I should definitely begin by saying two things:
- The presence of native speakers in your target language can only do good things, except if they are monumentally discouraging you to learn their language (which almost all of them are not).
- You absolutely DO need to hear native speaker VOICES in order to learn a language, what this article is about is whether you actually need human beings.
I considered not writing this article, but given that there are so many people that rule out languages they want to learn because they worry they won’t encounter native speakers anywhere, I thought this needed to be written.
In a significant amount of the languages that I speak fluently, I have never conversed with a native speaker of the language. Let’s count them:
Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I HAVE used with Native Speakers:
English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Finnish, German, Spanish, Breton(!), Irish, Icelandic, Greenlandic (phone conversations only), Polish, French, Welsh, Ukrainian, Russian, Northern Sami (!!!!), Myanmar / Burmese, Tajik, Slovak, Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil
Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have NOT used with native speakers:
Pijin, Bislama, Cornish (okay, that one time with the guy who spoke a few words, but he wasn’t a native), Scottish Gaelic (okay, same situation as Cornish, but he spoke more than a few words), Guarani, Tahitian, Mossi (although I met a possible native speaker once but before I knew this language existed), Tongan, Rapa Nui, Palauan, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Bileez Kriol
Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have used with other speakers of the language, but NOT natives:
Tok Pisin, Faroese, Lao, Trinidadian Creole (second-generation people with roots in various Caribbean nations, this situation is unbearably complicated!)
And this list becomes even more iffy when you take into account that, in some areas, it matters that you are a FLUENT speaker rather than a native. This is especially the case for Creole Languages, that function as mini-Global Languages in the areas that they are spoken (which explains why in places like Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin is more widely spoken than Standard English. This is true wherever Creoles are spoken, in my understanding).
To write for Finnish Wikipedia, it is pretty much required that you be a native speaker or have your work edited by one (same for English or many other languages, actually). However, for Tok Pisin Wikipedia, it is just required that you are fluent, you don’t need Tok Pisin to be your native language.
And now to return back to the topic at hand!
You CAN learn a language very well or even to fluency without ever having encountered a native speaker in your target language ever. (I’ve done it several times.)
That said, I should issue warnings and pieces of advice in the event that you’d like to undertake this route. But sometimes this route is necessary. Maybe you really want to learn a language that you just can’t get exposed to except through the Internet. I highly encourage that route, as long as you keep the following in mind:
- Listen Intently to the Way that Native Speakers Talk!
You may be able to learn a language without encountering any real-life native speakers, but you WILL have to encounter VIRTUAL native speakers at one point (e.g. your target language spoken on the radio, used in movies or in other forms of online media). To that end, you’ll need to listen intently:
How do the people who speak this language formulate their vowels? How do they deal with syllable stress? How are various consonants (such as r or t or the equivalent) pronounced differently than in languages you already know well? What accents that you recognize resemble the one you are listening to?
The best thing to do is to imitate the voices you hear. In some cases you may have some learner audio. In the event that you don’t, you can almost ALWAYS find samples of the language online (spoken or sung or what-have-you) and imitate that by repeating the syllables one after the other.
You learned your first language with mimicry, and don’t be afraid to learn your 2nd or even your 19th with mimicry as well.
- Practice Conversations with Yourself
I can walk into almost any language exchange in the world and find an opportunity to give a stump speech about myself in a language like Spanish. At least where I am, I don’t have that luxury for Bislama or Breton.
So what did I do?
I practiced talking to myself as if I were introducing myself to someone. You can even have a little dialogue in your head, but this is not recommended unless you are under very dire circumstances (e.g. stuck in a job where you cannot talk unless you absolutely must). Write down words that serve as gaps in your vocabulary and look them up later.
To find out if your sentences are correct, compare them to what you can find in your textbooks or online (or, in the case of the rarest languages, Bible translations, which also exist for too many other languages to list, literally everywhere).
Feel free to also bounce off sentences in the language you are learning off of like-minded friends. Ask them to do the same if they are learning…well, any language at all, to be honest.
- Double Your Exposure with Media for Languages that You Don’t Rehearse in Conversation as Often
If you want to become conversant in this language, good news: there certainly is a way. But you need to listen to your language even more intently and with increasing frequency.
When I was learning Tok Pisin and Greenlandic in the elementary stages, I acquired a LOT of musical tracks in both languages and had them crowd my SIM-Card. The practice I wasn’t getting at polyglot events was made up for with exposure to the language I had during my commute or just while walking down the street.
You’d be surprised about how much passive vocabulary you can really acquire from this (you’re going to have to look at dictionaries from time-to-time and see how many words are vaguely familiar with the “Oh! I remember hearing that word in a song once!” flavor).
You may not have exposure to native speakers to hone your accent, but you do have recordings, and they can be as equally useful. (And besides, a lot of people don’t really imitate native speakers that well anyway or put a lot of effort into accent development unless they have to. This laziness is just how humanity is most of the time).
Absolutely essential. And if you have the courage to put your recordings of you speaking your target language on a video site, all the more power to you. And you can even find Reddit communities where your target language is spoken and they can give you feedback a lot of the time. That’s how I became world-famous all over Palau!
If you can compare your recordings to that of native speakers, either talking or singing, that is even better!
- If you find close-up videos of native speakers talking, imitate their mouth movements.
I don’t think that requires much further explanation.
- Having trouble with a sound you don’t know? Find guides. Or just fake the sound until something like it comes to you.
You may want to learn a language with that guttural q or click sounds but don’t know how to pronounce it. Guides will help you, even if you can’t find native speakers who can.
Or another thing you could do is somehow try to find the mouth-movements that closely mimic them. You’d be surprised to learn that you can actually train your mouth to learn new sounds well into your adulthood and for the rest of your life!
I’ve coached singers to sing in Greenlandic and they managed the hardest sounds of the language (q and ll and rr) with great ease once I told them what to do with their mouth. Even if you can’t find a native speaker, you can find a guide somewhere because a lot of these sounds are more common in languages throughout the world than you think (Those sounds I just mentioned in Greenlandic are not unique to the language at all, appearing in dozens if not hundreds of others!)
- In the Event of a Tonal Language, Rehearse Tones with Ruthless Imitation in the Same Way as (1)
People who want to try to say that tonal languages are not suitable for self-study are lying. It may indeed be HARDER, but with enough training your love will conquer all.
The key is to repeat very often. Very, very often. Like a piano piece you have to memorize for a recital. This is essential.
Learning a language without any native speakers to talk to in-person is a challenge, but it definitely is possible with discipline. A lot of people say “I need native speakers to talk to and to help me develop my accent”.
That might have been true in earlier days, but nowadays recordings from speakers of your favorite language are more accessible than ever! So the primary issues would be (1) expose yourself to the language very, very often and (2) imitate the language very, very often and (3) record yourself to see how you measure up for native speakers.
And who knows? Maybe you will actually encounter a native speaker of your dream language one day, even if others are telling you that the chances of meeting one are “almost none”!
Don’t believe the haterz. You deserve the life you want!