Students often ask me this question. They want to practice their English, but they don’t have anyone to practice with. Whenever I am asked, I am tempted to tell them my friend’s solution to the common question, How can I improve my English?
I had a friend named Joseph who moved to Montreal from Czech Republic in the 1990s. He worked as a janitor and spoke very little English at the time. After work and on his days off, Joseph would go down to the local doughnut shop on Sherbrooke Street, in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood of Montreal. Every day, a strange woman would arrive, buy a cup of coffee, sit down and talk to herself. After she finished her coffee, she would get up and leave.
One day, Joseph saw that she had finished her coffee and was about to leave, so he bought her another cup and asked to sit with her. The woman accepted the coffee and kept talking. She could talk and talk on any topic, provided there was a cup of coffee in front of her. Sometimes he would ask her questions. Sometimes he just listened. Since she spoke more than she drank, he said it only cost him about a dollar an hour for crazy conversational English practice. He spent about $3 a day on coffee for about a year and learned so much English by the end of it that he went on to become an English Second Language teacher.
Joseph told me this story after class in a “Grammar for Teachers,” a course we took together at Concordia University in 2001. I have never forgotten it. I am not sure whether going in search of crazy conversation partners is a good idea. However, it demonstrates that languages are learned primarily through the repeated exchange of meaningful messages with a focus on form. In Joseph’s case, he focused on form at home by studying grammar books in the evening.