Network Your Way to Better Language Skills and a Better Life

This post is a guest article from Tim Wenger, and I was bowled over by his motivating and positive attitudes about networking. We often hear how this can benefit people in their career, but have you ever thought to use your network by mentioning languages in the same way? Tim has some awesome tips here. Over to you, Tim..

network-language skills

Language learning is about finding practical situations to apply knowledge gained. There’s no better way to practice than to have real-life conversations in the language you’re working on. But where can you find more opportunities to use your language skills daily?

We can’t all pack up a bag today, and head out to Spain to work on our Spanish. What we can do is identify opportunities to practice the language in our daily lives. We can put ourselves in situations that may lead to improve our skills down the line. Fluency is a long-term prospect. Language skills slip away without regular use.

When learning a new language, networking is an incredibly powerful tool. Even when you're not having a conversation in your target language, meeting people is key in your language learning journey. Let's have a look at quick ways to put yourself in front of the right people.

Build a base of contacts

What I’ve found beneficial, in situations from language learning to professional development, is to find local opportunities to get out and network. Increasing your rolodex of contacts will provide long-term benefits and opportunities to practice a language and grow fluent.

A quick way to do this is identify local meetups and groups focused on the language you hope to learn. A Google search should turn up some leads. If not, check the calendar at your local library or community center. Other avenues are to volunteer with a local NGO, offer your services as a translator, or join an online community.

For example, my wife maintains her French-speaking skills by volunteering as a translator in our city of Lakewood, Colorado. She’s been a city employee for two years, and attended a translator meeting/training session when the opportunity arose. Her French speaking had been on the back burner since she returned in 2013 from serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. She now has weekly interactions with a French-speaking family who just moved to the United States from Ghana. The coolest thing about this is that she’s helping them while adjust while at the same time practicing and improving her French.

Take action:

  • Meetup.com, EventBrite, and mobilize.io list meet-ups on all kinds of topics. Search for language learning or international meetups based on your location and make sure you go! You can connect with members, find and schedule meetings online.
  • Local language centers, such as Alliance Francaise for those learning French, a Language Resource Center, or a local language school in your area, often run meetings or screen films in your target language.

Maintain those New Contacts

Follow-ups are as big a part of networking as meeting the contact in the first place. Stay in touch by sending an email out a few days later and asking the person to grab a coffee.

Sometimes, what it takes it a willingness to put yourself out there. If you meet an influencer that you hope to turn into a mentor, go to their speaking gigs or functions. Always remember to keep in mind the impression you’re leaving on people, and connect on social media. Did you meet a language blogger at an event? Comment on their posts! Be active and interested, and you’ll be surprised at how well people respond.

For me, it all started at work. I work in the media, where there's ample opportunity to converse with people across borders and cultures. I improved my Spanish as a result of a previous editorial job, when I interviewed a guitarist from Mexico for a magazine story. He had recently moved to Denver, and I followed up with him after publication of the story, and asked about getting together to speak Spanish.

At first, I’m sure I was little more than a charity case to him. I took Spanish courses in high school, and had picked up some basic vocabulary while backpacking in Costa Rica and working in restaurants. But to say I was conversational would have been an overstatement.

We’d sit in the back of a Denver coffee shop and run through basic conversation. With time, and study on my own, my ability grew beyond present-tense feelings and recaps of my week. I started having more engaging conversations centered on recall, grammar, and vocab memorization.

The beautiful thing about networking is that the opportunities that arise often benefit in more ways than one.

While working at a magazine, I took as many opportunities as I could to attend events, conferences, concerts, you name it. I went to every event that arose through the publication. I connected on social media with the people I met at these events. This proved critical in improving my Spanish ability and benefitted my career in the long run. Fast forward four years and I’ve landed a contract as the content manager for an immersive online language school – all because of networking.

Take action:

  • Friend/follow people you meet on social media. Facebook is the most interactive for this task, as its messaging service is simple and personable, unlike Twitter or Instagram. Interact regularly with the person. Facebook Messenger, besides email, is a great tool for arranging an in-person meeting.
  • Follow up via email with contacts a week or so after meeting in case you've not heard from them.
  • Attend events where influencers and/or contacts will be!

...which brings me to my next point.

Stay at it, and Parlay one Opportunity into the Next

I met Ray Blakney, the co-founder of Live Lingua, at a conference in Austin, Texas in February 2017. He expressed a need for a content manager during a session that we were both in, and I approached him afterwards. My prior experience proved to be the right match for what he needed. As a result, the price tag to attend the conference has more than paid for itself.

To stay motivated in your language learning journey, the best thing to do is get out of the house. I cannot emphasize this enough. Get out into the world. Relationship building is the key to unlocking new opportunities. Pursuing any chance to meet someone who may eventually benefit your language learning journey will help you progres in a language and keep it as a regular part of your life.

Take action:

  • Part of optimizing opportunities that come your way is just to say yes! Accept invites. Sign up for the newsletter of your local language center or school to stay on top of what’s going on there. Be friendly, and do the things you tell people you’re going to do.

Putting Your Plan Into Action

The term ‘networking’ is quite broad. How does one figure out where to start, and whether or not an opportunity is promising? It doesn’t always have to be at a specific function. I met a guy through work, but you can meet someone to practice with or find out about a great resource anywhere. The important part is to identify how someone may be able to help you, how you may be able to help them, and figure out the best way to proceed.

A big hint? Listen. This is actually pretty simple. People love to talk about themselves. All you need to do is listen, and get a person to expand on his or her knowledge. They may know of a great online resource. And the old ‘Let’s grab a coffee and talk’ line is still appropriate in many situations. If you’re looking for a practice partner, you’ll uncover many opportunities simply by getting out there and listening to what others have to say.

Connection Will Make Your Life Better

Language learning is a journey, not a destination. Those you meet along the way, the stories and memories you’ll build, help to broaden horizons and experience the world in a different way. By engaging and connecting with people, the experience is all the richer. It takes action on your part, and a willingness to ask questions put yourself out there.

Part of networking is listening to the thoughts and stories of others.

On that note, I’d love to hear your thoughts on tactics that have worked for you. What helped you feel confident in that second language? The third?

Tim Wenger is a Denver-based journalist and Content Manager for Live Lingua. After finishing a BA in Communications from Fort Lewis College, Tim spent a few years playing guitar in dark bars while falling in love with travel. He's been unable to rest his pen (or his feet) ever since.