Working With a Language Tutor When You’re a Beginner


I’ve always believed that there’s only one way to learn to speak a language:

speak it.

When learning a language, I like to start working with tutors and conversations partners quite early on – within the first month, in fact.

There’s a danger in starting early, though. Time is long when you don’t have enough words to fill the silence. If your target language is much weaker than your language partner’s, there’s a chance that you’ll fall into the bad habit of speaking English instead of the language that you’re learning. If you’re working with a tutor who’s afraid of silence, you might find yourself following his or her generic lesson plans and learning to conjugate verbs instead of doing the very messy, very individualized work of communicating.

I generally advocate informal conversation as one of the best ways to use a tutor, but when you’re an absolute beginner, an informal conversation can feel like Mount Everest. Luckily, there are lots of different strategies and approaches that you can use as a student to help you make the most of tutoring sessions – right from day one!

(This post contains examples from my current Tagalog study, but the tips are applicable to any language that you might be learning.)

1. Consider starting with shorter sessions.

For the first few weeks, I stick to 30 minute tutoring sessions. Any longer, and my brain starts to melt and I revert to English. Two half-hour sessions are often more useful than one full-hour session. Once half an hour starts to feel too short, I increase the sessions to 45 minutes, and – eventually – a full hour. It’s taken me a little over two months of regular tutoring to get to the point where I have the mental energy to work on Tagalog for 45 minutes.

Warning: on day one, even 30 minutes felt like it was about 28 minutes too long!

But you keep practicing, you keep learning, you keep asking questions – and before you know it, 30 minutes will seem like nothing at all.

2. Consider working with more than one tutor.

By definition, a beginner needs a lot of repetition. To really feel confident, you’ll need to repeat the same conversations – over and over and over again. At the beginning, these will be simple conversations: introducing yourself, talking about the weather (fact: nearly every conversation with someone from the other side of the world will start with the weather), talking about your kids or your wife or your dog or your budgie, talking about your job.

If you work with more than one tutor, you can have the same conversation over and over again – except that you can have it with different people. Not only does this give you even more precious practice, it also mixes up the reactions and questions you’ll get from the other person.


From my italki session schedule: three teachers in three days.

3. Be clear about what you want, right from day one.

You’re the only person responsible for your learning, so it’s your responsibility to be clear about what you want from the start.

When I send a message to a tutor asking for a first session, I start by introducing myself and explaining why and how I’m learning a language. I also let him or her know very clearly what I want:

  • stay in the target language the entire time
  • correct my pronunciation and sentence structure
  • write new words in Skype as they come up
  • don’t plan any lessons in advance – let our conversation lead the lesson

This last one is tricky for some teachers, especially if they have pre-made materials that they like to use with their students. Some tutors are very inflexible or lack confidence and insist on “sticking to the lesson plan”. After giving a teacher like this a few chances to change, I would switch tutors if not satisfied. You’re paying your tutor to provide you with a particular service; if you’re not getting it, then it’s fair to look elsewhere.

4. Make a cheat sheet.

It’s ok to have a cheat sheet. In fact, I think that it’s imperative to have some kind of a cheat sheet.

I have a Tagalog notebook that I use just for tutoring. It has basic greetings, sentences that I use often, a list of “help!” phrases (ie. “I don’t understand”, “Could you please repeat that?”, “How do you say _____?”, etc), words that I want to learn, and so on.


page one of my tutoring notebook: talking about the weather, of course!

I jot down words as I’m doing a tutoring session, write sentences as I’m working through new ideas, and write down vocabulary that I know I’ll need before a session. I look over the last few pages before a tutoring session, leaf through it often while in a conversation, jot notes as I practice, and review afterwards. Pretty much every single word and expression in my notebook ends up in anki, since they’re all words that I need in my active vocabulary. My notebook travels with me everywhere I go, so if I find myself with a few minutes here and there, I can easily review and practice a bit.

5. Use pictures as props.

The cliche would have us believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. Even if you don’t know a thousand words in your target language, a picture can provide a good jumping off point for speaking as an absolute beginner.

Gather photos of special people and places. You can show one to your tutor, and then describe what’s happening in the photo. Depending on  your level, this can range from something extremely simple (This is my brother. He is a man. His name is John.) to more complex descriptions (The man wearing the red shirt is my brother John. He works as a teacher at the high school. He lives in a small town with his family. etc.) From there, you can work with your tutor to expand your descriptions, and practice answering questions about your photo.


Pet-owners know that it’s true: we never run out of things to say about our animals.

To work on your listening and questioning skills, you can ask your tutor to do the same with a picture of someone from his or her family.

6. Try conversation cards.

In the very beginning of learning a language, students find themselves asking and answering lots of simple questions. I created conversation cards so that I could randomize the experience a bit, making it more interesting and challenging.

I cut out cards and hand-wrote a question on each one. Then, on the other side of each card, I wrote some prompts so that I could practice formulating the questions myself. One card, for example, might have the word “ilarawan” (describe) on one side, followed by a list of possible people (sister, mother, brother, friend, pet). If I can’t remember how to structure the question, I can just flip the card over and look at the other side, where I’ve written the question out: “Ilarawan mo ang _______ mo.” (Describe your _________.).

hand-written conversation cards - perfect for practice during tutoring sessions

hand-written conversation cards – perfect for practice during tutoring sessions

Early on, these cards made up the bulk of a half-hour session. I would shuffle the cards, and then my tutor and I would take turns asking each other questions. This let me practice multiple skills: asking questions, making statements, listening to another person’s questions and statements. It also made repeating the same thing over and over a bit more interesting for both of us. As I learn new questions and structures, I can easily create new cards.

(Although I prefer the multi-sensory approach of hand-writing for my own cards, I also have a typed copy of the cards in Tagalog that I sent to my teacher. If you’d like a copy, let me know.)

7. Read prepared texts and dialogues.

Reading a text with your tutor can be very useful for working on pronunciation. I don’t spend more than five minutes per half-hour session practicing a dialogue with a tutor, but those five minutes are very useful. I generally send my tutor a short dialogue from one of my Tagalog resources, and then we practice it multiple times:

  • she reads each line and I repeat, while she corrects any errors in pronunciation or rhythm
  • we each take a role and read it in character two or three times
  • we exchange roles and repeat
  • I try to create new sentences using the structures in the dialogue

While I do think that there’s value in reading with a tutor, I don’t believe that it should make up the bulk of the session. Still, it’s another tool in the box!

8. Practice in between sessions.

The importance of ongoing practice simply can’t be over-emphasized!

re-read your notes

If you don’t go over what you’ve learned in between sessions, then very little of it will stick. Make sure that you understand what you worked on, and prepare questions for next time.

talk to yourself

…or to your cat, or to your baby, or to your potted plant, or to your cup of coffee. Describe what you see or narrate what you’re doing. If you get stuck, write yourself a quick note so that you remember to ask your tutor next time you meet.

prepare for the next session

So you can talk about the weather, you can say your name and you can say where you live. What do you want to talk about next time? Maybe you’ll want to talk about your job. Take a few minutes in between sessions to look up important vocabulary and try to create some sentences. This will give you some meat to work with during your next session with your tutor.

practice using flashcards or SRS software

I use anki for spaced-repetition of vocabulary. For Tagalog, in addition to my regular deck, I also created a conversational deck. I put questions in Tagalog on one side (the same ones that I wrote on my conversation cards) and a few useful sentences and prompts in Tagalog on the other side. I have that deck set up with only 3 new cards per day. When I read the question, I answer it out loud, saying as much as I can, then flip the card and try to add more details.

As my spoken skills improve, I add new sentences or details to the back of the card. I never “fail” any of these cards, nor do I mark them as “easy” (even if they are). I’ve been automatically marking them as hard, so they’ll keep coming back at the lowest interval. I’m really pleased with the experience so far! It’s made my Skype conversations much more fluid.


A conversation card with a question (Do you have siblings?) and prompts for possible answers

I don’t expect this to be a “forever” deck like my vocabulary deck. Once I’m feeling comfortable enough with basic conversations, I’ll delete it. But for now, it’s very useful.

keep learning on your own

Whether you use a course, a textbook, a website or a podcast, it’s important to get lots of input from various sources. Read, write and listen to your target language in between tutoring sessions. Tutoring is just one part of a balanced approach to language learning.

Working with a tutor can seem a bit daunting at first, but if you take the plunge, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can progress!

Do you have any other suggestions for working with a tutor when you’re still new to a language?

Five Spanish Podcasts Worth a Listen

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. We’re getting ready to move halfway across the country, so there’s a ridiculous amount cleaning and organizing to be done. A good podcast makes the boring housework go faster and it lets me squeeze in a bit more Spanish. Win!

Listening is one of the most important things that you can do to improve your language skills, especially when you’re hovering in that seemingly interminable stretch between intermediate and advanced. Words – hours and hours and hours of words – can help you bridge that gap.

So here are some of the many words that I’ve been listening to over the past month:

ID-100165861. Nómadas

This weekly RTVE podcast – one of the best I’ve listened to in any language – takes listeners on an audio adventure to a different part of the world every week.

Music, nature sounds, interviews, virtual tours, stories, history, snippets of conversation in the local language, city sounds, current affairs – this podcast is the next best thing to actually being there. I particularly like that the podcasts often include interviews with locals who speak Spanish as a second language. It’s interesting to hear Spanish spoken with so many different accents!

A few interesting episodes: Limerick, faro cultural del oeste (Limerick, Ireland) and Papúa Nueva Guinea, paraíso vulnerable (Papua New Guinea).

ID-100250942. Fallo de Sistema

This weekly RTVE podcast lives at the intersection of science and science fiction.

All things geek – comic books, video games, science fiction and fantasy movies and novels – are interspersed with  debates and interviews with authors, scientists and even philosophers. There are usually several dialogue clips from a movie or a video games, and generally at least one interesting song. You’re never quite sure what to expect with Fallo de Sistema!

A few interesting episodesDesmontando a Kurzweil (artificial intelligence and the Turing test) and Buscando a Sherlock (Sherlock Holmes’ many incarnations in movies, books and video games).

ID-100123153. A Hombros de Gigantes

This weekly RTVE podcast (are you sensing a pattern here? What can I say…I really love Spanish public radio) is all about science.

A Hombros de Gigantes features debates and interview, reports on recent discoveries, and snippets on the history of science – all in accessible language. Each weekly podcast starts with a particular theme, but also includes information and stories about other news in science.

A few interesting episodes: los mecanismos cerebrales (memories, learning and the human mind) and el universo se expande (the rapidly expanding universe).

ID-1001595584. Futuro Abierto

This weekly RTVE podcast (yes, another one) focuses on questions and concerns that affect society in general.

Each week, Futuro Abierto chooses a different theme to focus on, digging into the topic with an interesting mix of interviews, debates and reports. Each podcast also includes short interviews with people on the street, presenting a wide variety of opinions from average people.

A few interesting episodes: mi última dieta (healthy living and weight loss) and los antidisturbios y el derecho de reunión (demonstrations and public protests).

ID-100114955. Buenos Días América

Finally, something that isn’t from Spanish Public Radio!

This daily half-hour news broadcast focuses on current events in the United States and throughout Latin America. Buenos Días América is my daily dose of Latin American Spanish. It tends to revisit the same story multiple times throughout the week, as news reports generally do, which makes it great for people making the move from using “learn to speak Spanish” resources to actually using Spanish in real life.

And, just in case none of these podcasts catch your fancy…

…here are three more promising podcasts. I haven’t listened to them often enough yet to give an honest and informed opinion, but they’re definitely on my list!

Please note: all of the podcasts in this post are aimed at native speakers, so don’t feel frustrated if you’re a beginner and you find them hard to follow. If you’re looking for podcasts for beginners or intermediate learners, check out Notes in Spanish (podcasts free, transcripts for sale – excellent for any level, including advanced) or News in Slow Spanish (shorter version of podcast available for free here, full version with transcripts available to paying members only). Absolute beginners who are taking the very first steps of their language-learning journey might also be interested in Coffee Break Spanish.

Have any other podcasts to suggest? Please share them in the comments! Happy listening!

All images in this post are by Salvatore Vuono on

My New Plan for Spanish in 2014

In the beginning of January, I set myself some goals. I would write and read and talk and listen, and – ever so accurately – track my learning.

I was faithful to my plan for the first two and a half months of the year. I even managed to put up one of what I thought would be many monthly updates.

I really thought that my tracking sheet would guide my learning in 2014.

But then I went to Spain. I talked to hundreds of people in Spanish. I watched really bad television in bars and cafes. I translated for people from all around the world. I walked nearly 800 kilometres, singing and talking to myself in Spanish much of the way.


We even made an effort to speak to the local wildlife in Spanish.

When I got home, I was tired. I took a break for a few weeks to binge-watch Orange is the New Black and Supernatural on Netflix, and then started up with Spanish again. But I didn’t track anything at all. I just read, watched Buffy and talked to my tutor over Skype. All of a sudden, it was the end of April, and my tracking sheet had been gathering metaphorical dust for two and a half months. I contemplated whether I should even try to go back and update it, or if I should start something new.

Luckily, my timing couldn’t have been any better. A new challenge – a Super Challenge – was announced on the How To Learn Any Language forum: read 5000 pages (100 50-page “books”) and watch 9000 minutes (100 90-minute “films”) in 20 months. The idea behind the Super Challenge is to rev up your learning with massive input. At my current level, it’s exactly what I need!

So here’s my new plan for 2014: read a lot and watch a lot, tweeting updates weekly so that someone else can do the tracking for me. Much simpler, right?

Super Challenge 2014

spanishchildrensnovelsreading – 16.2 “books” completed

I’m currently on book four of the Percy Jackson series. These books are very easy to read at this point, but I plan on finishing the series. After that, I’ll either pick up where I left off at Harry Potter book three, or take a break from children’s literature to read Como Agua Para Chocolate. I read novels extensively, simply reading for pleasure and only looking up a word if it’s impeding understanding.

In addition to reading novels extensively, I’m also reading intensively. A few times a week, I print out an article from BBC Mundo and read it with highlighter in hand, marking any new words or interesting turns of phrases. After looking up the words and new structures, I add any important once to my anki flashcards, and then read the article again, this time for fluency.

I also keep up with the news daily using the text and accompanying audio at Democracy Now. It’s a very US-centred news report – which makes sense, since it comes from the United States. But the full transcript with audio adds a different dimension to my reading. The announcer is the radio version of a racehorse; she’s fast! But it’s a fun challenge to keep up and focus on processing text much more quickly than I do on my own. Amnistía Internacional also puts out a weekly podcast with transcript that I read on the weekend.

rapaziñowatching – 9.3 “films” completed

I recently started – and, sadly, finished – my new favourite Spanish show: Frágiles. It’s the story of a physiotherapist who treats his patients using unconventional methods. It’s engaging, funny and touching. The characters are well-developed, and stories intertwine in interesting ways. Highly recommended! There are only 8 episodes available on DramaFever, but I think that there’s a season 2 floating out there somewhere.

Next on my list: Águila Roja. According to the description on DramaFever, it’s about a man in 17th century Spain who disguises himself and fights against corruption. And also, he’s a ninja. There are five seasons available, so if I like it, I’ll be busy for a while!

Once in a while, I also watch an episode of The Simpsons. I much prefer watching Spanish shows, but a dubbed Simpsons episode is very easy to fit into a busy day.

How does tracking work?

Once a week (or whenever I finish a film or a book), I tweet a message that looks something like this:

 .@langchallenge #watched 61 minutes in #Spanish – “Frágiles episode 8″

Or this:

 .@langchallenge #read 36 pages in #Spanish – “articles”

The twitter bot adds up the minutes for me and maintains an updated graph of my progress. Check out my progress graph here or follow me on twitter here. It’s very motivated to see my numbers go up, and to see how my fellow challenge participants are progressing.

It’s not too late to join in!

The Super Challenge is a marathon, not a sprint. It lasts 20 months – so it’s really not the end of the world if you join in a few months late. If you’re interested in making significant progress in a second (or third or fourth) language, then I can’t recommend it enough!

You don’t have to be at an intermediate or advanced level to benefit from the challenge – in fact, many participants are beginners who want to use the challenge as a vehicle for improvement.

Visit the Language Super Challenge to find out how to join in.

Learning Filipino / Tagalog From Scratch

On May 1st, I started learning Tagalog.

There are well over a hundred and fifty distinct languages in the Philippines – languages, not dialects – but only two of them have official language status: Filipino (or Tagalog) and English. Estimates place the number of Tagalog-speakers at over 24 million worldwide - five of whom just happen to be my husband, his siblings and his parents.

learning Tagalog

Because the only thing that’s cooler than a thumbs-up is a thumbs-up with a Filipino flag painted on your hand. (Photo by domdeen @

I’d planned on starting with Pimsleur. I think that Pimsleur is a decent introductory language program. It helps with pronunciation, and starts building automaticity right from the beginning. And it’s also free from the library. Bonus!

So I tried the first Tagalog lesson at the dining room table, with JP sitting next to me.

me: *repeating along happily
him: Nobody talks like that. 
me: No, but look! It’s Conversational Tagalog. See?!
him: … 
me: There are half-hour lessons! All audio! I can practice every day! 
him: … 
me: It’ll be awesome
him: Nobody talks like that.

So much for Pimsleur.

And so, after a few weeks of trial and error, I’ve settled on a few different resources which I’m hoping will help me learn to talk like a real, live person.

tagalogbookTara, Mag-Tayo Tagalog! This textbook and workbook, with MP3 audio, is forming the backbone of my learning at this point. It’s meant to be used in a classroom, so I have to adapt some of the activities. Having access to a native speaker is really helpful, since I can ask JP to clarify vocabulary, do role-plays and read through dialogues with me. There are some decent dialogues in the audio at full native speed, which I enjoy, although I wish there were more of them. The grammar explanations seem pretty solid, so for now I’m not planning on buying a dedicated grammar book.

Skype tutors. My Tagalog is not yet at a level where I can have conversations. But I can practice very specific skills using vocabulary and sentence structures that I’m working on in my textbook. For now, I’m mainly introducing myself, talking about myself on a very basic level, and asking and answering the same simple questions over and over again. And over and over again. (This is why I have to pay someone to talk to me at this point.) We also read dialogues together to work on my pronunciation, rhythm and intonation. For now, I’m aiming for two half-hour lessons per week. I book all of my tutoring sessions with italki tutors.

Notebook entries. You can also post texts on italki and have them corrected by native speakers. I’ve only posted a few so far, but my goal is to put up a new notebook entry after every lesson. I put any corrections into anki so that I can practice them later.

Filipinopod101. I paid for a one-month subscription to filipinopod101 at an introductory price of a dollar. Unfortunately, the content is lacking and I don’t plan on renewing my subscription. As of now, there are only 20 lessons for absolute beginners, and I’ll finish those by the time my month is up. The lessons that are there offer a decent source of very simple dialogues, although I don’t bother with the full lessons as they’re mostly in English. You can get a free week as a new member, or a month for a dollar after signing up. Hopefully they’ll add more content in the near future.

Anki. I have three anki decks, all of which I’m building myself. The first one has basic vocabulary and sentences from my textbook and tutoring sessions. The second deck is a picture vocabulary deck that I’m building based on the 625-word list from Fluent Forever. The third is an audio deck. After I finish a lesson on filipinopod101 or learn a dialogue in my textbook, I create an audio card with the dialogue, Tagalog transcript, and English translation.

Tracking my learning via a language log. I’ve kept a Spanish learning log on the HTLAL forums since late July of last year. I find that tracking my learning keeps me accountable and creates a record of my progress. I started my Taga-log on day one. You can check it out here.

teachyourselfComplete Filipino: A Teach Yourself Guide. I recently ordered this book with audio. I haven’t received it yet, so I can’t tell you exactly how I’m going to use it. I just knew that I wanted another resource, and I wasn’t having much luck digging around online. I’ve heard very good things about the Teach Yourself language courses, and this one was published in 2011, so I’m hoping that it has modern, colloquial language. At less than 30 dollars, I thought it was worth the gamble.  Let’s hope I was right!

I spend anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes per day on Tagalog. I’m moving very slowly, but I’m OK with that. I’m not in any rush.

Over the next few months, I’ll write more about what I’m doing, what works, what doesn’t, and what you might want to try if you’re interested in learning Tagalog.

Tara, mag-Tagalog tayo!

(Yeah, yeah, I’m totally cheating by just typing out the name of my textbook. But it means “Come on, let’s talk Tagalog”, so I thought it was fitting.)

(Also, please don’t worry if you’re here for the Spanish. Spanish still is – and I suspect will always be – my first language love, and I have absolutely no intention of replacing it. Look for a balance between Tagalog and Spanish learning in future posts.)

The italki World Cup Challenge is almost here!

language_challenge_2014worldcupConfession time: I don’t actually know much about the World Cup. I know that it’s a Very Big Deal, and that people all around this big, beautiful world of ours care very much about its outcome.

But that’s about as far as my World Cup knowledge goes. I know it’s important, but the truth is that it just isn’t a mainstream thing in my world.

What I do know about is language learning. And I know that one of the best ways to ramp up your language level is to commit to actually speaking it with a real, live, human being. So if italki is creating a World Cup challenge to help people learn a language – then sign me up, even if I can’t tell you who I hope wins the World Cup!

How it works

Members pledge 200 italki credits (the equivalent of 20 US dollars) and commit to taking 25 one-hour tutoring sessions during the months of June and July. Anyone who succeeds in the challenge will get back their 20 dollars and win 400 credits (the equivalent of 40 US dollars) which they can use to take even more language classes!

No, the challenge isn’t free. You have to pay your pledge – which you’ll lose if you don’t complete the challenge. And you’ll also have to pay for the language classes that you take. But by investing some money in the challenge, you’re much more likely to actually complete it.

Is it worth it?

I say yes. I learned Spanish to a relatively advanced level in a year – and much of the credit for that goes to my intensive sessions with italki teachers.  I just counted out of curiosity, and I’ve taken 96 classes with various teachers since I started using italki in July of 2013. I took part in an italki challenge last summer, and was amazed at the progress that I made in a very short period of time.

I believe – both as a teacher and as a student – that languages are about people, and that language learning works best when it involves connections with other human beings. I can make my way page-by-page through a workbook, watch a dozen movies, and memorize 2000 vocabulary words – but until I actually have a conversation with someone, then I can’t really test what I know.

So yes, I’m definitely a fan of Skype tutoring sessions.

Even if you aren’t planning on taking part in the challenge, or if you don’t have the budget right now to pay for one-on-one language classes, it’s still well worth your while to check out italki. There are lots of ways that italki can help you learn a language, most of them free!

I’ve signed up for the challenge. In June and July, I’ll be taking 25 hours’ worth of one-on-one language lessons. My goal: 18 half-hour Tagalog sessions (for a total of 9 hours) and 16 one-hour Spanish sessions.

Care to join me?

Special offer until the end of May

If you’re thinking about signing up for italki, you might want to consider doing it before the end of May. New members purchasing credits using this link will get 10 dollars’ worth of free credits.

Disclaimer: if anyone signs up using this link, I will also get some free italki credits, at no extra cost to you. These are the only affiliate links you’ll see on my blog. And I only link to italki because I believe that it works. I’ve taken 96 lessons with professional teachers and community tutors on italki since July 2013. If that isn’t a vote of confidence, then I don’t know what is!

Home from the Camino de Santiago.

Well, we did it.

Over the course of 37 days, my Dad and I walked nearly 800 kilometres, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago in Spain.

camino de santiago

What I saw through most of the trip: my Dad’s back. He’s fast!

The Camino de Santiago was everything that I’d hoped that it would be: challenging, inspiring, exciting, adventurous, fun. We’ve been home for 19 days now. Almost three weeks. I figured that I’d have put up several blog posts by now to share my experiences.

But the truth is that I was still processing everything. And I came home really sick, and then I got called in to work early to take care of a mess there, and then I was kind of overwhelmed and decided to spend my evenings binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix.  I still haven’t fully processed my trip, looked at my photos, or even unpacked.

(Of course the reason I haven’t unpacked is because my backpack is triple-bagged in the shed due to an encounter with bed bugs, but that’s a story for another day…)

Things are settling down now. I miss Spain, but I’m happy to be home with my family. Life is getting back to its regular busy, happy whirlwind.

Did I love Spain? 

Yes, yes, a million times yes! The food, the people, the scenery, the wine…Spain is in my blood now. And did I mention the wine?

Walking 25 km a day leads to a very interesting state of mind. Every day was essentially the same – get up, eat, walk, stop for coffee, walk, stop for lunch, walk, stop for a beer, walk, find a bed, wash socks in the sink, write in a journal, connect with other walkers in the albergue, eat, drink wine, talk, laugh, go to bed early and repeat – and yet every day was completely different.

Leon Cathedral

Cathedral in Leon

Was my Spanish good enough for my trip?

Yes, absolutely. 

I was able to chat with local bar owners and hospitaleros. The more I chatted, the more my confidence increased, until I no longer hesitated at all before jumping into conversations with strangers. In the beginning, I felt shy. By the end, I just wanted to talk and talk and talk to everyone! 

Even better, I was able to forge friendships with Spanish peregrinos. While walking the Camino de Santiago, strong friendships can take hold very quickly. I was pleased to find that I could talk about just about anything with my new friends, both simple and more complex. My listening comprehension improved to the point that I felt comfortable following along during rapid-fire conversations between 5+ Spaniards at a time (although of course there were times when I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Ha!). 

It took some time to get used to the way that Spaniards interrupt each other! Conversations are very loud and boisterous – even more so than they are in my loud and boisterous family. I took it as a compliment when my new friends interrupted and talked over me – I figured that it meant that they accepted me as “one of them”. Conversations were never boring.


Free tapas in Astorga – be still my heart!

My best language experience:

The albergue in Grañon – a beautiful, rustic hostel within a church, where you sleep on mats in the loft – is a magical place. Peregrinos gather to share food and stories over a communal meal, and then participate in a sharing circle to talk about their hopes for their camino. By beautiful coincidence, my French, English and Spanish meant that I was able to communicate with all of the 11 other pilgrims sharing the albergue with us.

The hospitalero asked me to translate the sharing circle between all three languages, which I gladly did. I retold French-speakers’ stories in Spanish and English; English-speakers’ in French and Spanish; and French- speakers’ in English and Spanish. Sharing people’s stories like that, seeing them smile at each other, knowing that I was helping people communicate across language barriers…it was a truly special moment for me.

I acted as a translator in some capacity almost every day, sometimes during large noisy multi-lingual communal meals, other times when someone needed help finding supplies in a pharmacy. I had to talk on the phone in Spanish a few times – now THAT was hard! But I managed!

camino de santiago markers

Just follow the arrows…

Did my Spanish improve?

Honestly? I’m not sure.

I really don’t think that it did, at least not technically speaking. The experience of the camino is such that you find yourself talking about the same things over and over again. After the steep adjustment of the first few weeks, I’d say that I coasted during the last month. 

But in other ways, I guess that I did improve! My confidence sky-rocketed, so that I jumped into loud group conversations without any hesitation. When asking for very simple things that I asked for over and over again (a bed in an albergue; directions to the next town; a beer at a bar), I was mistaken at times for a Spaniard. Of course, a few more sentences, and that fell to pieces! But still, I assume that my accent, speed and rhythm improved.

So what now? 

Good question.

I joined the Super Challenge on HTLAL, which means that I’ll read 5000 pages and watch 150 hours of television in Spanish before the end of 2015. I’m definitely shifting to using exclusively native materials. More about that in an upcoming post!

I’ve also started learning Tagalog at the rhythm of half an hour a day (more details on that soon!). I have to figure out how to balance my time so that I have enough mental energy to learn some basic Tagalog, continue improving my Spanish, and also read in English.

The next week or two will be about finding that balance – and, of course, getting back into blogging!


Keep moving forward…

Talk Like a Diplomat From 1961: How I Use FSI Spanish

So, you’re learning Spanish. If you’re like me, you’re drawn to music, conversation, books, movies – real world stuff. Language is a creative, living, messy thing, and it should be fun.

Why kill the joy with repetitive drills and grammar practice, right?

Well, despite the fact that I have both feet firmly planted in the if-it’s-not-fun-I-won’t-do-it camp, I’ve found myself doing exactly that – repetitive drills and grammar practice – almost every day for the past few months. And what’s more, those drills are helping me have more fun with all of the other stuff that I really like to do in Spanish.

Enter FSI Basic Spanish.

FSI Basic Spanish is a public domain (i.e. free and legal) resource created by the US Foreign Service Institute in the early 60s. At the time it was aimed at future diplomats and foreign service workers; now, it’s available to any language learner with an internet connection. It includes hours of audio and an entire textbook.

First the good…

  • Absolutely, completely, no-holds-barred free. Hours and hours of free audio. Don’t let anyone try to sell you this material. It’s public domain. It belongs to everyone – which means that anyone can package it up and slap a hefty price tag on it.
  • Has a huge impact on automaticity. It can help you attain instant recall of super-exciting things like verb tenses, sentence structure, and pronouns.
  • Comprehensive. Think 55 units, each with at least 45 minutes of audio and dozens of pages of text.
  • Don’t want to learn Spanish? Well, you could always try Swahili, Greek or Cambodian! There are resources available for dozens of languages.
  • Have I mentioned that it’s free?


And you don’t even have to worry about this happening!
Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut /

…and then the bad.

  • I can see how some people might find it mind-numbingly, teeth-gnashingly, stick-a-pen-in-my-eye boring. I wouldn’t be able to sit at a desk and do it. But it works perfectly for long walks around the neighbourhood. For some reason, the boredom factor diminishes to zero during a brisk walk.
  • It’s dated. You have to remind yourself that the resource was created in the early 60s for the class of people most likely to become diplomats. Then you have to laugh at the absurdity of some of the situations.
  • It’s sexist. No, really. See above. Most conversations between women seem to revolve around shopping or moaning about how difficult it is to find a good maid. In one unit in particular, John White – who I think we’re supposed to relate to – is out with his “gordita de las gafas” (translation: “little chubby girl with glasses”), but is plotting to sneak away from her to meet the hot secretary dancing at the party. It’s like Mad Men – except that they actually mean it. Luckily the story moves on quickly to other, more likeable characters.
  • The audio quality isn’t great. It’s good enough to use with my earbuds, but sometimes I can hear buzzing or background noise behind the recording.

Still, despite the cons, I do think that the program is a very valuable addition to a language learning program.


Pick up the pace to keep the boredom at bay.
Image courtesy of foto76 /

Anatomy of an FSI lesson

a. Dialogue

Each lesson is based around a dialogue. The dialogues follow a group of people through day-to-day conversations (keeping in mind, of course, that it’s a very particular kind of “day-to-day” life): going to a party, visiting a military base, hiring a maid. The dialogue is broken into manageable chunks so that the learner can listen and repeat.

The first dozen lessons are actually the best, as far as I’m concerned, since each unit begins with a full dialogue spoken without pause. This makes it much easier to understand the context, since you’ve heard the entire dialogue before they break it down into chunks to repeat. Later units jump right into the “listen and repeat” phase, so that you’re repeating bits of phrases without first having heard the entire conversation.

b. Pattern Presentations

While the text digs a bit deeper into grammatical structures, the audio uses a very inductive approach. Each unit focuses on one or more grammar points – subjunctive, clitic pronouns, irregular verbs – and presents it using a wide variety of example sentences. The examples help the learner understand how the concept is used in everyday speech. Each example sentence is followed by a pause, so that the learner can repeat.

c. Drills

Yes, drills. I know, I know, drills are very last century. But – and I’m speaking here as an impulsive and impatient learner – they really do help improve automaticity. And improved automaticity leads to more fun with the language.

There are several different kinds of drills in the FSI courses: pattern drills, response drills, substitution drills and translation drills.

Unfortunately, units 31-45 are missing some audio for some of the later drills. It’s not really a big deal, but you’ll find yourself repeating some of the answers without hearing the questions. It doesn’t really hurt the integrity of the program. If you’re intent on having the whole audio, then you might consider buying Platiquemos, a Spanish program based entirely on digitally remastered FSI basic audio. (But honestly? I really wouldn’t bother.)

How I use FSI

I listen and I respond.

That’s it.

I don’t bother at all with the text book. I’m using FSI as a purely audio course during my long walks with Chase the Wonderdog. I walk, and I listen, and I respond out loud. I’m pretty sure that my neighbours think that I’m a crazy person.

More specifically, here’s how I use FSI Spanish:

  • walk briskly. I know it sounds silly, but this part is really important for me. It keeps me alert and engaged.
  • listen to the dialogue, repeating every line out loud
  • if it’s a tricky dialogue, do it again
  • go through the drills in the order that they’re presented
  • if I find that I struggle a lot, I’ll repeat a unit (this doesn’t happen very often)

My goal is overall understanding and general correctness, not absolute mastery.

Really, it’s not that complicated!

one brief* note: I think that FSI Basic might be a bit frustrating if you’re an absolute beginner. While it was originally aimed at beginners, it was only a small self-directed part of a full-time teacher-led course. I’d probably recommend waiting until after you have a bit of a grounding in the language before jumping in.

* brief?!? Bahahahaha! I don’t do brief. Obviously.

So, do I recommend FSI Spanish Basic?


You, too, can rock out to FSI.
imagery majestic /

Yes, absolutely.

I feel that it’s helping me to speak more automatically, correctly and confidently.

By all rights, it should be painfully boring, but it isn’t.

Running through the drills while walking lets me easily add a good chunk of “free” Spanish into my day. I’m currently on lesson 42 – that’s a lot of free Spanish!

And – let’s be honest here – if it weren’t for FSI, there’s no way that I’d be spending so much time on mastering the subjunctive.


Interested in learning more about the FSI approach to language teaching – including the effect of drills on improving confidence? I really enjoyed this article written by FSI teachers.

Month One of my 2014 Spanish Challenge

howtolearnalanguageI’m basing my language learning in 2014 on a very complex equation:

Massive input + massive output = fluency

Basically, my goal this year is to listen to stuff and write stuff and read stuff and talk to people.

(See? I told you it was complicated.)

So how’s it going so far? Let’s take a look at the numbers for January…

Read something every day


My (admittedly ambitious) goal this year is to read 14 Spanish novels: the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series and the Hunger Games trilogy. So far this year, I’ve finished the second Harry Potter novel and made it 2/3 of the way through the first Percy Jackson book.

While I love reading in Spanish, I have to balance it with reading in French and in English. I’m afraid that 14 Spanish novels might leave me with little time for any other reading. Still, I fully expect to meet my reading goal this year!

Talk to someone every day


OK, so I’m not talking on Skype every day. But I do speak in Spanish every single day, even if it’s only to narrate my oh-so-exciting actions or to ask the dog how things are going.

When I first started learning Spanish last summer, I had a conversation with a real, live, breathing human being nearly every day. Now, with a crazy work schedule, I seem to be settling into two per week. I would like to increase that to three times a week, if possible. I definitely see a negative impact on my fluency and overall comfort level when I go too long in between conversations with native speakers.

Write something every day


Oh, did you say writing? Ummm…well… Writing. Yes.

This is by far my biggest challenge. Not-so-secret confession: writing in Spanish is hard. And because it’s hard, I don’t really like doing it. That said, the feedback that I get from native speakers is really valuable, and I definitely see the value in writing regularly.

But it’s so haaaaaaard….

Mini-challenge: write at least three short texts in Spanish this week. (Or maybe two. Definitely at least one.)

Listen to something every day


If writing is the hardest part of the challenge, then listening is the easiest! The past few weeks I haven’t had much time for Spanish, due to some major upheaval at work. But I’m hoping that next week I’ll be able to increase my watching time a bit. If I can finish this section of the challenge by June, I might even try for a double challenge in listening/watching!

I’ve mainly been watching/listening to:

  • Isabel seasons 1 and 2 on DramaFever. I can’t believe we have to wait until next fall for season 3!
  • Los Simpsons. While I’ve caught some Simpsons episodes in English over the years, I’ve never watched them in any kind of order. I’m really enjoying them in Spanish! I’m currently halfway through season 2. Each episode is about 23 minutes, which is very easy to fit into a busy schedule. For tracking purposes, I count two episodes of Los Simpsons as one episode for the challenge.
  • Buffy la Cazavampiros. I love this show. Oh, how I love this show. I only watch it once or twice a week while walking on the treadmill on an incline (that’s pretty much the extent of my Camino training; I really hope I don’t pass out on my first day). It’s as funny and engaging and witty in Spanish as it was in English the first five times I watched it.
  • Notes in Spanish Gold. These aren’t technically “TV shows”, but they require concentrated listening, so I’ve decided to count them to a maximum of one episode per week. I listen every day during my commute, so I probably spend somewhere between 80 and 100 minutes listening every week, even though I only count it as one episode for tracking purposes.

Practice vocabulary every day

This isn’t officially part of the challenge. But it’s important for any language learner to continuously reinforce and improve upon vocabulary. I run through my anki decks at least five times a week, and do a few lessons on Duolingo when I find myself with ten minutes to fill. I’m also continuing with FSI Spanish nearly every day while walking the dog. I even cracked open my Practice Makes Perfect workbook a few times in the past month!

So there you have it. Month one of my 2014 Spanish Challenge. Wish me luck in month two!


On Travel (and Languages)

When I was eighteen, I thought that I’d be a perpetual traveller.

I boarded a plane for the first time and went to Brazil on a month-long cultural exchange. I was young and idealistic, and the rainforest felt like home. I swore that I would return one day, to live in that lush green place.


ice cream on Christmas day in Malawi

A few years later, I went on a long trip through Eastern and Southern Africa with a girlfriend. We decided that we would fly into Nairobi and slowly make our way down to Johannesburg, using local transportation. The travel agent, looking worried, told us that there was no local transportation in Africa.

“Don’t people live there?” I asked, confused.

She laughed as though I’d said something witty, and piled a dozen 20-page full-colour tour brochures into my arms.

Over six months in Eastern and Southern Africa, we rode in a luxury air-conditioned coach and on a rickety brakeless wonder where I shared a seat with a toothless old Mozambican woman and three chickens. We rode in cars, trucks, and vans, and perched in the back of a pick-up truck in Malawi. I hopped on a motorcycle in Tanzania, sarong tucked carefully around my knees. We cycled through palm forests and grass hut villages. We rode on motor boats, rowboats, fishing boats and ferry boats. We paddled a canoe past crocodiles and hippos in Zimbabwe. We walked. A lot.


Victoria Falls, as seen from Zimbabwe

From Nairobi to Johannesburg is 2911 km as the crow flies. We got there using no less than 15 forms of public transportation. Take that, travel agent!

I picked up as many bits and pieces of kiSwahili and Chichewa and Zulu as I could, painstakingly copying each word into a notebook. Most of those words have slipped away, but even now, a decade and a half later, I find myself randomly throwing “pole pole” or “yebo!” into conversations.

When I came home from Africa, I met my now-husband. Within a year we moved 4000 km away, to BC’s beautiful Vancouver Island. We were full of plans to see the world. For the first few months, we lived in a near-empty apartment, with nothing but a futon to sleep on, lawn chairs to sit on and a giant world map on the wall.

We were only in Victoria for a few years when something unexpected happen.

No, not a baby.


A puppy.

Between saving our money for visits home, and not wanting to board our boy for more than 10 days at a time, I put my long-term travel dreams on hold for a decade.  The world would have to wait.

But yesterday, while sorting through photos on my old laptop, I realized that the world and I hadn’t really parted ways at all. Over ten years, three home-base cities and 100+ pounds of dog, we’ve managed to explore something pretty big:

our backyard.

We spent four beautiful years walking pristine beaches and hugging trees on British Columbia’s wild west coast.

tree hugger

Cathedral Grove, BC


My sister contemplating life on Long Beach, BC

After living in Victoria for four years, we stopped in Toronto for a brief five-year layover before packing up again and moving even farther East, this time to rural Nova Scotia.

A short drive on a sunny day can bring us from rocky windswept shoreline to charming villages to lighthouses to endless deserted beaches to the lively city of Halifax.


Mahone Bay, NS

peggy's cove

Peggy’s Cove, NS

Last summer, we packed ourselves and our tent onto a 14-hour ferry to Newfoundland. For ten days, we watched whales and puffins from the shore, camped next to moose, walked viking ruins, ate cod and salt beef, made friends with fishermen and drank beer on George Street.


Icebergs near St Anthony, NL

newfoundland fishing village

Quiet Newfoundland fishing village

I’ve travelled this beautiful country of mine from coast to coast, including a multi-day train trip that took us from Toronto to Vancouver.


Alberta as seen from the back of a train

I’ve had the opportunity to hike, cycle and paddle in some of the most beautiful parts of the world – all within easy distance from my front door. I’ve walked and wandered in nine of Canada’s ten provinces. Next summer we plan on exploring Prince Edward Island, which will make it ten for ten.

Who says you have to leave the country to travel?

But there’s one thing that’s been missing in all of my Canadian travels: immersion into another language and culture. In Toronto, we lived in a cultural melting pot. I taught French to children who spoke a dozen different languages at home. Walking around in our neighbourhood, we were much more likely to hear Russian, Korean or German than English.

But I never had to learn a language to communicate. I’m fluent in both of Canada’s official languages. English was the lingua franca in every city we’ve lived in, and French gave me my pick of jobs. Why bother learning another language, right?

I’ve spent the past 11 years teaching languages, but until eight months ago, I never bothered to seriously learn one myself.

There’s something wrong with that.

So what’s next?

For the first time in nearly 15 years, I have an overseas adventure to look forward to.

I will leave my menfolk (both human and canine) on March 15th to walk the Camino de Santiago with my father. We’ll leave from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France and – hopefully, hopefully – walk into Santiago, Spain 40 days later.

While mid-March might be the official start date of my Camino, the truth is that I took my first step on the day when I stopped weighing my socks for a minute and thought to myself:

Hey. I should learn Spanish first.

I think that decision will change my life forever.

Language, culture, people, communication, travel, stories – these are the things that I’m passionate about.

When I was eighteen, I thought that I’d be a perpetual traveller.

It turns out that I was right.

A Dios Le Pido by Juanes – Lyrics in Spanish and English

a dios le pido

Once you start listening to this song by  Colombian musician Juanes, I’m afraid that it will run itself through your head all day. And all night.

Luckily, it’s a beautiful song.

I think it might actually be my favourite song so far! The melody, the lyrics, the percussion, the subjunctive (ha!) – it’s perfect. It’s obviously a song about love and family, but there’s also a political message there. Another interesting note: you’ll notice the use of “vos” as the second person singular in this song (“si me enamoro sea de vos”).

A Dios Le Pido – Juanes

Que mis ojos se despierten
Con la luz de tu mirada yo
A Dios le pido
Que mi madre no se muera
Y que mi padre me recuerde
A Dios le pido
That my eyes awaken
to the light of your gaze
I pray to God
That my mother not die
That I remember my father
I pray to God
Que te quedes a mi lado
Y que más nunca te me vayas mi vida
A Dios le pido
Que mi alma no descanse cuando
De amarte se trate mi cielo
A Dios le pido
That you stay by my side
That never you leave me, my life
I pray to God
That my soul not rest when
Loving you is like heaven
I pray to God
Por los días que me quedan
Y las noches que aún no llegan yo
A Dios le pido
Por los hijos de mis hijos
Y los hijos de tus hijos
A Dios le pido
For the days that I have left
And the nights that haven’t yet come
I pray to God
For the children of my children
And the children of your children
I pray to God
Que mi pueblo no derrame tanta sangre
Y se levante mi gente
A Dios le pido
Que mi alma no descanse cuando
De amarte se trate mi cielo
A Dios le pido
That my people not spill so much blood
and that they rise up
I pray to God
That my soul not rest when
Loving you is like heaven
I pray to God
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y mi corazón entero entregarte
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y a tu lado para siempre yo quedarme
Un segundo más de vida yo
A Dios le pido
One more second of life to give you
And my whole heart to deliver to you
One more second of life to give you
And to always stay by your side
One more second of life
I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God
Que mis ojos se despierten
Con la luz de tu mirada yo
A Dios le pido
Que mi madre no se muera
Y que mi padre me recuerde
A Dios le pido
That my eyes awaken
to the light of your gaze
I pray to God
That my mother not die
That I remember my father
I pray to God
Que te quedes a mi lado
Y que más nunca te me vayas mi vida
A Dios le pido
Que mi alma no descanse cuando
De amarte se trate mi cielo
A Dios le pido
That you stay by my side
That never you leave me, my life
I pray to God
That my soul not rest when
Loving you is like heaven
I pray to God
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y mi corazón entero entregarte
Un segundo más de vida para darte
Y a tu lado para siempre yo quedarme
Un segundo más de vida yo
A Dios le pido
One more second of life to give you
And my whole heart to deliver to you
One more second of life to give you
And to always stay by your side
One more second of life
I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God
Que si me muero sea de amor
Y si me enamoro sea de vos
Y que de tu voz sea este corazón
Todos los días a Dios le pido
If I die, may it be of love
And if I fall in love, may it be with you
And may your voice be this heart
Every day I pray to God

As always, if you notice any mistakes or misinterpretations, please let me know. (And also, any html or wordpress gurus – any idea how I can increase the font size in a table?)

Want more Spanish music? You can follow a playlist with all of the songs that I’ve posted on the blog on YouTube.

Other songs I’ve posted:

Ojalá by Silvio Rodriguez
Eres Para Mí by Julieta Venegas
La Bamba by Ritchie Valens
Qué Hiciste by Jennifer Lopez
Son Mis Amigos by Amaral
Labios Compartidos by Mana
La Tortura by Shakira