If you take a look at the map of Houston above (click on it to enlarge) which lists the most common languages by zip code excluding Spanish and English, you start to get a picture of just how diverse Houston really is. Picture yourself in zip code 77055. Besides English and Spanish, the most popular language in this zip code is Vietnamese, but take just a small step over to zip code 77008, and suddenly there are German speakers everywhere. Now take a small stroll down to 77007, and Chinese becomes prevalent. It's amazing that so many different language speakers from such diverse backgrounds coexist in the same vicinity.
Houston truly is a melting pot of languages, and it’s no surprise that in a city this large and diverse, there are innumerable opportunities to explore learning and practicing foreign languages. Over 90 languages are spoken in the area and, according to the Houston Chronicle, Houston is even more "ethnically diverse" than New York City.
When so many different types of people come together in one place, the opportunities to learn and grow from one another are limitless, as long as you have the resources to find each other and utilize them.
One of the most beneficial tools to learning a new language are language exchange partners. There is no ‘right way’ to find one, and Houston offers plentiful means to connect with all types of people, making your search easy. Language exchange partners make great resources as they allow for the benefits of one-on-one teaching without the cost. The key is to find someone whose language skill set matches what you aim to learn, and vice versa. Once you find a partner, you can begin exchanging lessons, and both of you will find yourselves growing in your respective second tongues.
The Houston Language Partners Initiative Meetup group is brought together by people with similar goals of learning a second language. The group meets socially and hosts free speed-friending events to connect members and promote language exchange.
FYI, if you’re looking to cast a wider net, LRNGO offers users both local and global language exchange connections. You can search the languages that you can teach, those you want to know, and your location to show a list of matches whose abilities and goals compliment your own. From there you can send out messages to connect and set up meeting times, either in person or on Skype (or any other choice of video chat).
If you’re interested in meeting a learning exchange partner on your own, try going to many different locations and many different zip codes, and immerse yourself in Houstonian ethnic diversity. Try seeking out someone at a local coffee shop, library, or bookstore. Pay attention to what they’re doing, and if they happen to be studying a language you already know, ask them if they’d be interested in language exchange.
The key to pairing with a language exchange partner is to be friendly, helpful, and not too embarrassed (remember, they’re trying to learn a new language too).
Beyond language exchange partners, if you’re currently a student at a local university, be sure to take advantage of the language resources that your school has to offer. Rice University’s Center for Languages and International Communication offers courses in over ten languages, study abroad opportunities, and community involvement through service learning and ‘language tables’ that help to build speaking skills. University of Houston offers classes in about fifteen languages and the Language Acquisition Center offers students a variety of useful tools to help improve their skills, including an extensive foreign film collection. UH’s Language and Culture Center even provides international students with an intensive ESL program.
Your dream to learn a second language starts with you, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. In Houston itself, there are so many people to connect with and so many languages to learn; like Tagalog, Urdu, Gujarti, and Laotian. Fluent speakers in languages that I am not ashamed to say I have never heard of, are all living in the same place. When I stare long enough at this map, I’m struck by the opportunities that language acquisition offers, and I feel lucky that we have the ability to connect with new people and cultures around the world, right in our own backyard.