When I start practicing conversation with italki tutors (in 30-minute sessions), I practice the same group of topics with several tutors so that I can get good at them. After that, I move on to the second group of topics, and so forth. In this article, I make the list of topics available to my readers, in case anyone finds them helpful.
I can already speak and listen at the A2 level and I already know a lot of grammar before I hire tutors for conversation practice. My preferred path as a beginner is to learn basic grammar and vocabulary through Michel Thomas or a similar audio course, which also gets me speaking the language immediately by translating lots and lots of sentences aloud. After 15 hours, I find myself automatically and unintentionally starting to talk to myself (think aloud) in my target language. Then I purposely talk to myself as I take walks, using a pocket or electronic dictionary to look up words I don’t know. With a lot of practice, my speaking proficiency eventually reaches A2 (high beginner). Next, I listen to dialogs on Innovative Languages podcasts to bring my listening up to A2. Once I can start understanding some of what italki tutors are saying in their self-intro videos, I start hiring tutors for conversation practice. (If you would like more information, please read my article, “Ready for conversation practice”. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2017/08/17/ready-for-conversation-practice/ )
I hire at least three (and hopefully many more) tutors for the first round of topics. In the second round, I choose not to rehire the tutors who have poor conversation skills or are otherwise unsuitable for conversation practice. By the third round, I generally keep about half of the tutors I started out with. After four rounds, my conversation skills have hopefully reached B1 (low-intermediate). It worked for French, Spanish, and Japanese, but I fell short in Russian because the grammar is so complex and because tutors overcorrected me so much that I lost confidence.
How did I select topics? I started by brainstorming the topics that interest me and yet are general enough to interest most tutors. (I avoid geology because it interests me but not many tutors.) Then I tried to imagine how much vocabulary I would need to have even a basic conversation on each topic, and ordered the topics from easy-to-difficult. Finally, I grouped the topics that go together. For the first round, I selected travel–but when talking about travel, people usually talk about climates and weather, too, so I grouped them together. As a polyglot, I also group travel with language. One of my motivations for travel abroad used to be in order to get more exposure to a particular language (before the internet made it possible to immerse myself in a foreign language in my own home). This made the first round of topics clear: travel, climate, and languages.
When I schedule my first round of sessions with several tutors, I tell them that I’ve prepared the following topics and that they can choose one or more of them to talk about from this list: Travel, climate, and languages. I don’t go in-depth into these topics (such as carry-on baggage size), but instead ask and answer questions like “Where have you travelled?”, “Where would you like to travel?”, etc. (In my article “How I use italki”, I go into more detail. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2017/08/24/how-i-use-italki/ )
Tutors can select any one or more of the topics I gave them. One tutor spent the entire half-hour on languages, while another covered all three topics in our session. Even within the same topic, tutors asked me different questions and I had varied questions for them as well. Every session was unique. It never got too repetitive or dull, no matter how many tutors I had (unless a particular tutor had poor conversation skills).
My list of topics
Here is my full list. Each round is much more difficult than the previous one:
- Travel, climate, languages
- Leisure (TV, movies, sports, music, hobbies, etc.)
- Lifestyle (daily and weekly routine), work, food, health and fitness
- Childhood, School and past careers
Strategies for success
I start with 30-minute sessions mainly because I get mentally fatigued quickly. However, by the fourth round, I’m usually less fatigued and start scheduling 45-minute sessions. When I approach B2 (high intermediate), I can start handling 1-hour sessions. An outgoing person could probably handle longer sessions much sooner. Of course, longer sessions are more expensive, but I also have fewer tutors by then.
Good tutors ask me a lot of questions so that I do most (or at least half) of the talking. In order for me to get the most out of each session, I need to give long answers to almost every question, volunteering more information than was asked for. (I write about this in my article, “Ask longer questions”–in my opinion, the most important article I’ve written so far. https://oregonpolyglot.com/2017/10/22/give-longer-answers/ )
Every topic required a lot of preparation. On the topic of leisure, I spent time beforehand preparing to describe my hobbies. For example, some of my tutors had never heard of the sport of orienteering (which is my favorite sport to play), so I had an example map ready to show them as well as enough vocabulary to explain how the sport is played. Likewise, I had to think about my life experiences and be ready to use the past tense(s) in order to talk about my childhood, school, and past careers (round 4).
Usually, once I’ve completed these four rounds with multiple tutors, I want to take a long break from conversation practice and start reading in my target language in order to build up my vocabulary toward B2 proficiency. After a lot of reading and listening, I’m then ready for more challenging conversations. At that time, I go into depth in one topic for several sessions. I’ll talk about that in a future article.