Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig with Ugur Cirak

SpeakMates: From Online to Offline Language Practice - A Founder Interview

Speakmates.com logoAs longtime advocates of online language learning and practice, we have also experienced the benefits and advantages of offline language practice.

A few years ago, after retiring, we adjusted our travel habits a bit: We would rent an apartment in a European city that we wanted to explore a little further.

In some cities we stayed for at least a week, in others for a month or longer.

We did so in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Seville, Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen in 2017.

Readers of our previous blog posts know that we often combined these stays with learning or practicing new foreign languages.

We had no language issues in Paris and Berlin, as we both speak French and German quite fluently.

Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Danish, however were new languages that we started learning more recently.

During our one-month stays in Barcelona and Seville, we were able to set up language exchanges with locals.

It took some work and coordination to arrange face to face meetings for our language practice . We would have loved to participate in Spanish language meetups, but could not find any.

A short time ago we came across a new website, SpeakMates.com, an offline language practice platform, still in its Beta stage. It helps language learners and native speakers find each other to meet in small groups.

We spoke with SpeakMates' founder Ugur Cirak and were intrigued by his story.

Here are his answers to some of our questions:

What gave you the idea for SpeakMates.com?

I worked as a Corporate Finance person for about 20 years. Last year I decided to quit my job and move to Japan.

Why Japan? Because my wife is Japanese. We had met in Pennsylvania, got married in Kyoto, and lived in Istanbul for 15 years.

We decided that the moment had come to spend some time in Japan. So we moved to Japan about a year and a half ago.

Initially I spent a lot of time traveling around the country, learning about the technology and startup ecosystem of Japan.

I always had a dream of having my own company, so my eyes were open for any opportunity.

We live in Sapporo which is the capital city of Japan’s Northern Island of Hokkaido. Friends socialzing in Café

When we moved there, I realized there was not much going on with startups, so I decided to organize “Startup Sapporo Meetups” through meetup.com.

Ever since then, I've been organizing this meetup. And thanks to it, I've been able to make many friends.

One of the Japanese participants has been organizing English speaking meetups as a hobby every week for the last six years, and I was invited to one of his meetups.

There were four Japanese participants, one (American) native speaker, my friend and myself.

My friend would facilitate the discussion while the native speaker and the Japanese participants would exchange ideas and talk about a topic.

I realized that this meetup was very effective in several ways:

  • it provided real, face to face communication and language practice ;
  • it was possible to learn from peers as well as from the native speaker;
  • it was inexpensive since the cost was shared;
  • it had a very relaxed and cozy atmosphere since it was held in a café;
  • having known each other for some time, the group had become a small but powerful community.

I thought that this context for language learning could be scaled through the internet and that a world-wide community could be possible. This is how I got the idea for SpeakMates.

Who would most benefit from SpeakMates?

Speakmates sign up landing pageAnyone who wants to improve or brush up her or his language speaking abilities could make use of SpeakMates to find like-minded people and good Mentors (see sign up landing page left).

Since SpeakMates is a meeting point to find OFFLINE language meetups. It is also a great way to make new friends in your neighborhood.

Our current customers include students, office workers, businessmen, professional women, housewives, and seniors.

Some of them have been abroad as expatriates and would like to keep and practice their language skills.

Others have never been abroad and are trying to improve their speaking abilities for future travel plans.

Everyone has her or his own story of coming to a meetup. I've been holding English meetups myself and it is really fun to meet all these people from very different backgrounds.

What are your specific goals for SpeakMates?

I would like to help people who are able to speak a language fluently to make money wherever they may be. The added benefit for Mentors is that this way they can also make friends in their neighborhood.

There is no License or Certification requirements to become a Mentor since we are trying to provide a real-world communication environment.

You don't get to speak only with people who have teaching licenses in the streets, right? 

Moreover, I would love to see SpeakMates become known as a worldwide venue where local language enthusiasts, learners and native speakers can meet and practice.

How is Speakmates.com different from meetup.com?

Meetup.com is a great company. I personally used it for some time and I'm still a member.

On the other hand, meetup.com is a very broad site, with many different categories other than language.

SpeakMates.com is kind of a language-specific meetup.com. Being language specific brings a lot of advantages.

For example, we provide predefined topics and topic materials for language meetups, blog posts about language learning, some fun tools to improve vocabulary such as songs and lyrics, etc.

We are working on additional features to streamline fun sharing of language-related pictures, texts, videos, audios and more.

We are all about languages, and offline language practice meetups are our core-value proposition.

In which countries do you see the most opportunities for SpeakMates?

Currently we have meetups in Tokyo, Sapporo, and Istanbul, Speakmates meetup paneland have registered Mentors from Japan, France, Slovenia, Turkey and South Korea.

We only have a history of three months with our Beta product release, but we're already seeing registrations from many different countries without specific marketing efforts.

This encourages us to scale up to more countries once we complete our Beta period.

Which languages have been most popular so far?

Although we're trying to promote all languages equally, the most popular meetups are in English.

From time to time, there are some meetups created in German, Japanese and Turkish as well.

We're hoping that as our brand builds we will be a hub for all languages.

What feedback are you getting from your Mentors and Mates?

We're trying to get as much feedback as possible from both sides.

We've already made some changes to our Beta version based on feedback from Mentors and Mates (our term for the learners).

For example, we made pricing, meeting duration and group size more flexible. Such meetup parameters can now be decided by Mentors.

We fine tuned our cancellation policy based on the feedback of some participants.

But generally speaking, we're getting very positive reactions to our idea and initial product.

What are your plans for developing SpeakMates?

This is a long journey and we're just at the beginning. Currently we are financing ourselves and trying to test the product-market fit.

As we see more traction in our platform, we're planning to raise funds and increase our capabilities by building a larger team.

We have product, marketing and scaling road maps and we continuously listen to our Mentors and Mates.

All this is making our road maps even better.

What are some of the site features that you are working on?

Currently we are working on adding the review feature to our site where both Mentors and Mates will be able to make public and private ratings and reviews for those who were in the same meetup. This is important for us as it will help to create and keep a safe and great community.

We're also working on making an online payment option available. Currently the only payment option is cash.

Another feature we're excited about is the “Activity Stream”: It will allow both Mentors and Mates to share language related pictures, texts, videos or audios in their timeline, follow each other and create useful content to stimulate language learning and practice.

We're planning some other features as well such as live chat, online practice, dynamic decision for the language level of the meetup and more.

What are your biggest challenges for the future?

We would love to create a great community for language practice.

So I think this is our biggest challenge; creating a great community and keeping it great.

If you are a native speaker or want to practice a new language, check out Speakmates.com. Maybe Speakmates can help you organize and/or become part of a new language meetup in your community.

Bios: Ugur Cirak is the Founder of SpeakMates.com, an Offline Language Practice platform that helps language mentors and people who want to practice speaking a Language find each other and meet in small groups in cozy locations. Before founding SpeakMates.com Ugur worked as corporate finance professional in multinational companies for 20 years. He is married with two children and speaks Turkish, English and intermediate level Japanese. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Why You Need More Than Words For Language Fluency

body parts - Yay Images (Revised 5/31/2017)

Words are important building blocks of languages. Without knowing them you cannot achieve language fluency in any new language you are learning.

So it's no surprise that people often ask: How many words do I need to know to become conversationally fluent?

This question comes without a precise answer, because it depends on the language, and to an extent on your life situation, your personal, and professional interests.

Still, there are estimates. For example, the linguist and polyglot Alexander Argüelles apparently believes that the 2000 most frequent words are those that let you express everything you could possibly want to say, although often by awkward circumlocutions.

A Lingholic blog post suggests:

"When you learn 90-95 % of commonly used words, you'll understand practically all everyday conversations. The last 5-10% you'll be able to guess just from the context."

Then looking at the size of foreign dictionaries and the claims of a number of studies, the post notes:

“A vocabulary of about 3000 words (not counting for inflexions, plurals, etc.), then, would be the number necessary to efficiently learn from context with unsimplified text.” 

Of course, having a precise number is nice. But, how do I know how many words I've learned? Perhaps the reverse is true: When I understand most of everyday conversations and texts in a foreign language, I probably know between 2000 and 3000 words.

Knowing frequently-used words is essential and will help you understand, as does the context in which you're having the conversation.

And yes, knowing at least some of the 13 body parts, shown on this drawing above, in your target language will be useful. You'll certainly come across many of them in your studies.

But if you're learning a new language, you've probably realized that “communicating,” i.e. participating in a conversation, is not that easy, even if you've practiced tons of words: You have to be able to LISTEN and COMPREHEND and then also to SPEAK.

LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Listening comprehension is learned with what Steve Kaufmann of LingQ calls listening tolistening attentively - Yay images “comprehensible input.” A lot of it.

Real conversations are often unpredictable in content. So listening to various kinds of topics you're interested in will help prepare you. With time, you'll start noticing and assimilating certain language patterns, even if there's a great variety in vocabulary.

Also, when you first start listening it will appear that the sound stream goes too fast. It's an experience most language learners share. 

I still remember arriving in Italy some years ago. Even after having completed three Levels of the Pimsleur Italian audio program (90 lessons), I could not distinguish individual words while watching Italian TV.

After several weeks, the rapid-fire Italian seemed to slow down for me. I was more and more able to distinguish individual words, then sentences, and finally to understand the context and meaning.

If you're a novice practicing listening comprehension, start out slow, with individual words, phrases, then sentences. Short audio stories are a good next step. Make sure you know the meaning of what's being said.

For the more popular languages, there now are free podcasts and YouTube videos available. Many of the free or fee-based online language programs have podcasts or videos as well (including GamesforLanguage).

LEARNING WORD ORDER and GRAMMAR FORMS

crisis center cartoon - Yay imagesWhen you learn a foreign language, you're learning how to combine words in a new way that is meaningful in your new language. In other words, you're learning a second (or third, etc.) word-order system.

You're also learning grammar forms that don't exist in your own language. In English, you don't have noun gender, for example. French, Spanish, and Italian have two: masculine and feminine, German has three: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Or, the language you're learning has a different way of forming a question. A case in point: French has three ways to ask a question, and none of them follow the pattern of English. That means you're learning two different grammar systems that your brain will alternate between.

Dealing with two (or more) grammar systems makes a teenager or adult different from young children learning their first language. Between the ages of two and three or so, toddlers go from one- or two-word “sentences” to quite sophisticated ways of asking questions, saying what they want, telling you what they saw, repeating what they heard, teasing you, etc.

Despite some hits and misses, children seem to catch on quickly which words go into what order, and what grammar forms to use. Most amazingly, often what they say are new combinations, and not just sentences they've heard and are repeating.

Children are able to do that because of their brain's powerful “learning mechanisms,” which allow them to assimilate patterns of usage though listening.

Pattern learning also holds for adults learning other languages. The more we're exposed to the patterns of usage of a language, the better we'll acquire them. However, compared to children learning their native language(s), adults' exposure to a new language - in a class, online, reading, or listening - is typically more limited. (Unless, you're “immersed” in the language in the country or community where it is spoken, etc.)

For becoming conversationally fluent, you need to develop two skills: understand what's being said and create speech that is meaningful and relevant.

READING

You don't directly need reading for becoming conversationally fluent. Children man reading a book - Yay imageslearn to speak in sentences years before they learn how to write them. And in many countries there are still adults who can't read or write.

In fact, I was shocked to read the following, when googling for “U.S. illiteracy rate”:

According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read.”

(No wonder then that learning a second language is more difficult for many U.S. adults. If the world's literacy interests you, you may be surprised by the countries at the top of this World Factbook list compiled by the CIA.)

Adults don't NEED reading to become conversationally fluent. But for most, reading is still the most practical way to accelerate their learning in class, with exercises and apps, or with online programs.

Furthermore, as soon as you're able to read news articles, blog posts, even books in your new language, you have several potential benefits:

  • For one, reading is another way to assimilate the word-order and grammar patterns of a language.
  • Also, reading will expand your vocabulary and teach you how to guess meaning from context.
  • Finally, by reading you acquire ideas and facts about topics you want to talk about. Everyday conversations don't stop at questions such as “Where are you from?” “What work do you do?” They are also very much about ideas, events, and if you're brave, about history and politics.

SPEAKING

Language fluency in action on skypeI very much like the motto of the late Dartmouth Professor John Rassias, a effective promoter of the immersion teaching method: “Don't learn to speak a language, speak to learn it.” Speaking fluently can only be learned by actually speaking.

You won't learn to speak automatically just by doing lots of reading or listening. Yes, both will expose you to the characteristic word-order and grammar patterns of the language. Listening will train your ear to the language's sounds, which is essential when the sounds are quite different from your native language.

But, speaking a foreign language involves transforming your thoughts into specific sounds by training your vocal chords and moving your mouth in a certain way. It also means creating a stream of sounds that has the particular rhythm, pitch, and intonation, etc. of the language.

All of that has to be practiced aloud, typically by imitating native speakers. A teacher or tutor will be able to correct your pronunciation and point out different ways the tongue or mouth can produce the desired sounds.

Apps or online programs that have recording features are quite effective for improving your pronunciation. By playing back your own recordings and hearing how you sound next to the native speaker, you can work on making changes.

As a novice, start out slowly. Listen and repeat as often as you can. Don't be discouraged when you hear yourself for the first time. Memorize conversations, even act them out, mimic the native speakers – have fun sounding like a native!

FROM REPETITION to LANGUAGE FLUENCY

It's very hard to have a genuine conversation just with sentences that you've memorized.

So how does one progress from a “low intermediate” level - where youLanguage fluency in action among friends can ask and answer basic questions - to speaking freely about everyday topics?

Certainly, repeating words and sentences aloud, and learning them by rote are essential techniques for a beginning learner.

But then, conversations with friends or exchange-partners who are native speakers, or a tutor who only uses the target language are the best way to improve your language fluency and conversational skills in your target language.

Talking with someone is a complicated back and forth that creates a context for words and sentences. With talking come all kinds of “filler words and sounds” that are normal for a casual conversation.

Participating often in such open-ended conversations will expose you again and again to the typical patterns of the language you're learning and prompt you to use these patterns yourself.

So yes, learning 90-95% of words commonly used is an excellent language learning goal. And if you learn them in context, rather than as words in a list, you'll be building conversational skills.

Even if you understand all the words, you still have to decided whether someone is asking for something or telling you what you should do. You have to figure out how to formulate a question, express a reasoned opinion, or how to comment to a fast-moving conversation of your friends or family.

Getting to that level of fluency takes more than just words, it also takes much listening and many conversations on a variety of topics. And it takes friends and conversation partners to practice with. 

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.

Postscript: A comment by a Reddit reader (where the Post had been listed) prompted us to add a section "Learning Vocabulary" in a revised version which was published by Lingohut as LEARNING WORDS AND MORE FOR LANGUAGE FLUENCY.