You know, and I know, that everyone will learn a language at their own pace. Even with our native language, everyone has their own personal rate for acquiring vocabulary. So while everyone who's interested in (and starting the process of) learning a new language is putting their motivation to good use, they're all doing so at their own speeds.
I have to say that I'm incredibly thankful for coming across groups like LanguageCast in Seoul, an Conversation Club in San Antonio. The opportunity to practice the language you're learning with native speakers (or just others who know that second language at all) is a huge one. It's something I don't think I'll ever take for granted now that I've been exposed to it. Speaking might be the most important step in language simply because it can put all the other stages (listening, reading, and writing) into practice at the same time. A quick example is the time I went into a Korean bank and attempted to cash in my traveler's checks. Albeit at the time I knew very few Korean words to help me through the situation....
My point is, if I'm not able to live in the country whose language I'm learning, a weekly meeting with other speakers of that language is certainly going to make me feel more prepared for the day I DO manage to make that trip. In such environments, there's plenty of opportunity to learn slang and local speak that isn't covered in text books. There's the chance to meet and make friends with people from any possible background (and whom are headed in any possible future). In some ways, it's almost as great as visiting a new country. These organizations have the potential to offer more cultural experience than a town festival, simply because you're allowing yourself to be invited into other people's lives rather than view them from a grassy lawn seat.
In my case, I'm thankful to have a place to maintain skills that I picked up long (and not-so-long) ago when it's not so convenient to take a class. ...And I'm actually learning new things, too. I'm learning new words to add to my memory, to hold onto until the next meeting. I have more than one person available to ask questions (you know... for those tricky times when some part of grammer completely stumps you, and your attempts at questioning your book and the internet haven't quite worked).
Let me be fair in saying that motivation plays a big part in getting the most out of these meetings. Goals do, as well. If you just want to make friends, you can totally expect to achieve that. If you just want the group to be your personal tutor, you can probably achieve that as well. If you want both, or more, your goals and motivations will take you there.
Now, I gotta mention the tricky parts about being in these language meetings. The dominant language can be a killer at times. It is so easy to get stuck conversing in the dominant language rather than practicing the one you're studying, especially at times when your vocab levels are low, or ability to make sentences (which is almost always my case). When I went to LanguageCast with a friend, I was set (and I even told my friend this) on speaking as much Korean as possible. Yet, I kept getting stuck on one or two words here or there, either in their question or in my response, and knowing that English was a safety net to keep the conversation going had me lapsing into English every other sentence.
In the case of the Conversation Club I'm now attending, my first goal was simply to listen to people speaking Japanese and hope to remember what it all meant. When I started out, Korean was heavily clouding my mind. I couldn't find the Japanese words of things that I should've easily been able to remember upon hearing. Things like はぎめまして (Nice to meet you) were blanketed by a heavy layer of Korean equivalents (만나서 반갑습니다). Then there were those moments where nobody had any more questions about Japanese grammar, and the native speakers didn't have anything in particular they wanted to educate us about, so the conversation would shift into long bouts of English until a new topic was established.
--Now, there's nothing wrong with speaking they language you're NOT studying. I mean, SOMEONE is ultimately studying one or the other, no matter the fluency.--
Still, when I finally made a friend and let her speak in full Japanese to me, I stopped feeling so overwhelmed, and focused on the belief that ONE DAY I would be able to do more than just understand. One day, I would be able to respond. It just happens, after all. Practice and learning is definitely important, but breakthroughs certainly "just happen."
I've only been to two kinds so far, but the ones I went to were quite different. In San Antonio, I have found the language groups to be separate, where as the one in Korea was a single meeting for speakers of any language. Of course, people were more than welcome to form subgroups that met their needs. I have to say, I favor the later simply because one could be introduced to languages they never considered learning before. It's a much bigger learning opportunity.
So, I'll keep going to these exchanges. I hope that I can find one wherever I go, or that I will have the courage to create on if there is none (and that people will want to join). You should check them out, too. Even if you're not studying another language, you could help out someone who is trying to learn yours.