How to Get a Foreigner to Teach You English

Are you young, eager to learn English and live in Bishkek? Do you want to practice your English with one of the many foreigners coming in the summer or living here permanently? Here’s how to do it!

Imagine you’re sitting in your mother’s kiosk one August afternoon and he walks in. A real chet-ölkölük! His sweaty blond hair falls into his sunburned face, from which lily-blue eyes look at you with all the goodness and defenselessness that come from growing up in a country with affordable health care and a working social safety net. He stares at the Russian phrase section of the Lonley Planet Central Asia and stammers “Uuuu vaass eest vodaaa?”

Your target – the foreigner. Photo by Benjamin Combs

Careful now! You should definitely not ask him directly: “I want to improve my English. Can I practice with you?” A question like this gives him the feeling you want something, almost like you’re asking for money.  If he lives in Bishkek permanently, he’s getting asked like this all the time and has already developed strategies to get rid of you.

He’s going to use some excuse: “I don’t have time” or “My organization doesn’t allow me to teach out of university“. In the best case he will agree to meet without specifying a date which allows him to conveniently forget about you.

A slightly better approach is proposing a language tandem, “You can teach me English and I can teach you Russian or Kyrgyz!“, but this probably also won’t work. He get’s a lot of proposals like this and, let’s be honest, few foreigners make a serious effort to learn your languages.

Think like a Foreigner
To get this foreigner to practice with you, you must learn to think like him. What does he want? What does he need?

Your should know Western people become a little simple when they travel or live abroad. They are forever looking for things that are “local“, “authentic“, and “traditional“. This basically means things that are only available in one specific place and that have been available there for as long as anyone alive can remember.

Many foreigners living in Bishkek also feel guilty about not having many friends from here, about never getting out of their closed privileged circle of expat friends with whom they do expensive expat things.  They want to meet “locals” (you) but don’t want to learn Russian or Kyrgyz in order to talk to them. They want to “experience” the country “like locals“, but end up spending most of their time with other foreigners.

That’s where you come in! You don’t actually need to “practice English” with the foreigner, all you need is to spend time with him. When you meet, you will of course talk to each other and this is precisely the practice you need.

Be the “Local Guide
Instead of asking him to meet with you, offer to show him places in Bishkek “only locals know about” and do things that are “authentic” and “traditional.

If the foreigner is visiting Bishkek, you can offer to show him around the center. Ajant, the Lenin statue behind the State Historical Museum, Dubovij and Panfilov Park, Filharmonia. Let him try some “traditional national” drinks, chalap or maksim, from one of the stands and tell him a little about Kyrgyzstan.

Even if the foreigner had lived in Bishkek for a while, you still have something to show him. Just ask if he would like to see “your favorite places”, then take him somewhere he hasn’t been yet, for example the wooden bridge over the tracks at the train station, Victory Park at Uzhnaja Vorota, Asanbai Center or the Flagstok south of town.

Taken from a place “only locals know”

You could also offer to explain who all the famous people are that have been memorized with statues in the center. Who was Toktogul? And Togoluk Moldo? And who is that guy carrying his own horse?

Who is this and why is he carrying his horse?

You can also ask him to join you on some seemingly normal activity, like shopping at a bazaar. In winter, a great way would be to invite him to banja Zhyrgal, though that of course only works if you’re male too or if the foreigner is a woman.

How a Foreigner Can be Useful for You
Before you go of know to find yourself a foreigner to practice with, some words of caution. Maybe you think, like many of your compatriots seem to do, that just the act of conversing with a native English speaker will magically improve your  own English skills and that a native speakers is the ideal language teacher. Wrong! Learning the grammar rules of any language requires years of dedicated training. Learning how to explain those rules to others takes the same amount of time, even for your native language.

Try it yourself. Could you explain why you have to add an “ы” in Бишкек шаары or why you sometimes say идти and sometimes ходить?

What you can and should use the foreigner for is conversation practice. By talking to him you practice understanding and producing spoken language. He can also teach you contemporary vocabulary and expressions that your teachers don’t know. For example, why do foreigners keep saying “What’s up?” Are they interested in what’s above them? Why don’t they just look up?

This also means that the foreigner can only be useful for you if you already have some knowledge in English. If all you know is “Hello!” and “Let’s go!” a native speaker won’t be able to help you much. If that’s your level, I recommend taking a language course with a local English teacher.

Although, if you’ve read this text without copy-pasting it into Google Translate you’re probably ready to start practice right away.

Good luck!