Had a great start to Chinese learning yesterday lunchtime. I need to practice speaking a lot more this year and Skype is a wonderful way to practice (possibly essential for someone in my position), however Skype has the drawback that there is no body language. I find talking face to face much easier and even on a good Skype connection face to face talking seems easier to understand in comparison. There are probably many reasons for this but some simple reasons are fairly obvious. For example if you are talking face to face you may see that someone isn't understanding what you are saying straight away and rephrase the sentance or substitute a word, but on Skype you may have finished the entire sentence before you know there is a problem.
I had a little face to face practice early on with a guy who was finishing an MBA at Bath university but he has left now and it was a little early on in my learning. Luckily I have found a fairly reliable source of Mandarin speakers for a little occasional practice.
Problem: where to find Mandarin speakers I can meet up with, I met one weekly for a while who was finishing an MBA at Bath university and it was great. However he was nearish my age, married and had similar time constraints so it was easy to make arrangements that suited us both. Young students a (almost literally) generation away and whilst I don't mind talking to people of all ages I might either weird them out or they might get frustrated that we are running time schedules and constraints that appear to come from alternative parallel universes.
I tried some takeaway shops and a Chinese supermarket but they spoke Cantonese. I have made a very useful discovery though. There are a multitude of Chinese medicine and health shops across the UK now and at least two of the different chains operate in a very similar way. At the most basic they have a Chinese medicine practitioner and an assistant. The Chinese medicine person is a Mandarin speaker (it says so in their job adverts) who may speak English and the assistant is proficient in Mandarin and English (also says so in their job adverts ;)). I practiced a bit away from home when I was visiting other towns or cities (these things are all over). The assistant is usually a girl who will respond with gushing enthusiasm when you attempt to speak Mandarin (although one was very nervous and shy but that seemed to apply across the board Mandarin or English). The power in the back is often a Man who will not go out of his way to speak Mandarin with you (you might not even see this person).
There are two of these places near where I work :). I went shopping for the first time this year and noticed a change of staff in one of them (I had already had some basic chats and ordered my wolfberries in Mandarin with the previous assistant). I went and launched into Mandarin (checking that the assistant spoke it even though I was sure she would). Unfortunately she was very withdrawn (also with other people that just spoke English to her but I guess I would feel like that in a foreign country too) but the power in the back room was a lady this time as soon as she heard my Mandarin explanation; that I want to practice, she leaped out and engaged me in approx 20mins of wonderful conversation in fact the best most fluent conversation I have ever had. Yes we used some English but mostly Mandarin and she was smart and kind enough to dumb down her talking to a level where I had a fighting chance to understand.
That conversation is like seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, granted the rest of the tunnel is still very very very long but I have seen the light, and I walked out of there on clouds (I was shockingly mentally exhausted though). I have an open invitation to return to chat. Even better just before Christmas I had finally managed to convince the older gentleman in the other place that I could actually understand and speak at least a little Mandarin (rather than just being a freak coincidence derived from the mumblings of a mad Englishman) and he told me I was welcome to return for a chat also.
Great, some face to face conversation, it is much much easier than Skype which I find a little awkward, this just increases my admiration for the great Chinese people I have talked to on Skype who can speak English so well (particularly Ellen and Keyu). Now I have a goal, first to get invited behind the counter for a cup of tea (I know they make it back there I have caught a glimpse), secondly to bring the shy assistant out of her shell if I can.
If you are English and bemoaning the lack of casual conversation opportunity then why not see if you have one of these places near you?