I don’t have anyone to practice speaking with!

I don’t have anyone to practice speaking with!

Yes, you study your vocab, you crammed in the grammar, but let’s be honest ‘that doesn’t mean you know how to speak it.‘ Conversing and practicing how to speak a language is one of the most crucial parts of language learning. If you’ve ever been to a language school, you might have heard your teacher only use your target language. The reason behind that is that you are supposed to ‘pick up the language as a child would do.’ Children learn without even understanding the concept of grammar. They don’t realize that they are fed new words and are fearlessly soaking in one word after the other. Once we are over that phase, once we grasp that there are ‘words and expressions our brain should remember,’ we stop simply absorbing those words. Once we become aware of ‘making mistakes,’ we put an end to throwing around with funny words that aren’t quite correct. We obediently study vocab from the books and try to get the grammar right.

What we often realize too late is that we aren’t actively using our vocabulary by speaking the foreign language. This goes so far that we go on vacation, only to stand in front of a barista, trying to get these words out, these sentences that we ‘should know’ and ‘learned at some point.’ That is the moment when most of us wish they had practiced speaking with someone. But ‘I don’t have anyone to practice with!!!’.

This is the easy way out of this dilemma. It is what it is, right?

Well, if you want to stay where you’re at with your skills, yes.  On the other hand, there are so many ways to find native or anyone who knows the language a little (I’ll explain why this makes sense later on).

Anyway, I don’t want you to get stuck at this point of ‘not having anyone to practice with.’ 

Globalization and technology have made it so much easier to find a so-called language exchange partner and I’d like to show you how.

First, you should think of whether you’d like to pay for finding a tutor, class, or teacher. I’m assuming that’s not why you’re reading this, even though they can be great ways to practice your speaking and I use them regularly!

What is another way?

How about finding a tandem partner or a language exchange partner? What does that mean anyway? Basically, those are people who want to learn and practice a language themselves. You could offer your native language (or a language you’re highly skilled at speaking) in exchange for practicing with that person in their mother tongue.

I have had such exchange partners and you can meet them in person and offline.

The idea behind this would be that when you meet in person at a café to practice, you speak in each respective language for the same amount of time, e.g. 30 minutes in English and 30 min in Portuguese. That way, both parties benefit from practicing a language and help someone out at the same time by offering your own skills.

Where would you find a person to meet in person?

I would search for them in Facebook groups. Those could be student groups or maybe your city even has a tandem or language exchange group. You could also google ‘French speakers in Barcelona’ or something like that, then join that group and post about wanting to find a language partner.

Another option would be people on Couchsurfing. As I’ve said repeatedly, there are so many more ways to use the site than just staying at someone’s place or hosting a traveler. I have made many friends through the website. Many people on there speak several languages and you could try and find someone who’s either staying in your hometown or passing through to meet up and practice language exchange.

The easiest would be if you are studying or working in an international circle, so you could simply ask one of your fellow students or coworkers. Those are your options for meeting people face-to-face.

Another way to find language exchange partners is through apps or websites that specifically cater to that (seriously, isn’t there an app for everything these days?). This means you don’t have to meet up in person to carry out a language exchange but can connect with someone from the comfort of your home. 

One of the apps that works with this concept is HelloTalk. You will create a profile, stating the languages you speak and can then chose which ones you would like to practice. The app will then show you possible ‘matches,’ and you can contact the people. Don’t hesitate to start texting in a foreign language. The app comes with translation and transcription features of the chat messages so that you will be able to communicate smoothly. You will be able to correct each other’s’ chat messages so that you get feedback right away (and the correction you wish people would give you when you actually do speak to a native speaker). 

Another app that works that way is called Tandem. It works in a similar way as HelloTalk and is rated just as high. I always think you should check for yourself to see whether you like the design of the app and of course, whether you can find a language partner, so I cannot tell you which one is ‘better’.

Both apps have pretty large communities, so you should be able to find a language partner.

Lastly, I can give you one other piece of advice: When I was in high school, my best friend was really gifted with languages. We’d often chat in whichever language we felt like speaking/practicing. It can really lower your fear of making mistakes as the other person isn’t necessarily a native speaker either, so both of you are practicing/learning. You will still learn and it’s especially helpful to start using specific phrases that you are currently studying and by noticing each other’s mistakes. You might be able to get a lot corrected between the levels of the two of you!

Again, I also did that when I was traveling, especially in Australia. I was determined to become fully fluent in English, so whenever I met another German, I told them that I was only going to speak English to them. Many of them went with it and we spoke English 100% of the time. I wouldn’t mix the languages as that would be weird. With some of these friends, I speak English to this day as I’m so used to hearing them speak English and when they speak German, they seem like a different person.

And when all else fails – you can always talk to your cat or dog or even your favorite plant! (yes, I’m serious!!!). They won’t respond back to you, but you will feel at ease talking to them.  (They might even learn to respond to your commands – I once had an American student who started speaking German to his cat!)

You can also think in the language that you want to practice. It is an option that I have used a lot. Having said that, I still believe that speaking words out loud works a lot better than leaving them traveling through your brain in silence😊 It can help you to get more used to having the language around you and in your life and you are actually producing it. 

There are a ton more apps and websites to help you find your language exchange partner. From personal experience, I believe no one will fit all and you’d have to do a little Google research to find the app/website that fits your needs.

I did not want to give you a complete list or your digital options but rather showcase that you can indeed find people to practice a foreign language with. Don’t let that point stand in your way!

Happy language learning 😊

Duolingo hacking – how to get the most out of the app

I’m sure you’ve heard of Duolingo. It’s probably the first self-study app you’d hear from anyone you’d ask ‘How should I start learning X language?’

I’ve always been doubtful about the quality of the app. It seemed repetitively trying to cram vocabulary into my brain with seemingly useless sentences like ‘O travesseiro não fala’ – ‘The pillow doesn’t speak.’ one of the first sentences I learned in Portuguese. Most people I’ve talked to told me that despite having used Duolingo for months they still couldn’t string a simple sentence together. ‘You don’t learn how to speak with Duolingo.’

Myself, I started several languages on the app… and also felt as if I didn’t really learn much. I had installed the app, deleted it, installed it again, tried another language only to trash the app again.

One belief I hold to this day is that Duolingo is an app best for anyone who hasn’t studied much of the new language. If you’re trying to ‘refresh’ your skills you might have a hard time as you won’t be able to study exactly the topic you want as Duolingo forces its curriculum onto you, i.e. you have to start in the beginning, going through category by category. Yes, there is also the option to ‘test out’ to pass some of the categories but I still never thought that the level and what I was taught was helpful.

This was until I seriously started Portuguese, a language I had no previous knowledge of. And Duolingo was the first resource I could think of. At first, I was just playing around with the app and the sentence mentioned above regarding the non-sleeping pillow didn’t help to convince me for the better.

Overtime (and because my ‘daily routine‘ made me stick to it) I changed my mind though. I finally found value in the app for myself.


I learned that it’s not all about the content and Duolingo’s structure.
It’s about how you make use of it.

Just in case you don’t know how the app works, here’s a little recap: You open a lesson, get a sentence to translate and then diligently drag and drop the words into the correct order. Or you get 4 pictures and have to match the correct one to the word shown and spoken. Eventually (if you make it that far), around levels 3 and 4 you then have to write down the actual words without seeing them just juggled up. I hardly made it there in any language except for Portuguese.

As I’m writing this there is now a function to avoid the drag-and-drop system and use the keyboard to write out the answer

What do you learn through this? Your ability to ‘guess’ the right word and word order? Some passive understanding so that you can recognize some words when they’re written down. When will you have the chance to use that in the real world?!

Ok, I’m sure if you’ve tried the app you know what I mean (and in case you haven’t, you’re probably not even thinking about trying it out right now). Let me suggest some other ways to get a bit more out of your experience.

First of all, this is the advice even Duolingo gives you repeatedly. You have to speak the words and sentences out loud.

You might be thinking ‘duh’ but notice how often you actually do it?!

And how?!

I often heard students speaking in a somewhat monotone voice, dragging themselves through the exercise – which is exactly what it then resembles. An exercise. Something you ‘have to do’ because a teacher, or in this case an ‘app’ tells you to do it.

One of the most important study strategies that I’ve adopted over the years is, that I feel into the language. I pretend to be a native speaker and keep a certain posture imagining how I’d produce a sentence naturally and effortlessly.

But I don’t know how to say anything yet you might say!’

That’s where those sentences come in that Duolingo teaches you and where you have to change the way you think about studying a little. Every time you hear a sentence (and make sure that you allow for listening exercises and audio) you should repeat the sentences as if you were in a situation in which it would be applied. ‘The pillow doesn’t speak’. As idiotic as that sentence might sound, you could imagine being in a room, hearing a strange noise and confusedly exclaiming ‘The pillow doesn’t speak!’ (so then what was that noise)?

Also make sure to say the sentence at least twice at different speeds, voices, attitudes. That makes it easier for your brain to remember it (instead of speaking with a somewhat ‘lifeless’ or diligently studious voice – no wonder your brain wants to forget about that!)

Imagine you’re in the country, surrounded by other native speakers and that the language you’re trying to speak is not something that takes a lot of effort and that you truly enjoy. If you struggle to pronounce some sounds, repeat them over and over again at different speeds until you feel more comfortable. You don’t have to be perfect to pretend to be a native speaker. You can always iron out some creases later!

One prerequisite for this to work is that you have to have a certain image of the country, a feeling for its culture and the sound of the language. That shouldn’t pose a problem in the age of YouTube, Spotify, etc.  You can listen to the audio of the new language you want to learn, even if you don’t understand a single word. The goal is to become familiar with the sound of the language, it’s rhythm, speed, etc. so that it’s easier for you to imitate a native speaker and to learn to enjoy speaking the language instead of seeing it as a task! Have fun with it!!!

And, yes, you can see how the beloved role-play that we teachers like to pester students with in-class can come in handy. And at least with Duolingo, you don’t have to perform in front of anyone 😉

One little extra tip: When doing the listening exercises, you will encounter the speaker sign and the turtle sign. The turtle sign will slow down the sentence. I suggest to only use this if you tried the regular audio at least twice! The slowed-down version of the sentence sounds a little robotic at times and won’t help you get that feeling for the language (plus remember that people in real life will never speak like that)

Next, let’s talk about typing. That was a gamechanger for me as well. You have two options. The lazy one or the one that will help you master writing (your choice). You can either set the keyboard into the language you’re learning or you leave it in your mother tongue. By changing it into the language you’re learning you’ll automatically get the right spelling suggested as well as likely follow-up words, just as if you were typing in your own language. The more often you write one sentence, the more the keyboard will remember it and suggest you the correct words the next time you attempt this exact sentence. You can guess for yourself how much you’re learning from that. 

English words won’t help me guess the right Portuguese one here

Now onto the challenge. Say you’re learning Portuguese and use the English keyboard. Like this, it won’t remember the Portuguese and you will not get any suggestions on ‘autocorrecting’ what you’re writing. Yes, it takes more effort. But that effort will also redeem itself. I personally learn more when I write down foreign words letter by letter than when I just let them autofill themselves. Handwriting would technically still be better but let’s stay realistic and keep it to what you can – and will – actually do.

Another ‘study method’ I discovered for myself has to do with the order in which I work on different categories and levels. Yes, Duolingo sets that up for you but who says you can’t ‘personalize’ that and adapt it to your needs.

Personally, I like to start with an intermediate lesson to get started, followed by an advanced one and then an easy one. I’m referring to the levels here (0-5). If you have certain lessons at a higher level, you’ll know what I’m talking about. At level 4, the motivation to get through a lesson will probably be a little lower as it takes a lot longer and more effort from your side than at level 1 which you can almost do eyes closed.

So, if I have some level 2, 3 and 4 lessons, I’ll start with a level 3 exercise, then one (or several) in level 4 and then one (or more) in level 2 to wind down and feel the fun of the language. Again, this depends on how your brain, motivation, and energy work best. Just try different versions and then stick to your preferred one. That will help to make your Duolingo study seem a little more ‘structured’ than just randomly clicking on a lesson.

I also chose categories that seem to go well together or maybe not at all. Sometimes I might study two different tenses in a row, just to make my brain work a little more and really challenge it. Or I take one ‘grammar’ lesson, then one vocabulary one (personally, I prefer the grammar ones, but that’s my geeky language brain).

Talking about lessons in general. When you work on a single category you might notice that the sentences repeat themselves a lot. Working through the Portuguese Duolingo I figured out that usually, two lessons will contain different sentences after which they start repeating themselves. That means to avoid getting bored, do a maximum of 2 lessons per level. Let’s say you have 15 lessons in total to do for level 3 in the category ‘animals’. You can do lesson 1 and 2 in level 3 and then move to another category. Come back to the category animals a few days later.

Again, I use a strategy regarding different categories and levels. When I start a level or a category, I’ll repeat it more often, say every day and once I did a few lessons, I’ll only work on the same category a few days later. This is how all the language apps work where you can study flashcards using the ‘spaced repetition system‘. First, you repeat the words a lot, later they show up only a week later, then a month later, etc.… You can create that for yourself in Duolingo. I hope you can see that I try to spread out which categories I’m working on instead of pressing through all lessons and levels in one category. That won’t make you remember the words in the long-term.

Ok, this was a long post.

Let me give you a little summary in case you couldn’t hold your attention span for that long….

How to get the most out of your Duolingo study:

  1. Read every word and sentence out loud
  2. Imagine and pretend to be a native speaker and ‘role play’ the sentences
  3. Try and mainly listen to the audio at the real speed. Only use the turtle (slower audio) when you cannot follow after listening several times
  4. Adjust your keyboard so that you don’t automatically get word suggestions or your own writing autocorrected
  5. Find your personal structure regarding in which levels you’re working. The one I recommend is to start with a medium-level exercise, then an advanced one and finally an easy one.
  6. Also, think about the different categories. Create your own ‘spaced-repetition’ system, so that you create a long-lasting language memory.

Last but not least let me tell you a little trick:

If, for whatever reason you want to jump over a level, i.e. because the sentences are too repetitive or not useful, there is a way to do it faster.

You might have seen the ‘key’ sign where you pay 5 lingots and then test out of that level to get to the next one. You still have to do that. However, in order to not make too many mistakes, do two lessons of that level and then try to ‘test out’ and skip the rest of the lessons. Usually, your ‘test’ will include the sentences and words you practiced in those two lessons, helping you to pass. Again, use your own judgment whether that’s what you want to do 😉

I hope that helped! Let me know whether you’re getting more out of Duolingo now or if you have further suggestions.

And don’t forget that Duolingo isn’t the only way to study. It’s one of the most convenient one and a good way to start out. However, I’d also pair it with other apps, online-courses, actual language classes, books, watching movies/vlogs, etc.…

PS: In case you’re wondering, there is some use in learning meaningless sentences such as ‘The pillow doesn’t speak’.  It’s actually a teaching strategy that I learned when I was in Japan. To break a sometimes beautiful, yet artificial lesson as you only talk about words and sentences that fit well together, you throw in some words that throw off the students. They’ll be surprised, confused but they’ll also pay more attention again. I can only guess that Duolingo tries to do the same. And hey, I’ll never ever forget the words of ‘O travesseiro não fala’ 😉

What it’s like to speak several languages – the good and the challenging

I love learning and speaking foreign languages. To me, it’s like air to breathe (I’m being overdramatic but in a way it is). And I love empowering people to learn different languages!

I thought I wanted to give a little insight into what it means (to me) to speak different languages. As amazing as it is, there’s a few challenges and some funny things happening (see the last point ;)).

Let’s start with the obvious 😉

You’ll be able to travel much more smoothly if you speak the language of the country you are in.

Speaking Spanish has helped me a lot while traveling South-America as I was able to have nice small talk with people who’d help me out when I needed information or when it came down to haggling for prices (because you should if you want a good price). In Japan, I was able to travel to regions with little tourism and always managed to find my way around as I was able to communicate everything in Japanese. In general, I think being able to talk to locals make the trip more valuable as you will be able to get information first hand and learn more about the local culture.

Speaking several languages will help you find friends more easily in other countries and feel accepted and integrated more easily

I do generally think that I get accepted and make local friends rather quickly when I speak their language. These days most people speak English, so it really isn’t that much of a problem when you talk to a person one-on-one, however, once you start hanging out in a group of locals, you feel much better when you can simply tune in with what they’re talking about

It also allows you to follow sports classes and other events/activities more easily, making you feel more connected and at home in the new country. You might also have it easier with local authorities when speaking their language (there can be some ‘racism’ against not speaking the local language in countries at times)

The downside?

As I am not 100% fluent in most languages, people don’t necessarily slow down for me and will end up chatting my ear off, using a lot of technical vocabulary and slang, with me only understanding half of what they’re saying. It is very difficult going back to ‘I know I can speak quite quickly to you and express what I want, but I actually don’t understand you with your slang and speed’. 

When you only know a few words, people often try harder to make themselves understood.

The same goes with regards to ‘working proficiency‘. There were countless amount of times I had people say ‘wow you can use all of these languages for work’. And I had to let them know, that having a working proficiency in a language is completely different from being able to have conversations. Many languages use a different tone in more ‘professional environments’, especially Japanese, which means you have to study and prepare yourself accordingly to that. I am very greatful for example that I had Business English at university for 4 semesters, which was completely different to a regular class.

And because of these reasons, we get to the next point:

Sometimes I feel a little more distant to what I am saying when I am speaking a different language.

After all, this is not my mother tongue and I am ‘practicing’ so in a way I can feel less of the weight of the words I am using. I often have the feeling that I am rather blunt when I speak a language that I haven’t ‘fine-tuned’ yet.

I also feel as if the bonds I form with people who I speak German or English to are somewhat closer than people I speak other languages to as there is more ‘emotional connection’ for me in my native/near-native tongues. Again it usually makes me motivated to study more but it can be a bit of a struggle in the beginning.

You might start talking in a mix of languages and become lazy to think about the real word in the language you’re speaking in.

I have that problem with German, my native language. I don’t speak it very much and speak and think in English 99% of the time. However, when I then speak German, I will often end up throwing in lots of English words, because I expect the other person to understand what I am talking about. As this is often the case, I never actually pause to think about the correct word, which can damage your language ability. I do think however , that, once you take the time to focus on just one language again, you can improve in that regard.

Fun fact: my thoughts also go crazy and appear in all random languages. Though I usually think in English, there are many random words, may they be in French, Japanese or any other languages that pop up in my thoughts as well. I do find it amusing but am also aware of the danger I described above.

The more languages you speak, the harder it is to keep all of them at the level you left off after studying

This one is becoming bigger and bigger for me as I keep adding new languages to my portfolio. I love studying new languages, yet that often comes at the cost of another language. I remember being in Japan, having gotten to a conversational level, when one time I wanted to speak a few sentences of Spanish – and Japanese came out. I was shocked because my Spanish had always been pretty good but I simply couldn’t make the switch at that point. Now that I am in South-America, the opposite is happening and I have trouble keeping up my Japanese.

To overcome this, I spend time daily studying several languages, not necessarily to get much better at them but to keep my current level. That can be pretty time-consuming and challenging, especially to find people to talk to in that language but for me, it is worth it!

Language study has taught me a lot of discipline

To get to where I am at today, I had to learn to create a strong language learning habit. I realized that daily repetition and practice was the key to making steady progress in language learning. I created plans and schedules on when and what to study and have become very disciplined through that. This has also helped me in other areas of life, making me diligent and organized.

One point that people sometimes seem to forget is that it is not only about ‘speaking’ a foreign language:

You can access more global information in its original language

Of course, you have the chance to talk to more people, but what I also find fascinating is that I can do research in several languages or watch movies or documentaries that I cannot find in my mother tongue. Sometimes words get lost in translation, so it is always amazing when I can read/hear information in its original language.

And a little interesting point you might never have thought about:

The digital world and social media environment will notice your multilingual skills eventually .

Your spam might suddenly come in 5 different languages. Facebook might advertise you to work as a Japanese chat-representative or remind you not to forget your ‘Spanish mother tongue’. I am finding it hilarious and sometimes slightly confusing when ads pop all relating to all and in all sorts of languages. At least one thing Facebook hasn’t figured out about me so far 😉

I hope I could give you some insights into the ‘language jungle’ in my brain and probably a lot of other polyglots. I guess we wouldn’t want to have it any other way 😉

I’d love to hear if you have any other thoughts on this, so please comment!

Hello there!

Welcome to my new blog. You might not believe it’s taken me 10 years to finally write about my experiences abroad.

I always thought there are more than enough blogs out there, who’d want to hear my opinion among the millions of opinions out there?

But then I noticed how people have started asking me the same questions over and over again and how I had some information that others maybe didn’t.

So voilà here comes my blog 🙂

I remember starting to travel, thinking I’d become a changed person just like that.

And then I nocticed that I had changed but not as much as I thought I would and not intentionally towards who I wanted to become. And eventually I realized that I actually have to work on myself and not just let time shape me (I know I wanted it the lazy way ;)). So you will find posts on mindfulness (thus my blog’s name), personal development, yoga, meditation and whatever else I can think of! Be curious and open 🙂

So as you can see this won’t just be a travel blog. I am really passionate about all the aspects of being abroad. I will share those through travel stories, travel advice posts and more.

Furthermore, as I am a super passionate language learner (you might call me a polyglot) and an English teacher I’ll also share my language learning strategies, keeping a study habit and motivation 🙂

In case you’re curious: I know English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and (Brazilian) Portuguese. All languages are at different levels but I would be able to hold conversations in all of them.

Hope you enjoy reading my blog!