Finding In-Person Language Tutors / Partners

Ugh. I hate screens.

Ugh. I hate screens.

I get it. The internet is really convenient. It lets us watch movies from anywhere in the world – in any language – with just a couple clicks and possibly the installation of a IP-address changing VPN. We can talk to anyone in the world – for FREE! Access huge catalogs of books and music and everything else you can imagine…. but let’s face it, actually using the internet can be kind of a bummer. Because it involves looking at a screen, not a human being (no, a moving picture of a human being on a screen is not the same).

There’s plenty of information out there about how to find a language teacher or a language partner online – iTalki is the most popular option (one that I, personally, have never used). But what can you do if you would really like to have a static-free conversation, where no one’s connection cuts off? Here are some suggestions.

… If You’re Learning A Commonly Studied Language

Most people don’t have a lot of trouble connecting with either a language partner or language tutor when learning a language like Spanish or French. In fact, there’s an add for a language tutor in each of those languages in the cafe I’m sitting in right now. There’s also groups of people who meet up to practice those languages on Meetup, and there are often even cultural institutions, like the Alliance Française, the Cervantes Institute or the Confucius Institute that have regular events, language course and resources for language learners.

Unless you live in a microscopic village, chances are you’ll be able to find tutoring, language partners and loads of resources even if you’re computer-phobic.

… If You’re Learning a Common Immigrant Language That’s Not So Commonly Taught

Let’s say you’re learning Polish or Urdu or Cambodian. Chances are that you won’t find an ad for a language tutor teaching those languages on Craigslist (although you might! You never know). However, if you live in a medium-to-large sized city in the English-speaking world, there is likely a community of native speakers who live not so far away from you. There are probably social services that cater to that community, religious organizations that serve speakers of your target language and grocery stores, restaurants and other places of business that are owned by speakers of your target language.

That is where you go to find a language partner or tutor. Put up a sign in the ethnic grocery store or on the church bulletin board. You have a good chance of success.

The only note of caution, of course, is that it’s still a good idea to try to get a language partner who you have something in common with. In my experience, massive class / educational differences are even harder to overcome than cultural differences. Know if this community tends to be well educated or not, and if the members tend to come from rural or urban areas in their home country. Before you target a location or community for finding a tutor or partner, learn about it. There are some Ukrainian churches in my hometown that are really conservative and have congregations that mostly don’t have high educational levels. I would never look for a language partner there. To make another generalization, most Urdu speakers in Portland, however, probably have a Ph.D and work for a technology company.

On the other hand, you might not have the luxury of being picky, especially:

… If Your Target Language Is Just Plain Obscure

So, let’s say you’re actually more interested in Estonian, Uighur or an almost-extinct Central American indigenous language. Is there any hope?

If you live in New York City, then yes. You can absolutely find all of those languages there (ok, I guess it does depend on which almost-extinct Central American language we’re talking about).

If, however, you live in Portland, Oregon, finding even a single Uighur speaker is going to be a challenge. There might be one, but I have certainly never met a Uighur in Portland.

Most people learning an obscure language are doing so for a specific reason, so they aren’t just looking for a language partner in a vacuum – rather, there are concrete personal or professional reasons for learning the language that usually come attached to individuals who speak it.

If you are learning an obscure language just for the heck of it, then actually on-line tutoring is probably your best bet. There is one person on iTalki who lists Uighur as one of her primary languages. You can certainly find people to tutor you in Swiss German on the site. But if the language is too obscure (or the people who speak it don’t tend to be on-line that much) you still won’t have much luck. There were zero results for Miskitu, an indigenous language in Central America that is actually, as far as indigenous languages go, widely spoken and not on the brink of extinction.

But I’d be surprised if there aren’t a couple of Miskitu speakers living in New York City.

Photo by downloadsource.fr

  • http://www.8monthsinukraine.blogspot.com/ Kate Anderson

    This makes me glad I’m learning two commonly studied languages! Plus there’s so much free content when it comes to those languages (local newspapers, etc).

    On a semi-related note, it’s really inspiring to see all the passion and hard work happening in Alaska to preserve some of the native languages that are nearing extinction. I met one guy there who was also studying Russian as a foreign language at the time (and he was REALLY good at it) who has since switched to Yupik. There’s a short interview with him here: https://goo.gl/oVZct7 It seems like thanks to people like him, such languages are becoming more accessible through dictionaries, classes, videos, etc that never existed before.

  • Emily Liedel

    Hi Kate! Thanks for commenting! Incidentally, Russian somewhat counts as an endangered language in Alaska – there are still some small communities of the descendants of Russian colonists who speak a mix of Russian and indigenous languages. There was a story about it a while ago in Russian: http://kommersant.ru/doc/2224182. I actually wanted to write something about it, then decided it’s too obscure a topic for the American press….

    Cheers!