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