The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #14 March / April 2015
Chatting in Languages Online
Part 2: Voice Chats
by Erik Zidowecki
March / April 2015 | 

Young girl using a voice chat to talk to someone online

Last issue, I wrote about how text chats can be utilized on the internet to help language learners interact with each other for practise. While communicating in real-time through typing can really help improve you capabilities, the one thing this can not help is the verbal component. Language is, after all, meant to be spoken and heard. While a text chat can build your confidence with being able to compose sentences and carry on a conversation, it does nothing for your speaking and listening skills. For that, you need a voice chat.

Simply put, a voice chat uses a setup like a text chat, with a server that handles the interactions and client programs that each person has on their own computer to connect to the server. When connected, people can talk to each other, utilizing a microphone and possibly headphones. There are specific headsets, which are a combination of microphone and headphones, designed for this activity.

Team Speak

Team Speak client, showing the various "rooms" a person can join to talk in

There are a number of programs to use for this. The one that I am most familiar with for using on a website is Team Speak. It is free for use with non-profit groups. Once installed on a website server, those wanting to practise can join it and talk to others also currently joined. Multiple areas, also called channels, can be created for specific reasons, like focusing on certain languages. All for free!

What an amazing tool to have available! You can imagine that language lovers would have dozens if not hundreds of these set up all over the internet and be using them around the clock. How could they not?

Well, the reality is that no matter how much a person studies and practises a language, there is always a fear of how they will sound when they attempt to speak it. They worry about their pronunciation as well as their accents. Listening is also a concern, because while they may understand what they see in writing, they probably have not developed their comprehension skills as much for audio. This leads to the odd paradox of many people talking about voice chats and wanting them created, yet then being fearful to use them. Even those that are bold enough to try are attempting to convince others to join will usually find themselves met with many excuses, ranging from the ever popular "I do not have a microphone" to the blunt "I do not like voice chats".

Fear of Speaking

This fear is not limited to voice chats. Learners will often also love to have a resource in which they can hear the vocabulary they are studying pronounced, but will rarely ever want to make such recordings themselves for others to use. Some will record themselves for a larger, singular text, but not for multiple words.

In UniLang, we created a section called "Sondios del Mundo". Here, people recorded themselves in their native languages reading a specific translated paragraph. This was to help people hear the way a language sounded. Over the years, we were able to build this up to a large collection, with a few dozen recordings. Considering that there were a several thousand members, though, there should have been a lot more additions. At the time, it was rather unique, but now, with the rise of YouTube and other sites having audio components, it seems a bit outdated.


While many may have feared using Team Speak or recording themselves for others to hear, another piece of software rose to widespread usage and snuck into usage among polyglots, seemingly without the same amount of trepidation.

Polyglot Benny Lewis created a musical video with other language learners about using Skype

Skype is a program that differs in a few major ways from Team Speak. First, there is no server to be set up. You download the software and create and account. This allows you to talk to anyone else around the world that is also on Skype. It is also not advertised as being a voice chat system, but instead, as a way of placing calls to family and friends.

Conventional phones used to be limited to a series of wires connecting houses throughout cities and countries. The cost of making these calls would increase for longer distances, making it very impractical to use them as a means of talking to someone in another country. I used to talk to people in Italy this way at a rate of around $65 an hour. Phone bills easily rose into the thousands.

Then the internet changed that. After people could talk to people using email and text chats, the technology eventually improve to the point that high quality audio could be sent through the same computer networks. When this became fast enough to appear instant, a replacement for phone lines was born. This new technology was called "Voice Over Internet Protocol", or VOIP.

Skype utilizes this VOIP, allowing two people with a computer to talk instantly to anyone around the world for free (well, at the cost of their internet bill). Even if the receiver did not have a phone, the Skype call could be sent to a standard phone connection.

A Skype window showing a conversation being typed along with people speaking

The appeal of this to a much larger population quickly made Skype a global phenomenon. It was then that the people started using it to practise their language skills.

A drawback to this approach is that Skype is really designed as a way for two people to connect, and so the means that to set up a single channel for others to use is very limited. While a group might be created, getting access to it might not always work, at least in my experience. Unless a person with certain permission is not in the channel, anyone who has not already joined can not do so without help from another person.

A Skype group still suffers from the same issues as a Team Speak server, in that people will be shy about talking. People also need to create a global Skype account to use it, while Team Speak merely needs a person to know the address of the server and any password the owner may have placed on it.

For those who are truly daring, however, Skype does have video capabilities as well, so anyone with a computer camera (called a "cam") can broadcast their lovely faces, and whatever else they want, to someone along with their voices. Some will love this while some will find it even more intimidating than speaking.

Text and Voice

Both Team Speak and Skype recognize that people may not always want to speak, so both systems have limited text capabilities. Both systems have basic profile capabilities, so people can give details about themselves, including pictures.

Last Word

When using the internet as a language learning tool, a voice chat system is probably the most powerful resources for interactive speaking and listening. However, it can also be one of the most difficult to fully utilize for the reasons I mentioned. Nevertheless, I encourage you to take advantage of these systems whenever you get a chance, as they can help you improve your new language incredibly! And don't be afraid to speak. That is the reason you are learning the language, is it not?

Chatting in Languages Online - Voice Chats
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
stylesr1: headset and keyboard
hathuhoan_2008: girl at keyboard
len-k-a: Woman with headset
thegunacer: Teamspeak
Benny Lewis: Skype me maybe
killshot165: Skype

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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