Working With a Language Tutor When You’re a Beginner

absolutebeginner

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.

tagalogteachers

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.

languagenotebook

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.

chase

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.

For printable conversation cards in English, Tagalog, French and Spanish, as well as a more detailed description of how I use them, click here.

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.

ankiconversation

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?

Looking for a tutor? Italki is an excellent source of talented, affordable tutors from around the world. Let me know if you’re looking for Tagalog or Spanish tutors – I can recommend some very good ones!

13 thoughts on “Working With a Language Tutor When You’re a Beginner

  1. Anca

    Useful ideas, as usual.
    May I ask what format did you use for your electronic conversation cards? I am on the lookout for one that would make the shuffling process as easy as in paper form while being shareable in the virtual world.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Post author

      Hi Anca! I use anki (ankisrs.net). It’s a spaced repetition program, which means that cards come back at varying intervals, depending on whether I mark them as easy or difficult. You can create and share decks. If you’re looking for a random flashcard program that doesn’t use spaced interval, you could also try quizlet (quizlet.com).

      Reply
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  5. Cat

    Hi Stephanie! I am about to have my first lesson next week. It’s only 30 mins because it’s a trial session only. I am excited and nervous at the same time! Hopefully, I can start with the informal tutoring sessions by 2015.

    Reply
  6. Huey

    Hi Stephanie

    Great article! I like what you say about taking responsibility as the learner and the tutor simply being part of a balanced approach.

    You mention that you can recommend tutors on italki in Spanish, which is my target language. Would you mind sending me any contact details which you think may help. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Post author

      Hi Huey! All of my tutors are on italki. They’re also all from Spain, since that was the accent that I originally wanted to learn. I’ve been doing regular sessions with Auri for over a year. I’ve also had some really good tutors in the past, but we’ve had to stop working together due to scheduling issues. Here are three teachers that I recommend without reservation:

      Auri: http://www.italki.com/teacher/1192151
      Rocio: http://www.italki.com/teacher/1236067
      Matilde: http://www.italki.com/teacher/1056206

      Best of luck in 2015! I hope you enjoy working with tutors!

      Reply
  7. Elfin

    This is such a great and informative post ! I am so bookmarking this.

    What do you think about recording the sessions ? I am very slow at taking notes, so I love to listen to the conversation again. Sometimes, I don’t understand some things that were said, even if it’s not vital info, it’s nice to be able to double check with the recording or go over something I felt was challenging.

    I am a tutor as well and I am intrigued by how interesting and enriching, it is to see how other people work.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Post author

      I love the idea of recording sessions, but I’ve never done it before. It would depend a lot on the tutor’s comfort level, I guess. If both people were comfortable, it seems that it might be a great resource!

      Reply
  8. Lindsey

    Hi Stephanie,

    I have just started Italki to learn German – I had my first 30 minute lesson just yesterday with a professional teacher. I am wondering how you learn to conjugate verbs, grammar, sentence structure, etc. without structured lessons, and through only informal conversations?

    I was adamant with my teacher that I wanted our lessons to be structured (with a textbook) and to follow a lesson plan, as I learn much faster with seeing things visually versus hearing them. I’m wondering now if I should take your less structured approach, which also seems to have its benefits.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Post author

      I use other resources for structured learning – courses like Assimil, FSI, Teach Yourself, whichever course you choose. I use Skype sessions to practice conversation. Could you use the textbook provided by your teacher for independent study, and then just use your Skype sessions to clear up any confusion and to practice conversation?

      Reply

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