January 17, 2013 | Mandarin

Small(er)-Town Language Learners

What to do when you want to learn a language and don't have a city like New York in your backyard.

Recently I have received fascinating e-mails from people who live in rural parts of the United States with much less diversity than, say, New York City, but who are nonetheless highly dedicated language learners with ambitious self-study programs.

New York City: Many Languages Spoken Here

New York City: Many Languages Spoken Here

What I found most interesting about their situations is that they persist in spite of the lack of support in their surroundings. I mean, here in New York there are many thousands of people roaming around who speak multiple languages as a matter of course in their daily lives. Even if they don’t speak multiple languages, most people I know wish they could. It is a value held dear by many around me.

So there is reinforcement, both practically and psychologically, for a language-learning undertaking.

For the people who wrote to me recently, that is not the case. They are iconoclasts. People around them don’t understand their drive, but it’s kind of like they can’t help themselves. And they go beyond the more conventional French-Spanish learning efforts, too, to include exotic languages in their personal curricula. I really admire that.

Another U.S. City: Not As Many People, or Languages, Here

Another U.S. City: Not As Many People, or Languages, Here

The good news for many would-be language learners is, we have an Internet. (To the inventors, thank you.) If you are in a remote or linguaphobic environment, you can still turn on your computer and go to places like or other sites (just search on something like “foreign language conversation exchange”), find a Skype partner overseas, and start speaking, say, Finnish or Xhosa. The web is a fabulous thing.

Living in New York, I can find all kinds of day-to-day reasons to study foreign languages, and if I want to try out my skills, all I have to do is just walk down the street or at worst take a subway somewhere. When people who have zero Urdu speakers around them still want to learn Urdu, I think that’s pretty damned cool.

And I just wanted to say that.

Comments (3)

Robert Adams • Posted on Wed, January 23, 2013 - 11:27 pm EST

Hi, Ellen. Thanks for the info, as always love to read your blog. I am watching GHOST HUNTERS and looking for a language “hook-up” for my French and Spanish studies. Thanks again.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, January 23, 2013 - 11:46 pm EST

I would be curious to know how it goes—and whether you find an actual live person locally or if you need to go electronic for the exchange. I would think Spanish and French wouldn’t be too hard to find! I hope that’s true!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, January 26, 2013 - 3:58 pm EST

Dear Readers:

Another possibility that I’m sure many of you are aware of is Meetup language groups. The URL for a given language is [language name]

For example, the Meetup page for French is, for German is, and so on. On those language pages you can enter your zip code (or, if you are outside the U.S., your city and country) to see whether there is a group focused on your target language in your area.

Your chances of finding a relevant Meetup group depend on where you are and how common or rare the language you are studying is. Urban areas tend to have more Meetup groups, naturally, but you never know!

Bonne chance!

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