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Parental Advisory: How Language Parents Help You Learn Like a Kid Again Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Language Learning

I’m a big believer in learning a language on your own.

But even learning a language independently, you can’t do it all by yourself: all of us can benefit from some on-the-fly coaching from those who’ve been in the game for years and know it well.

coaching language parents

Image via Pixabay under CC0 (public domain).

Entrepreneur and language coach Chris Lonsdale argues that one of the most important things you can do for your own language learning is to recruit a ‘language parent’ or two. In his TED Talks and elsewhere, Lonsdale highlights the crucial role played by parents and ‘motherese‘ in a child’s language learning process, and how this is one of the things we must actively seek to compensate for as adult language learners.

Language parents are a simple and pretty intuitive idea: they’re the people you feel safe speaking with in the language you’re learning, who are willing to help you along informally with the language and, in a figurative but important way, ‘raise’ you as one of their own.

learning with a language parent

Image via Pixabay under CC0 (public domain).

Your ideal language parent and your relationship with them should have a few important qualities. Here are some of the basic requirements for an MVP (most valuable parent):

  • The person is willing to speak exclusively or almost exclusively in your target language with you, and they have the patience for the times when that can be more slow-going and frustrating.
  • You understand their speech well. They should speak with a fairly standard accent, but also have the awareness not to speak too quickly or inarticulately with you.
  • You feel ‘safe’ with the person: they don’t rush you, interrupt you, make fun of you, or do anything else to induce extra foreign language anxiety.
  • They can generally understand you: they’re generally able to interpret your pronunciation, and are able to read paralinguistic cues like body language and facial expressions.
  • According to Lonsdale, language parents should never correct your mistakes. Rather than focusing on improving the mechanics of your language use, they should be focused on offering you a safe space to improve your usage and fluency. I would argue that, depending on where you are in learning the language, some tactful corrections can be helpful.

Other things to consider are the logistics of your relationship: do you see each other frequently? Are you interested in enough similar things to keep the conversation going naturally? Bonus points if your chosen language parent doesn’t speak English or your mother language–that way they won’t be tempted to help you cheat as you become better friends.

So once you’ve identified someone who can serve as your part-time informal language mentor, how do you pop the question? There are a few ways to go about it, but mostly, you don’t.

Locking Down a Language Parent

The frustrating truth is that in the real world, the vast majority of people aren’t willing to sit around and listen to us babble for free.

Don’t despair though–most language learners, especially those living abroad, can find a language parent somewhere in their environment if they go about it tactfully and considerately. Here are some tips on how.

  1. You don’t have to actually ask someone to be your language parent, because that’s sort of a weird thing to ask. Instead of typing up a contract, focus on identifying the right person who’s sensitive to your language level and can actively help you better understand things, and try to build a natural speaking routine with that person.
  2. Look to people you already know, or if you’ve just arrived somewhere, people you have a good first impression of and expect to be able to spend time with (because you’re in the same class, are roommates, work in the same office, etc.).
  3. Be clear about your language learning goals. Make sure they understand that you want to speak in their language, and that you’re hoping for some feedback as you go, but that you’re not looking for constant corrections or free lessons.
  4. Don’t be shy about showing your gratitude. “Hey, can I treat you to a coffee and we can speak a bit of Arabic this afternoon?” A meal now and then, offering to proofread a cover letter for them in English, or just the odd night out with no linguistic strings attached are good ways to keep yourself on the safe side of that line between practicing a language and using a friend for free labor.

I have a language parent here in Medellín, Colombia, and it’s been vital for continuing to improve my Spanish skills.

One of my housemates here is an English teacher from Bogotá, but at home we always speak Spanish. I never went up and asked her, “wanna be my Spanish mom?”, but instead mostly just developed a good dynamic. She recognizes the difference between my “como?” that means “I didn’t quite catch that” and the one that just means “???“, and she’s always willing to give me a thoughtful explanation in Spanish.

language parent guide

Image via Pixabay under CC0 (public domain).

I think the most important factor in finding a language parent is that feeling of social safety: just like Mom helped you understand what was going on in the world around you and the language it spoke, the right friend you can give you the space to flourish while learning a second language.

Editor’s Note: Can’t find a language parent in your area? Connect with a personal online tutor through Transparent Connect. Log in and learn when, where, and what you want.

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About the Author: Jakob Gibbons

I write about language and travel on my blog . I often share my experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is my specialty.


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