How to Learn a Non-formal Language: 5 Practical Tips

Non-formal language learning could be described as pure practice. There is no exam pressure, because certification is removed. This does not mean that there is no structure.

Study on your own

Teaching yourself from a book, for example, is considered non-formal but has all the structure of the course itself. You could impose a ‘once-a-week’ rule for when you are going to study to ensure regularity. Since you’re the teacher you can be totally flexible when working it into your schedule, unlike formal language courses which occur at a set time and location. You work at your own pace and there are no other students there to hog your time.

With no isolation

But what about the isolation issue? This is where the non-formal environment really comes into play. Instead of being stuck in a classroom, the non-formal approach puts you in the real environment. Take for example the ‘year abroad’ – the two semesters spent in the country of the language being studied – which is an obligatory part of most traditional university language degrees. The fact that this non-formal tool is compulsory speaks volumes as to its benefits.

If you are not due a year abroad then not to worry; there are other non-formal tools at your disposal. You can recreate language immersion with exchanges or cyber cafes. The Internet has indeed made many things easier, granting you access to a wealth of foreign magazines and radio stations, not to mention the social possibilities created by social networks, apps and games.

Feedback on language

A language exchange is a coupling of language learners who each learn the other’s language. For example, a French person learning Russian pairs up with a Russian learning French. They meet up and spend half the time talking in French and the other half talking in Russian. With a language exchange you practise real conversation with a real native speaker in real time. What’s great about it is that it’s free since your mutual needs cancel out any fees. It’s also fun and you can directly experience the culture you’re studying through your partner who represents it. In order to find a language exchange partner, make contact through language schools, universities or the expat or immigrant communities in your area.

Cognitive cocktail

If you would prefer to only speak the language you are learning then a language café was created for you. It is a get-together held at a café or other public venue of people studying one particular language with the aim of practising and improving in that language by speaking it for the whole interaction. There should be a native speaker on hand to expose you to the real language and to correct you constructively with a view to improving your skills. It not only works wonders for your language level but also your social life and only costs the price of a drink. A good starting place for finding a café is Southampton University’s website If you can’t find one for your language there you’ll still find lots of tips on how to start your own.

Once you’re dealing with a bigger group, however, the problem of flexibility arises as events will be at a set time, date and location that suit the majority. If you have a busy life or lots of responsibilities, this could be a problem for you. This is where the Internet is particularly useful.

Cyber courses

Do a search for a cyber language café. Such groups are conducted over the Internet via video chat platforms so you could participate in the comfort of your own home. If there really are none that suit your schedule, try an asynchronous one which may be conducted over email or on forums. A discussion question is posed and you can answer in your own time. You should still receive feedback on your language skills.

Use social networking to make contact with native language speakers; follow them on Twitter for example, to expose yourself to the language on the go via your mobile. Join language groups on Facebook, tune into foreign Internet radio stations to improve your listening skills or watch videos on YouTube. Read international newspapers and magazines online and follow language blogs or foreign blogs on things that interest you. Download apps and games that teach you the language.

To sum up, I would like to mention that formal courses do teach you accuracy, but non-formal learning can help you attain fluency. If you want both you must blend the two approaches. But this just goes to show that there are so many other ways to learn beyond the classroom that give you the opportunity to put what you’ve learnt there into practice in authentic situations, whilst having a lot of fun in the process.

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