As a self-directed language learner, I have a number of go-to resources that I use on a regular basis. In this article, I introduce you to one of my favorites: Stack Exchange.
Stack Exchange is a network of question and answer (Q&A) web sites, each site devoted to a specific topic. It began as a single Q&A site called Stack Overflow for computer programmers. When the concept proved successful, it was opened up for other topics. There are now nearly 150 individual Q&A sites on topics ranging from science fiction and movies to advanced mathematics and scientific skepticism and, of course, languages.
Stack Exchange for the Language Student
Language exchanges are a popular peer teaching method, where you practice your target language with a native speaker, and in return you help them in your native language. One great thing about Stack Exchange is that it serves to take peer teaching to another level, allowing students to teach each other on all aspects of language–not only conversation practice.
Because Stack Exchange attracts experts, it is also an excellent resource for hard-to-answer questions. When your dictionary has a discrepancy or your teacher is stumped, let the experts at Stack Exchange help your question. And in turn, you can help answer others’ questions, and at the same time sharpen your own language skills!
Currently Stack Exchange has the following language sites:
- English and English Learners
- Russian and Русский язык (in Russian)
There is also Linguistics about the academic study of languages, not about any specific language. There are several other language sites in the works, including Portuguese, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew (more on this below).
I am a volunteer moderator on the Spanish Stack Exchange, however I receive nothing from Stack Exchange for the position, nor for promoting their site.
For the sake of consistency, I will provide images and links from the Spanish site. Please substitute the site for your preferred language. Just open one of the links above in a separate browser tab, then follow along.
Getting Acquainted with Stack Exchange
When you’re new to an online community, it’s always good to familiarize yourself with the community a bit before jumping in.
The entire network of Stack Exchange sites share a common community culture, but each individual site has its own sub-culture as well, with its own specific rules. For this reason, before you dive in and start posting questions, I encourage you to spend a least half an hour browsing the site of your choice before posting. And if you’re going to post a question, part of that time ought to be spent searching to see if the question has already been asked.
Spend some time reading recent questions and answers, paying special attention to which types of questions and answers are well received by the community, with positive vote scores, and those which are not well received, with low vote scores (more on voting in a moment).
You should also take the site tour, which you can find in the upper right corner of the page under help. It’s short, and well worth your time, and explains how to post questions and answers, how to vote, and generally how to use the Stack Exchange web sites.
You Are the Community
When you participate on a Stack Exchange site, you are part of the community. You will have the ability to vote on posts, leave comments, help moderate the content, much like a wiki, and even participate in community policy making. To prevent malicious actions on the part of spammers and trolls, Stack Exchange uses a system of “reputation” which can be earned as you participate, and as you earn reputation, you’ll earn new privileges (like the ability to correct other people’s typographical errors). Be sure to read up on reputation to understand the full implications.
The entire Help Center will also be a good resource, especially as you’re starting out.
The first step in community participation is to register on the site of your choice. This is an easy process, and your registration can be tied to an existing account such as Facebook or Gmail, or you can register separately if you prefer.
What to Ask
The types of questions that are permitted vary slightly by site. Before posting a question you should always read the on-topic guidelines under “What topics can I ask about here?” and “What types of questions should I avoid asking?” in the help center. But here are some general guidelines for posting good, on-topic questions:
- Ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of the site.
- Focus on questions with a single, correct answer
Opinion-based questions are off-topic. “What is your favorite Spanish accent?” and “What Spanish/English dictionary do you use?” are not a good questions. Everyone’s answer will be different, so these questions will be closed.
Avoid “general reference” questions.
If your question can be easily answered by a dictionary (What’s the Spanish word for “uncomfortable?”), it’s not a good fit for Stack Exchange. You will be asked to consult a dictionary.
Questions can generally be asked in English or in the target language.
Most sites accept questions in both languages (Русский язык (Russian Language) is the only exception I’m aware of). But many prefer one language over the other. Just check the site guidelines, and judge your own competence in your target language. Whenever possible, you should ask in your target language, just to practice. And if you make mistakes, the community will generally help correct you gently.
You’ve read a few posts on your language’s site, done the site tour, signed up with an account, and read the site guidelines, it’s time jump in. What’s the most pressing question you have about your new language?
In Spanish, why do we say el agua (masculine) but las aguas (feminine)?
That’s an excellent question! I’m glad you asked! So lets hop on over to the Spanish Stack Exchange, click the Ask Question link, and type away. But wait!
It looks like a similar question has already been asked: Why is “agua” masculine in singular form and feminine in plural? “El agua” / “Las aguas”.
We forgot to do a search for the question before asking. But Stack Exchange is smart enough to do a mini-search for us, and points us to the previously asked question. If we were to ignore this, and ask the question anyway, it would no doubt be promptly closed as a “duplicate” of the original question, much like this one:
So it’s always best to do a search for your question before posting.
If your question hasn’t already been asked, read over it a time or two to make sure it’s clear and easy to understand. Confusing questions aren’t usually well received. The community generally will try to help you clarify your question if it’s unclear, but it’s always best to be as clear as possible from the beginning.
What if your language isn’t on the list above? Stack Exchange is constantly in the process of launching new sites, based on community participation. If the language you’re studying doesn’t yet have a site, you can help launch one! The special site called Area 51 Stack Exchange is where new site concepts are vetted, and when a site has enough community support, it goes live. As of this writing, there are 22 new language sites at various phases of development. By participating in the development process, you can help your target language site become a reality sooner. Be sure to read the Area 51 FAQ to learn how specifically to get involved with the site definition process.
Once you are following or have committed to your favorite language site (or proposed your own), the next best thing you can do to help your site get off the ground is participate in other Stack Exchange sites. Find one or more that interests you (it doesn’t need to be about languages). By earning reputation on other Stack Exchange sites, you add weight to your commitment to Area 51 sites in development.
I also encourage you to follow one of my site proposals, Language Learning. It’s not a site about any particular language, but rather a site about the art and science of learning languages. It’s intended for people exactly like you.