title, I spoke with a stranger — Ernesto, from Costa Rica.

When it comes to languages, most learners are stuck studying by rote, eventually burning out. In order to improve — and for most learners, stay motivated — the language must be applied authentically and often.

Sitting across from Ernesto trying desperately to understand each other, I was no longer studying a language; I was living one, fully present, more stimulated by Spanish and culture than ever before… which brings me to the elephant in the room: How much are you, and if you’re an educator, your students, living the language through authentic conversations with native speakers?

Meet Raul.

A 19-year-old from Milagro, Ecuador, Raul — like most university students in Latin America and the U.S. — shared precious classroom minutes with classmates and was likely to spend less than 2 hours speaking English during the entire semester of his Intermediate English class.

Because he’s motivated to pass the FCE exam, get a great job — but more immediately — connect on a human level with Americans to learn about different culture, Raul has spent significant time exploring language technologies to get his English “flight hours” in. He discovered that many websites/apps have their time and place, but he’s desperate for conversation with live speakers, for which there was a gap. Like most language learners, he’d rather learn to communicate effectively than to perfect his reading and writing skills.

Ironically, even the technologies with some form of the word “speak” in their name fell short in delivering speaking practice. There were plenty of registered users in the networks, but he couldn’t find the signal among the noise without wasting an incredible amount of time. Instead, short-lived, impersonal, asynchronous messaging dominated.

Raul started speaking.

After being paired with a speaker partner, logging in synchronously, he finally broke through.

“Hello! My name is Raul and I’m excited to help you with your Spanish and practice my English.” he said, with a smile and wave. His heart pounded with excitement and nerves as he awaited a reply from his American speaking partner, an undergrad at Duke University enrolled in an intermediate Spanish class.

Rather than continue to study how to converse with an American in the future, Raul was finally experiencing one immediately. He didn’t even need to leave his grandmother’s kitchen, where he was wearing ear buds, speaking and gesticulating into his laptop screen.

It was the first virtual immersive conversation for Raul — needless to say his nerves and synapses were having a fireworks show. Speaking with a stranger in a foreign language over video chat is naturally beyond comfort zone at first— which is exactly the point.

A minute later, they settle into a fluid dialogue, communicating pretty effectively with little conversation guidance. Was it grammatically perfect? Of course not. Did they understand each other? More often than expected. Were they paying attention deeply, accessing verbs and tenses they didn’t even realize they learned in class, reaching a conversation flow they couldn’t have predicted would be possible with their current L2 level? Yes.

From these continued experiences, Raul has many friends in the U.S. and is progressing upwards in his intercultural competence spectrum. He’s exceedingly better at understanding spoken American English as well as expressing ideas in it. How did all of this happen?

· He started speaking right away — rather than getting too comfortable messaging his partners over text, he dove in.

· He became comfortable, taking chances with his sentences, talking to strangers whom he’ll probably never meet, from the comfort of his home. The anonymity was empowering; he had a safe space for making mistakes.

· He shared motivation and was accountable because another human was in the equation. Language became merely a tool for improved communication, rather than the endgame.

A challenge to you (and me).

We’re certainly in a new age of language learning. With the litany of new technology available, we must be honest with ourselves as we analyze a new product or approach — does it facilitate human moments, or does it distract us from them? If your goal is to effectively communicate with native speakers, I challenge you to continually reflect on this question as you choose how to spend your precious language-learning minutes.

“The technology you use impresses no one. The experience you create with it is everything.” –Sean Gerety

Saludos, Chris