One of the most helpful tools I use for language learning is the free, social web site Lang-8. There, you write freely in your target language, as you might in a blog, and then your text is made available sentence by sentence for correction from native speakers.
Getting correction from a native speaker is invaluable, and getting several corrections you can choose from is even better. Yet in spite of the fact that it's so useful, and free of charge, it seems that a lot of people are still not using it, and those that are using it aren't using it much.
Today I want to talk about some things you can do to make Lang-8 easier for you to use, as well as things you can do to make sure that you're getting the most value out of it.
The first thing you need to do is stop procrastinating and start writing. When you do what you're comfortable with, you're not learning. It's only learning if you're doing something you don't know. So you need to suck up whatever embarrassment you're feeling and just write something.
Some people aren't sure what to write. A lot of people say, "I know I should be writing, but I just don't have anything to write about." But you do! You have conversations every day. You come home and tell your spouse how your day was. You tell your friends about your plans. You tell your kids how to make a snowman.
Everyone has things to say. You just have to stop thinking of it as a scary test, and start thinking of it the way you think of someone you know. Imagine Lang-8 just asked you how your day went, and then answer it! Imagine Lang-8 just asked you where you grew up, and answer it! You saw a good movie and you want to talk about it? Write. Something funny happened today? Write.
As I have said, it's not learning if you only do what you know. You have to do what you don't know if you want to learn. If you don't know how to form the past tense, you can say "I go to the store yesterday". It's wrong, and someone will correct you, and next time you'll know!
Directly below the writing space, there is a Google Translate tool. Use it! You're writing about something that happened in the kitchen and you don't know the word for "burned", look it up! Don't know how to say "pan", or "bake", or "oven"? Look them up.
A great use for Lang-8 is to work on a particular grammatical construct that you're just learning about or that you need help with. If you just learned about the past tense, write about something that happened in the past. I went somewhere and met someone, who said something, etc.
If you're having trouble with a strange concept, use it! If you're still trying to figure out the subjunctive, write about what you would do if you were to win the lottery... where you would go, what you would buy, and so on. And do this kind of exercise until you feel confident that you understand.
No matter how much you think you know, you're often going to find out that there is still a lot left to learn. Don't be disheartened by a lot of corrections, be thankful! The more corrections you receive, the better your chance to learn. If you're not being corrected, it's probably a good sign that you're not trying anything new.
Many of the corrections will seem obvious as soon as you look at them. You'll kick yourself for knowing the right way but doing it wrong anyway. For others, you may need to go look up something in a dictionary, or ask someone for help.
Once you understand a correction, edit your original text! Don't leave the errors in your text unless you don't understand them, or aren't happy with the correction you received. This is important, because many people will avoid correcting a text if it is full of errors — it's too much work. When you correct your text, you're actually inviting more people to come along and give you more help.
Be a good neighbor
Also, when someone goes to the work of doing a lot of corrections on your text, thank them! Don't just post a follow-up comment saying thanks... do it right: go to the trouble of sending them a message thanking them. And write it in the target language. They'll see your effort, and when they know their help is appreciated, they will be more likely to come back to help you again.
Add lots of friends. Find people learning your language (ie: English) who are native speakers of the language you are learning (ie:: Italian), and add them as friends. This not only gives you easy access to them, but it prompts them to pay attention to you as well.
Don't forget to give back! It's not a one-way street. Don't just accept help from people... give back. One of the best ways to ensure that people keep helping you is to help them. And over the course of this give-and-take, you'll even make friendships.
Get carried away!
Take your experience as far as you can! It doesn't have to stop at writing meaningless text and correcting the same from others. You can, and will, make new friends on Lang-8!
Some people will respond to your "thank you" message and start an entire dialog with you, outside of the writing space. Do it! Conversations help you learn much more than one-way writing. And it doesn't have to stop there. Take it to your email address. Ask for a chat ID.
Better yet, ask for a Skype name! Skype can be your text chat tool when your skills get faster than email, and it can be your voice chat tool when your skills get faster and better than chat. And because you're doing it with someone from Lang-8, you already know that they're willing to be patient with you and help you to learn.
I have made several friendships over Lang-8, including a several people with whom I continue to communicate regularly, and whom I have met in person or plan to meet some day. You can too.
What are you waiting for? Get writing! And don't forget to add me as your friend!