How I use italki

Taking on a leadership role and preparing for lessons–rather than expecting my tutors to do so–is one of the main keys to my success.

Italki is a marketplace of foreign language learners, tutors, professional teachers, and exchange partners. Students can often find tutors within their price range for one-on-one Skype tutoring sessions. If not, they can at least find free language exchange partners for Skype practice. (For example, if you’re a native French speaker learning English and I’m a native English speaker learning French, we can converse in English for 30 minutes and in French for 30 minutes, meeting by Skype or a similar program once or twice a week.) There are several websites like italki, but they don’t offer as many languages as italki does. (By the way, I get no financial benefit from writing about this or any other product.)

Italki also has other services, such as articles of language-learning tips published by various teachers. There’s a place called the Notebook where you can write an essay of any length in your target language (the language you’re learning) and have it corrected by volunteers–usually native speakers. There’s also a place where you can post opinion questions about languages and cultures and people can respond in a discussion format. And there’s a place where you can post questions about specific words or expressions that you don’t understand in your target language. So even if you’re broke, you can probably find italki useful.

Some (perhaps many) italki tutors and teachers are only prepared to teach the basics of their languages–maybe enough to carry on simple conversations or prepare for travel. Some are trained to answer grammar and vocabulary questions as preparation for exams. In my experience, many can adapt to help intermediate and advanced learners. Their usefulness above the beginner level, however, usually requires that the student prepare for the lessons and take the initiative, rather than the teacher. In that case, informal tutoring is cheaper and more appropriate than professional lessons.

This spring, for example, I hired 23 tutors for 30-minute Russian conversation practice sessions (many of them for only $5 each), then kept about half of the tutors. (How I select and weed out tutors will be the topic of a future blog entry.) Between them, I had between 2 and 4 sessions a week over a 3-month period, except for a couple of weeks when I wasn’t available. At the beginning, I couldn’t say much in Russian. By the end, I probably attained the lower-intermediate level (CEFR B1) in conversation–but not reading or writing! I previously did something similar for French, Spanish, and Japanese (but with fewer tutors), all with the help of italki.

As I said, taking on a leadership role and preparing for lessons–rather than expecting your tutors to do so–is recommended, and it’s one of the main keys to my success. First, I met my own prerequisites for conversation practice. (See my blog entry, “Ready for conversation practice,” for details.) Then, I brainstormed a list of simple conversation topics that interested me, grouped related ones together (such as travel, languages, and climates), and arranged them so that topics requiring more vocabulary came after topics which required less vocabulary. When I scheduled each lesson with a tutor, I announced which topics I wanted to talk about and they would tell me whether the topics interested them or not.

For example, the first session I had with each of my 23 tutors, I asked them to converse with me about travel and/or languages and/or climates. In 30 minutes, we can’t talk about all three, so the tutor was free to select from those three topics. One teacher would ask me questions like, “What countries have you traveled to? What did you like about them? Where do you want to go next?” Another would ask me, “What’s the climate like in your city,” and also tell me about the climate in their city. Another would ask me how I learned my languages and what I think of their language. Every conversation was unique and interesting. No two teachers had exactly the same interests.

I answered each question with long answers. Sometimes I would explain the reasons for my answers. Sometimes I would give examples. Sometimes I would compare two things (for example, Japan and South Korea–two places where I taught English). If I had given short answers, I would still be a beginner. Long answers are necessary for improvement. Also, long answers keep the conversation interesting for both the student and the tutor.

Even though every session was unique, I still had a chance to repeat a lot of the same grammar and vocabulary, so I could improve from week to week. Teachers also corrected my errors and taught me words I didn’t know. At first, I didn’t study them, and I kept forgetting the same words and making the same mistakes over and over. Later, I started memorizing what the tutors taught me, and then I improved my conversational skill faster.

To prepare, I first studied topical vocabulary books (such as those published by Barron’s and those compiled by Andrey Taranov). I read through lists of words, but didn’t try to memorize them. Then I wrote example questions on each topic and how I would answer them–all in the target language. Even though tutors asked me different questions, this step nonetheless prepared me somehow. Finally, I practiced talking to myself on these topics in the target language. By that time, I was ready for conversation practice. I needed a lot of help and corrections at first, but after many sessions with different tutors, it became easier and I became more fluent–though I still made many mistakes, especially in Russian (because the grammar is irregular).

It was rare, but in the worst-case scenario, I simply read aloud to the tutor what I had written, and they corrected me. Toward the end, I started using italki’s Notebook feature to have my questions and answers corrected before the tutoring sessions.

Of course, in the spirit of conversation, I asked my tutors questions in the target language, too, but most of them asked me questions most of the time to give me the maximum speaking practice. Besides, I’m introverted, so asking questions and keeping conversations balanced is not my forte.

How do you practice conversation? How do you prepare for it? Have I provided any tips that you would like to try?

A honeymoon for language success

The languages for which I’ve completed a honeymoon phase successfully are the ones I’m strongly motivated to study.

It’s common knowledge in the polyglot community that motivation is the key to success. Good study habits might be more important, but I believe it’s impossible to establish a habit without some kind of motivation. Famous polyglot Alex Rawlings recommends writing a list of 10 reasons why you want to learn a language. It’s not easy, or even always possible! But if you can write such a list, those reasons will keep you motivated.

Barring that, what helps me to stay motivated is to start off with what I call a “honeymoon phase.” Others have remarked that when you start learning a foreign language, it feels like a honeymoon. That is, the language might be new and fun to you as you learn interesting things about it and hear yourself speaking it. Disappointments, frustration, and boredom might not have surfaced yet. Thus, it feels a little like a honeymoon.

However, I use the term “honeymoon” for a deliberate language-learning phase at the beginning of my studies of a new language. During this phase, I attempt to fall in love with the language before I become committed to it, set goals, or even study it seriously. This phase even helps me to decide which language I want to study next.

There are some things I do during this phase–but not all of them:

  • Find out where it’s spoken.
  • Find out what sounds and tones are in it (phonetics)–usually via Wikipedia.
  • Listen to news broadcasts and other audio in the language.
  • Watch videos to sample TV, movies, vblogs, fairy tales, etc.
  • Sample music–both modern and traditional.
  • Watch traditional dances.
  • Watch videos for very small children, and see if I can pick up a few words.
  • Listen to podcasts for beginners learning the language.
  • See what the writing looks like.
  • Study the language with short audio courses such as Speak … with Confidence or Dr. Blair’s … in No Time or … for Children.
  • Find out what kinds of courses and references I can use to study it (but don’t start them yet). Keep a list. Think about which course I’d like to start with after the honeymoon phase is over.

There are also things I don’t do during this phase:

  • Spend a lot of money.
  • Study a serious course.
  • Read a lot about grammar.
  • Try to master all of its pronunciation at once.
  • Memorize vocabulary.
  • Study with a tutor or language exchange partner.
  • Take a class.
  • Make commitments with myself.
  • Set goals.
  • Ask others to keep me accountable.

These are all things I do once the honeymoon phase is over, if I decide to continue with that language. I might decide not to continue, as a result of not gaining enough appreciation for the language or culture or finding it hard to find courses and references I can use to learn it.

The languages for which I’ve completed a honeymoon phase successfully are the ones I’m strongly motivated to study, while those for which I haven’t completed it are lacking motivation. If I lack motivation, I tend to quit it sooner or later.

Are there any languages that you think you might persevere in and be more successful at if you either (1.) write a list of ten reasons to learn it, or (2.) spend a few weeks deliberately playing with the language but not studying it seriously? Are there languages that you have quit learning that you would like to try again with one of these two approaches?

How not to confuse languages

I put one language on hold for a couple of months while I study the other.

If you are learning multiple languages, it’s easy to confuse them with each other.

  • Naturally, languages within the same family (such as Romance languages, Germanic languages, Arabic dialects, etc.) are easily mixed up. That is, when you try to speak French, some Spanish words will be mixed in–if you study both languages.
  • It can even happen with languages that aren’t literally related, but which still seem somewhat similar to you (such as Japanese and Korean). I even mix up Russian and German because they use similar case systems (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative).
  • Also, if you start learning two new languages at about the same time, your mind will link them, and you could mix them up a little, even if the languages are completely dissimilar. This happened to me with Japanese and Spanish.
  • Finally, if you study two languages via the same course or method, they could mix together in your mind. That used to happen when I used Pimsleur more because Pimsleur teaches the same vocabulary in the same order in all of its languages (as far as I can tell).

The mixing is to be expected, but there are remedies. First, it will decrease as you become proficient in both languages–somewhere around the high intermediate level (CEFR level B2). It will also decrease (according to Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in 3 Months) if you practice quickly switching back and forth between those languages. It takes a lot of practice, though! Mike Campbell (founder of Glossika) recommends memorizing the same sentences in both languages (laddering from one language to the next) in order to teach your mind to distinguish them. Below are two things I do to minimize the mixing of languages.

First, I use different study materials and methods for each. For example, I might emphasize reading and listening in one language but grammar in the other. Or I might learn one from a book and the other from an audio course. Actually, I do this whenever I study multiple languages at the same time, regardless of whether I’m likely to mix them up or not. I even study different languages in different locations and at different times of the day.

Second, I put one language on hold for a couple of months while I study the other. For example, I’m currently studying Spanish, German, and Japanese. I’m not studying French, Russian, or Korean. That is, the Korean is paused while I study Japanese; the Russian is paused while I study German; and the French is paused while I study Spanish.

If you’re currently studying your first or second foreign language, I suggest you study only that one language for at least a year. Learn how to learn languages before you try to add more languages. But if you’ve already studied several languages and want to maintain them while you add new ones, maybe some of the ideas presented in this post will help you. Please write a comment if you have anything to add or if you disagree with any of this. Best wishes in your language studies.

Ready for conversation practice

A way to avoid procrastination is to set specific criteria for when you will start conversation.

The global polyglot community is divided into two camps: Those who practice conversation in a new foreign language from the beginning of their studies, and those who delay it until later. Both agree that conversation practice is important (unless someone only wants to read and/or listen), but they do it at different times. Those who advocate “conversation from day one” warn us that it’s possible to procrastinate indefinitely, saying “I’ll speak when I’m ready,” but they never feel ready.

Often the problem is perfectionism: Many people don’t want to speak until their grammar and/or accent are nearly flawless in order to avoid embarrassment. This is a poor reason to delay because perfection is impossible to achieve and embarrassment is impossible to avoid when speaking a foreign language. Besides, at some point it becomes impossible to improve without feedback. Textbooks won’t teach you everything you need to know to speak a language flawlessly.

A way to avoid procrastination is to set specific criteria for when you will start conversation. Some study for a specific period of time first (such as three or six months); others choose to study a beginner textbook such as Colloquial or Teach Yourself or Assimil from beginning to end and then start conversation. These are both good plans. When they finally start speaking, they’re probably less confused and stressed than they would have been if they had practiced conversation from the beginning. In my case, conversation in other languages makes me mentally exhausted, and the delay helps to reduce that problem.

People who delay conversation practice–when they finally start speaking–have the following advantages:

  • They have things to say (vocabulary).
  • They know how to express some of their thoughts (grammar).
  • They’ve hopefully spent time practicing listening comprehension, and
  • They’ve had time to work on their pronunciation.

Of course, if someone needs to use a language very soon, it’s best not to delay.

I, too, have particular criteria so that I know when I’m ready for conversation. In my case, my reasoning is that if I can’t talk to myself in a language, I can’t talk to anyone else either. And if I can’t understand even part of a tutor’s self-introduction video (on italki), I won’t understand them in conversation either. And so, I work specifically on speaking and listening from the beginning to bring myself up to that level. Once I’m there, I hire italki tutors for conversation practice. (By the way, at the present time, I gain no financial benefit from mentioning italki or any other brand.)

The speaking courses I prefer to use are Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, and LanguageTransfer. (At the moment, I’m learning German from them. After I’m done, I plan to write a comparative review of all three.) These courses are completely audio. The teacher presents a small grammatical point or a vocabulary word and then asks the learner to pause the recording and translate a sentence from English into the language they’re learning. Then they continue listening in order to hear and repeat the correct answer. Then the courses go on to the next point or review a previous one. They include a lot of review, so memorization, homework, and writing down notes are all discouraged and unnecessary. Furthermore, they get the learner used to creating sentences aloud in the target language, a prerequisite to conversational skill. After I complete Michel Thomas especially, I find myself thinking aloud occasionally in the target language unintentionally.

My next step is to talk to myself intentionally in the target language, usually while driving a car or taking a walk. If I’m walking, I often bring a pocket dictionary, pocket vocabulary book, and/or pen and pocket notebook so I can fill in gaps in my vocabulary as I practice speaking. At first, I can’t say more than a few sentences–but with practice, I can get into the flow of speaking in that language for several minutes, even if only on one or two topics. This meets my speaking prerequisite for hiring a tutor for conversation practice.

As a beginner, I limit my listening practice to easy materials: podcasts by Innovative Language, the Speak … with Confidence courses published by Teach Yourself, or even audio recordings of dialogs from beginning textbooks. Difficult listening–such as videos or radio–are unhelpful at this point, except to gain an appreciation for the way the language sounds. The key here is to listen often. From time to time, I test my listening comprehension skills by listening to the self-introduction videos by several italki tutors. If, when they’re speaking the target language, I am surprised that I can understand some of it, my listening prerequisite has been met.

When my speaking and listening prerequisites are met, I feel ready to practice conversation. I don’t procrastinate, but dive in as soon as my schedule will allow it–which is usually right away. (How I do it will be a topic for a later blog entry.)

To summarize, if you will need to use a language soon, start practicing conversation immediately. Or start immediately if you want to.

Otherwise, I recommend setting specific criteria and then holding yourself accountable to start conversing as soon as your criteria have been met. Also, avoid perfectionism when establishing your criteria. These steps are necessary to avoid procrastination, causing many people to never learn how to converse in the language they’re learning. If you haven’t selected your criteria yet, I recommend you do so right away, and then write them down and put them where you can see them.

Do you start right away? If not, what are your criteria? Will you change anything as the result of reading my article? Feel free to tell me in a comment. Enjoy your language studies!

Number games

Perhaps you can think of a game that you would like to play in your target language.

After 35 years of studying foreign languages, I’ve become tired of memorizing. Usually, I select courses and methods that include repetition and review, making memorizing unnecessary. (These will become apparent in future posts.) I do make exceptions, though: I sometimes spend a few days or weeks memorizing material when it suits me–for example, corrections given to me by tutors during conversation practice, or the alphabet of a new language I’m learning. When I memorize, I prefer to make games on paper and play them (even by myself–but if I had a study partner, I would play the games with them). Today, I’ll tell you how to use games for learning the numbers of any language.

Let’s say you’ve just started learning a language. In this article, I’ll use Indonesian as an example.

Start by writing down the first six numbers: 1. satu, 2. dua, 3. tiga, 4. empat, 5. lima, 6. enam. Make sure you know how to pronounce them. (This is not a problem with Indonesian. With some languages, you might want to take a little time reading, listening to, and repeating them. The website Book2 is useful for this purpose.)

Then grab a die from a board game or role-playing game, or buy some at a toy store, or find an app that imitates dice. (Die is singular, dice is plural–like mouse and mice.) Roll the die for a few minutes and say the Indonesian word, looking at what you wrote down (your “cheat sheet”) as much as you need to. I find that most inexpensive dice tend to favor some numbers over others, but that every die is unique. So, I switch dice from time to time.

Now you’re ready to play a real game which only uses the numbers from one to six. Examples are backgammon and the Korean game Yunnori (or Yut). You can do this with a physical board game or an app. If you’re not in a hurry, stop here and play it or another game tomorrow to review these numbers.

Ready to move on? Write seven through nine: 7. tujuh, 8. delapan, 9. sembilan. A great game to play at this point (if you can find or afford it) is nine-dot dominoes. Add 0. nol, and you can start reading (aloud) the digits you encounter on signs, in phone numbers, on house numbers, in numbers like pi, or anywhere else that suits your fancy. Add 10. sepuluh, and you can play Uno or other card games.

As you gradually add more numbers, you can add more games. You can play bingo, Snakes and Ladders, Yahtzee, Mille Bornes, and eventually Monopoly. Along the way, you can practice arithmetic, play with 8, 10, 12, and 20-sided dice from role-playing games, or even count the money in your wallet. Perhaps you can think of a game that you would like to play in your target language. Wouldn’t that be a good motivator for you to learn its numbers through games?

My story, part one

Spanish became an interesting challenge that I wanted to pursue.

I first started gaining a curiosity for foreign languages when I was seven or eight years old and living in a suburb of Seattle, Washington (state). Mom took me to a garage sale, where I somehow convinced her to buy me two books for learning Spanish. One was a coloring book of fruits and vegetables. I distinctly remember a picture of grapes and the word “uvas.” The other was a high school textbook. It was too difficult for me. Over the years, I sometimes tried to study that textbook. I could study Chapter One (about Spanish pronunciation and spelling) but Chapter Two always seemed too difficult for me. Nonetheless, Spanish became an interesting challenge that I wanted to pursue.

I moved back to a suburb of Portland, Oregon, where I lived for most of my life since then. In high school, I intended to take Spanish classes, but they were full. My older sisters had taken French, so I chose French instead, hoping to talk with them in it. I took three years of French in high school, but my sisters forgot it, so I was alone with it.

My Senior year, my school started offering Japanese, so I took a year of it. That was hard but fun. The hardest part was probably that everything was taught to me in hiragana (one of the Japanese alphabets), and I often mixed up the letters and learned words incorrectly. That’s why I’m now a proponent of starting to learn Japanese in the Latin alphabet (but learning the language’s writing system simultaneously, just for reading and writing practice).

Meanwhile, I continued the Spanish challenge independently. I bought a copy of Spanish Now! and studied the whole book by myself from cover to cover. My father was a salesman and had boxes of addressed business envelopes he no longer needed, so I cut them up with scissors to make flashcards, in order to memorize the vocabulary in Spanish Now! I studied Spanish on the couch while watching TV with my father in the evenings.

I attended a four-year college (a university) far from home (Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota), but had a hard time choosing a major. I was curious about everything, so I wanted to take classes in many different departments–but not curious enough to get a thorough knowledge of any one subject. I considered Chemistry, but didn’t want to spend my college years in a laboratory. I was interested in History, but was too slow a reader to major in it.

Concordia’s school year starts in late August and ends in early May. In my day, several departments offered their own May Seminar which would travel while studying a subject: The Art department visited famous museums in Paris, Rome, etc. The Music department visited Vienna and listened to classical music performances in various European cities. The Math department visited Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. (That was my second choice.) But I didn’t want to spend three days in Paris, three days in Rome, etc. I wanted to get to know one country well. Fortunately, the French department’s May Seminar took a tour of France and had three homestays in different places. So, I took the French May Seminar half-way through college, and then realized I didn’t need many credits to finish a French major. I also decided to become a teacher–a French teacher. Finally, I had chosen my major.

While I was in college, I also took a semester of second year Japanese–which emphasized kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) too much and had no conversation practice. Up to that point, I was considering transferring to a college where I could major in Japanese, but I realized that such a major would be too stressful. I also took a semester of first year Spanish, and it was fun. I especially enjoyed the lively listening practice in the Language Lab. The textbook was Dos Mundos. But I didn’t take any more Spanish classes, and I don’t remember why.

(To be continued in a later blog entry)