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?