Who’s your (English) mama?


in Beyond the Basics, Tools & Techniques

People who must learn a new language to work in another country often work with a native speaker, called a language resource person (LRP), to help them acquire conversational language. There’s a variation on the idea of LRPs  – called language parents – that could do the same for you.

When one of my former graduate students went to Ukraine to teach, he worked with a language resource person (LRP) – a native speaker from Ukraine. My nephew and his wife did the same when they went to Costa Rica to work with an organization that helps people adopt children without parents. The language student usually spends several hours a day in conversation with their LRP. And they or the organization they work for usually pay the LRP for their time. You can imagine the benefits of working with an LRP, but you might not have the time or money to do what my friends did. There may be another option for you – finding a language parent.

What is a language parent?

Language Parents for Second Language Acquisition, an article from the International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, describes an informal relationship that  language students could develop with native speakers to help them achieve many of the benefits of working with an LRP.

According to the article, a language parent, like an actual parent, is someone “who will participate in conversation with you in the language you’re acquiring. A language parent will take an interest in you as a person. Enjoy talking to you. Try to understand you. Encourage you and support you.

The writer of the article says his wonderful Viennese landlady spent hours telling “the same stories again and again.” He says “they were great stories and I understood more each time I heard them.” One of my friends tells me that the grandmother of his host family in Mexico did the same for him. Another writer says that he and his “parent” in China “spent many hours talking to each other about every possible subject one could imagine.”

Finding a language parent

Who could become your “language parent”? It doesn’t have to be an older person. It could be anyone who’s willing to spend time talking to you.

If you live in the U.S., a language parent should be easy to find. It could be someone who lives in the same apartment building. Someone you meet at a coffee shop or super market. Some of my students used to go to the local senior center so they could meet and talk to the retired people who gathered there every day. One of them, a former Japanese English teacher, became friends with several of the people he met there and spent many hours talking with them.

If you’re living in your native country, look for native-English-speaking students or expatriates, people from the U.S. or other English-speaking countries who live and work in your country. Many of them would love to develop a relationship with someone like you. It would be well worth paying for coffee or an occasional lunch to encourage a relationship like that.

On the Internet there are web sites that connect people from different countries. You could use one of them to help find someone to talk to.

Using a language parent

The goal, when you work with a language parent or LRP, is to receive input in the language you’re studying. Remember:

  • The goal is to listen as much as possible. Listening is much more important than speaking for language development.
  • Don’t expect or allow the language parent to become your teacher. What you need and what they can give is comprehensible, or understandable, input in the language you’re learning.
  • Don’t ask them to correct your mistakes. Your language will improve naturally as you listen and receive more input.
  • It’s okay to ask for explanations from time to time, but that shouldn’t be necessary very often. Most native speakers will simplify their language when they find out that you’re a student.
  • Avoid doing things like making vocabulary lists to study later – after hearing new words several times, you’ll acquire them naturally.

Focus on the conversation, not the language! Don’t turn the conversations into classes.

What to talk about

I can hear some of you asking, “But what will we talk about?” And I have some suggestions. The writers of The Natural Method, a book for language teachers, suggest a variety of topics to use with language students. Here are some you could use for conversations:

  • Recreation and leisure activities – favorite activities, sports and games, climate and seasons, seasonal activities, holiday activities, parties, abilities, cultural and artistic interests
  • Family, friends, and daily activities – family and relatives, physical states or conditions, emotional states, daily activities, holiday and vacation activities, pets
  • Plans, obligations, and careers – future plans, general future activities, obligations, hopes and desires, careers and professions, place of work, work activities, salaries and money
  • Residence – place of residence, rooms of a house, furniture, activities at home, household items, amenities (desirable or useful features)
  • Narrating past experiences – immediate past events, yesterday’s activities, weekend activities, holidays and parties, trips and vacations, other experiences
  • Health, illnesses, and emergencies – body parts, physical states or conditions, mental states and moods, health maintenance, health professions, medicine and diseases
  • Eating – foods, beverages
  • Travel and transportation – geography, modes (kinds) of transportation, vacations, experiences on trips, languages, making reservations
  • Shopping and buying – money and prices, fashions, gifts, products
  • Youth – childhood experiences, primary school experiences, teen years experiences, adult expectations and activities
  • Values – family, friendship, love, marriage, sex roles and stereotypes, goals, religious beliefs
  • Issues and current events – environmental problems, economic issues, education, employment and careers, ethical issues, politics, crime sports, social events, cultural events, minority groups, science and health, technology

You can also use these topics to ask questions about specific situations related to them. For example, if you’re talking about eating, you could ask questions about ordering a meal in a restaurant, shopping in a supermarket, or preparing food from recipes.


If you want to improve your conversational English, try to find an English parent – or friend. In addition to receiving helpful English input, you’ll probably begin to feel like one of them – an English user. And that’s a good feeling!

References: Krashen (2012) Language Parents for Second Language Acquisition; Krashen and Terrell (1998) The Natural Method: Language Acquisition in the Classroom.

Warren Ediger

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Idi Oumarou Ibrahim July 26, 2012

Hello, and thank you so much, professor Warren! This article is a very great conclusion of finding a best way of learning and improving English language; I would even say that this method is very helpful to be familiar with any other language, too. Thanks a million, and have a nice day!

Yen July 29, 2012

You said there are websites that connect people from different country. What are that website?

Warren Ediger July 29, 2012

Yen – I don’t have a specific web site to recommend, but you can find a number of them by using these search terms – find English speaking friend. You could also use the word “partner” instead of “friend”.

Some of these web sites try to bring together people who are learning each other’s language – so you can converse in your language for a while and then his his/her language. That’s what we would call a win/win situation.

Remember, the goal is always to hear as much English (new language) as possible. Be sure you use the guidelines I described in this article.

Also, as with any kind of social web site, be careful. Check out each site and the people using it before you “connect”.

Amadou August 7, 2012

Hello! I find this web very interesting reason why i write to and thank you
because you help people to know the english language very much

Ismail August 10, 2012

thank you so much. Your wesite is one of most helpful ones for me in learning english.
Best regards from IRAN

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