When it comes to learning a new language the single greatest strategy is going to be any in which there is direct contact between yourself and a native speaker – be they a professional teacher in a classroom setting, a one on one tutor or just a fellow language learner with whom you’re engaged in a language exchange.
Speaking to another person via your computer or mobile device has never been easier than it is today with dozens of language oriented social networking or tutor/learner pairing sites popping up every month. But above and beyond all of these is Skype – still weighing in as the world’s primary system of free voice and video chat.
If you’re not using Skype yet you really should start as soon as humanly possible. Many of the lessons offered online through sites such as iTalki are conducted using Skype, there are many opportunities for small group language seminars or classes that are also available only on Skype.
If you are already using Skype for video or audio chat here are several Skype tools you can use to optimize your language exchange experience and get the most out of the time you’re investing.
Sadly (and somewhat strangely) Skype doesn’t come with any sort of built in audio recording tool. Luckily there’re several plugins that you can download for free that allow you to record and even edit your Skype sessions. My favorite is VODburner.
VODburner is a free program that you can download here.
There are several benefits to being able to record your Skype calls. If you’re engaged in some sort of language course, such as tutoring sessions you’re paying for on iTalki, you really want to be getting as much out of your conversations as possible and one great way to do that is to save them for later. Using a recording application you can take your recorded Skype sessions on the go – be it in the car, while working out, or while just bumming around the house.
This not only reinforces your listening but also clarifies to you where your mistakes are being made and gives you ideas that you can then ask about in your next session.
I’m frankly amazed that Skype doesn’t come with its own built in recording feature, and I expect one day that this may change, but for now VODburner is my strongest suggestion when it comes to Skype recorders.
Facerig is really just a fun program that can help liven up any Skype conversation you might be having. It won’t necessarily enhance your learning capabilities or experience, but it could help ease the tensions and create a more entertaining environment, which could in turn positively impact the results of your exchange.
Facerig, the video for which you can check out below, is a program that allows you to transform your face into any number of creatures or beings of your own choosing. Want to surprise your students by transforming your head into a dragon’s head? Go for it.
One of the most difficult parts of starting a new language exchange on Skype is the tendency we have to freeze up the moment we hear a new voice emanating from the speakers or see a new face suddenly appear on our screen. What the heck are you supposed to talk about? How do you break the ice?
The first few minutes (sometimes longer) are almost always awkward, but at least when your face renders as an anthropomorphic wolf you’ll have something to talk about and laugh about. It’s a good conversation starter and it doesn’t cost all that much! You can check out Facerig here.
3. Skype Voice Changer
You know how whenever you end up on a video or audio recording – your own or someone else’s – you never sound even close to how you think you sound?
I’ve never met anyone who thought they sounded better on recordings, but what not everyone seems to realize is that that’s actually more or less how you sound to other people. Let that sink in for a moment. That stupid, high pitched sound coming from your mouth in that video your friend took on their phone, yeah, that’s your voice.
Low, awkward, dim witted baritone? You again.
Unfortunately there really isn’t a lot you can do about this and in my experience you’re probably the only person who really cares. Others don’t know how sexy you sound in your own skull so it doesn’t bother them, but it’s going to bother you now! Sorry about that.
But on Skype you can change this, at least a bit! By using voice changing software such as Skype Voice Changer (Windows) or Voice Candy (Mac) you can transform the pitch and other vocal qualities of your voice – sometimes with hilarious results. These programs usually come with a number of presets as well including “Darth Vader” or “baby”.
How will this enhance your language exchange? Well first of all you’ll get to hide behind a facade of hilarity while still reaping the benefits of person to person speaking. Second, anything you can do to make language learning more fun is worth doing – period. And lastly you could make an argument that hearing the proper pronunciation in a range of silly voices could help with your own overall pronunciation in the long run.
Just be careful not to let it become too much of a distraction.
4. Skype Translator
If you’re anything like me you’re probably not the biggest fan of the prospect of an automatic translator built into your Skype software. However, The Skype Translator, still in beta testing, is going to revolutionize electronic translation whether we like it or not and I think it behooves us to talk about it and discover its strengths and weaknesses for ourselves.
You don’t have to use it, but if you’re running Windows 8 or 10 you can apply to the beta program and (probably) receive an invitation and give it a shot. Skype Translate is currently only available for Spanish, Italian, French, German and Mandarin from English translation, but I imagine other languages – as well as compatibility with other platforms – will be following in the near future.
Why should you check out Skype Translator as a language learner? I did it because I’m a fan of language in general, how it evolves, how tech influences language and its evolution, and how we as a culture adapt or conform to these modern marvels. Whether you think this is a godsend or the harbinger of multilingual trivialization, it is still pretty cool to play around with.
Can you apply it to learning Spanish or any other language? It’s hard to say. The quality of the translations – while surprising considering the complexity of the task – is still not going to be the same as a native speaker’s pronunciation. In addition you get to deal with the strange voice modulation that is the natural hallmark of current AI translation.
Still, it can be a fun thing to do with your tutor or just a friend. You can play around with it to your heart’s content.
I know many of you probably harbor passionate disdain for the very notion of automatic translation programs that would attempt to render “real” language learning obsolete – and I agree with you. Sorry to say; your disdain isn’t going to make it go away, so you might as well see what all the fuss is about, right?
You can read more about and opt into the Skype Translate beta here.
If we can agree that Skype (or any voice/video chat system) is one of the absolute best ways to study your 2nd – or 18th – language, we can probably also agree that there is one reasonable shortcoming that until now you didn’t know you could fix!
Reading and writing.
Especially if you’re learning a language with characters that are entirely new to you, learning the written system with your tutor or friend is going to prove fairly difficult. Or at least it did prove difficult until you learned about this super awesome free downloadable app.
IDroo is an extremely multifunctional whiteboard accessible by both (or up to 10) participants of a Skype call. You can draw, share images, diagrams, write notes or play tic-tac-toe using a shared space visible to everyone on your call.
Teachers and tutors can even use it to upload worksheets, diagrams, or to critique students’ work in real time.
It’s possibly the single coolest Skype tool on this list and should become an essential item in the toolkit of every language learner or teacher who uses Skype. You can check it out here.
If you aren’t using Skype to connect to another human being you should start doing so right now. If you are I hope some of these programs and Skype mods will either serve to enhance your language learning experience or to at the very least make using Skype less of a chore.
There are many more third party Skype addons or external programs. Which ones are your favorites and how would you use them for language learning?
Leave a comment!
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