Talking to native speakers.
Everyone knows it’s the best way to learn a foreign language. But there’s one problem with this method that no one talks about.
In the beginning, those native speakers may not want to talk to you.
When you start speaking a foreign language, it’s all mind blanks, silly mistakes and sounding like a 2-year-old, which makes communication slow and awkward.
It’s not you that’s the problem. You have to go through that stage if you want to speak a foreign language.
But you need the right people to practise with. Supportive ones who encourage you to speak and don’t make you feel embarrassed when you get stuck or make mistakes.
The best place to find these people?
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to a conversational level in quite a few languages by practising with online tutors on a website called italki. In this post, I’ll show you how to do the same.
– Why learning with an online tutor is better than moving to the country.
– Tech guide: a step-by-step guide on how to get set up.
– How to find the right teacher and prepare for your first lesson.
– Conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
– Lesson tips: how to survive (and enjoy!) your lessons and remember what you learn.
You’ll also find some goofy videos of me trying out these tactics in real life with different languages.
Ready to get fluent in any language without taking off your fluffy socks? Let’s go!
Why online tutors are better than being in the country
A few years ago, something odd happened.
Just as I was thinking about learning French, by complete coincidence, I ended up moving into an apartment with 2 French guys. The perfect opportunity, I thought. By the end of the year, I’ll be fluent!
Apart from a few cute phrases like “bonne nuit”, they didn’t want to talk to me in French. And I couldn’t blame them. I only knew a few words. Waiting for me to get a sentence out was like waiting for a glass of champagne to evaporate.
So I kept learning bits of French on my own. In Paris a couple of years later, I had the same problem. I’d try to say something in French, but everyone replied in English.
Italki: How online tutors solved my problem
At some point, I came across a website called italki, where I could find native French tutors and pay them to talk to me on Skype for a whole hour, which cost around $10.
I had finally found a way to speak French and bypass all the awkwardness. The tutors knew I was a beginner – and I was paying them to help – so the whole thing felt more comfortable. I was free to work through my “sounding like a 2-year-old stage”, without feeling like a burden. As I spoke, my tutors taught me new words and corrected my mistakes.
I stuck with it and ended up being able to speak French.
Not perfectly, but pretty well considering I’ve never lived there. I’ve since passed one of the highest level French exams and now when I go to France, I don’t get Englished anymore because my French is often better than their English. I even got to enjoy a pretty woman moment – the look on my old flatmates’ faces when they heard me speaking French for the first time!
italki was magic for me, so I decided to use it to learn a few other languages too.
With online tutors, learning a language is actually easier from home than it is in the country. When I went to Germany, I had no one to practise with. It felt awkward starting a conversation with a stranger, which I imagined would go something like this:
Me: Hallo, I’m learning German.
Them: OK…. (looks awkward and runs away).
From home, with the focused speaking practice I got with my italki tutors, I learned to have a basic conversation in German in around 3 months.
How to learn a foreign language on italki
The fastest (and most enjoyable way) to learn a language is with regular 1-on-1 speaking practice. Online tutors are perfect because it’s so easy – you can do a lesson whenever suits and from wherever you have an internet connection, which makes it simple to stick to regular lessons.
I’ve teamed up with italki and I couldn’t be happier to recommend them because it will be the best thing you ever do to speak a foreign language. If you book your lesson through any of the links on this page, you’ll get $10 off (which could add up to a free lesson) after your first purchase.
Tech guide: a step-by-step guide to set up your first italki lesson
To get set by watching this quick tutorial on how to use the italki platform.
- Go to italki.com and sign up.
- Fill in your details, including which language you’re learning.
- Once you get to the main italki screen, you’ll see your profile with your upcoming lessons. At the moment it says 0, so let’s go ahead and set one up!
- Click on “find a teacher”
- Here, you’ll find filters like “price”, “availability” and “specialities”. Set these to fit in with your budget, schedule and learning goals.
- Explore the teacher profiles and watch the introduction videos to find a teacher you’d enjoy working with.
- Click on “book now” and you’ll see their lesson offers.
What’s informal tutoring?
When choosing your lessons, you’ll often see “informal tutoring”, which is a pure conversation class. These kinds of lessons are great value because the tutor doesn’t have to prepare anything beforehand. They just join you on Skype and start chatting.
Booking your first italki lesson
Once you’ve chosen the kind of lesson you’d like, choose the time that suits you and voilà, you’ve just booked your first lesson with an online tutor! Well done – I know it can feel a little intimidating at first, but creating opportunities to practise is the absolute most important thing you can do if you want to learn to speak a language.
Once you’ve finished and confirmed your first lesson, if you signed up though the links on this page, italki will give you $10 for your next lesson.
What’s the difference between professional tutors and community tutors?
When choosing a teacher, you’ll also see a filter called “teacher type” and the option to choose between professional teachers and community tutors. What’s the difference?
Professional Teachers on italki
Professional teachers are qualified teachers vetted by italki – they have to upload their teaching certificate to gain this title. These classes tend to be more like “classic language lessons”. The teacher will take you through a structured course, preparing lessons beforehand and teaching you new grammar and vocabulary during each lesson.
1. If you’re a total beginner.
2. You’re not sure where to start and you’d like guidance from an expert.
Community tutors on italki
Community tutors are native speakers who offer informal tutoring, where the focus is 100% on conversation skills. They’ll give you their undivided attention for an hour while you try to speak and they’ll help by giving you words and corrections you need to get your point across.
1. If you’ve already spent some time learning the theory and you feel like you’re going round in circles. You need to put it into practice!
2. You’re happy to take control of your own learning by suggesting topics and activities you’d like to try.
3. You’re on a budget – these classes are usually super good value – sometimes less than $10 per hour.
If both of those options are out of budget, you can also use italki to find a language partner, which is free – you find a native speaker of the language you’re learning who also wants to learn your native language and you teach each other.
An important tip for finding the right tutor
Feel free to experiment with a few different tutors until you find one you click with. When you find a tutor you get along well with, they end up becoming like friends – you’ll look forward to meeting them and be motivated to keep showing up to your lessons. Here’s an example of me and my Spanish tutor talking about exactly that!
How to prepare for your first lesson
Spending a little time preparing will allow you to focus during the lesson and get as much out of it as possible. In this section, you’ll find some suggestions about how to do just that.
Learn the basic pleasantries
Hello, goodbye, please, sorry and thank you will take you a long way!
Learn basic communication phrases
It’s important to try and speak in the language as much as possible, without switching back into English. Those moments when you’re scrambling for words and it feels like your brain’s exploding – that’s when you learn the most!
To help you do this, learn these phrases to help you keep the conversation going, even when you get stuck.
1. How do you say [+ word you want to say]. e.g. How do you say “book”
2. What does that mean?
3. Sorry, I didn’t understand.
4. Can you repeat please?
5. Can you speak slower please?
In the following posts, you’ll find these phrases in French, Spanish and Italian.
If you’re not sure where to find these phrases in the language you’re learning, you could spend the first lesson asking your online tutor to translate them for you (and write them down), so you have them handy for future lessons.
I once did a whole half hour lesson in Slovak on italki with only these phrases. I didn’t even memorise them beforehand, I just stuck them on a post-it on my computer. Here’s a little snippet (apologies for the dodgy sound).
I couldn’t speak a word of Slovak before the lesson (which is why it was kind of slow and awkward!), but with these phrases, I managed to keep the conversation mostly in Slovak for 30 minutes. I was able to ask for the words I needed, find out what certain words meant, and request the teacher to repeat/speak more slowly. It’s easy to see how persevering with the language in this way can lead to being able to speak the language over time. In fact, this is how I started with all of the languages I speak now!
Start with these basic communication phrases and you’ll be surprised how quickly you’re able to speak the language for a whole half hour.
Learn internet phrases
As you’ll be chatting over the internet, it also helps to learn phrases like:
The connection isn’t good.
Can you hear/see me?
I can’t hear/see you.
Learn checking phrases
Michel Thomas once compared learning a foreign language to tennis. When you attempt to say something, sometimes you’ll get it over the net and the listener will understand. But you won’t get it over the net all the time, and that’s ok. If you did, your tutor would be out of a job!
For this reason, it helps to learn some checking phrases, so you can get feedback about whether you said it right or not. Here are some examples of handy phrases to learn so you can check:
– Did I say it right?
– Can you say it like that?
Remember, your tutor is there to help and will be more than happy to answer these kinds of questions.
Handy hint: the best thing about doing lessons on the internet is that you don’t have to worry about mind blanks – you can pin these phrases to your computer and read them when you need them. By force of repetition, you’ll find them rolling off your tongue after the first few lessons.
Conversation ideas: what to talk about at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels
Beginner and beyond
1. Simple questions
Before the class, prepare a list of simple questions, like:
Where do you live?
What job do you do?
What are your hobbies?
What’s your favourite food?
What time is it there?
Prepare your own answers to these questions too, so you’ll be able to use them in conversation (you can keep them with you on a piece of paper next to your computer, just in case you get stuck).
When preparing your questions and answers, you can use phrasebooks/websites and even google translate to help – it comes out with some funky things sometimes, but your teacher will be able to help you correct any mistakes during the lesson.
2. About me
Before the lesson, tell your tutor that you’d like to write a simple paragraph with very basic information about yourself – the kind of things people will ask you over and over. You can work on it together in class and then record your teacher reading it aloud. This way you can listen to it and learn it off by heart so you’ll have those answers ready when you get into conversations.
3. Work on your textbook together
How about working through a beginner’s course/textbook with your online tutor? You can work through the chapter at home before the lesson, then talk about the topics together. For example, if the chapter is about eating out, you can learn some useful phrases to describe food and restaurants and practise using them with your online tutor. This will add some much-needed speaking practise to the course, and help them stick in your mind so you can use them in future conversations.
Lists are easy to write and are great conversation starters! Here are some ideas of lists you could write in the language you’re learning:
5 things you like
5 things you hate
3 places you’ve been to
3 things you’ve eaten recently
3 friends in your life
4 films you love
6 places you’d like to visit
The list is endless! (apologies for the pun)
You can send your list to your online tutor before the lesson, or share it with them at the beginning. The conversation that develops from these lists will help you learn valuable phrases for talking about your everyday life.
Beginner tip: When you’re just starting out, little and often is best. I’d suggest starting with half-hour lessons so you don’t get overwhelmed. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be able to fill that half hour speaking the language!
Intermediate to advanced
1. Elaborated lists
They may seem simple, but lists are great conversation starters, even at intermediate level and beyond. They help you get past the blank page syndrome and give you fun things to talk about in class. At intermediate level and beyond, you can challenge yourself by choosing more complex lists and writing more details. Try writing a page in your notebook about one of the following things:
5 things I noticed today
2 conversation snippets I overheard yesterday
3 bits of gossip I heard this week
2 mistakes I’ve made (and what I learned from them)
3 things I love and hate about my job
3 things I’d change about myself if I could
4 things that make me happy
I’m sure you can think of more along the same lines! During the lesson, you can ask your online tutor to help you correct your mistakes and then start chatting about your list. Here’s an example of one I sent to my teacher in Spanish:
If you don’t have time to prepare, you can also find lists of conversation starters online, which make for a fun lesson. Try searching “interesting questions” in the language you’re learning on google, and you should find some good ones. In this video, you can see us chatting about this list of Spanish conversation questions I found on the internet.
2. What are you passionate about?
Photography, travel, sport, politics… What do you like to talk about in your native language? The great thing about intermediate level is that you can start to try discussing these topics in the language you’re learning. To get the conversation started, you can either:
1. Prepare a list of questions (and maybe take notes on how you’d like to answer, so you can learn important vocabulary that will help you speak in the lesson).
2. Find simple content about the topic you like – blog posts, news articles, podcasts, YouTube videos etc. Share it with your tutor so you can both read/listen to it before the lesson, and chat about it together in class.
If you’re learning one of the following languages, these posts are a good place to find resources.
3. Recycling questions
Probably my favourite (and most useful!) activity for conversation classes. Take some words you’ve learned recently and use them to write questions that you’ll discuss during your lesson.
This way, as you chat about your answers you’ll end up saying the new words over and over, which will help them stick in your brain.
Here’s the list of the questions I wrote before the lesson. You can see the words I’ve learnt recently underlined at the top and the example question below.
4. Talk about entertainment
Finally, at more advanced levels, you can try reading a book or watching a TV series and discuss each chapter/episode with your tutor. You can also try writing a summary about what you watched/read, so your teacher can help you correct it in class before you start chatting. This will help you learn some useful vocabulary for the conversation.
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My new morning habit – I’m currently reading a book in French at bedtime, so the next morning, if I’m up early enough, I take a book to the café around the corner and write a little summary (and sometimes send a photo to my French teacher @frenchwithmanon who corrects all the mistakes🙊). Then we chat about the book in our lesson 📖
Handy hint: don’t feel like you have to be super prepared all the time. Often, I forget/don’t have time to do all this stuff – I just rock up unprepared and start trying to chat. Any speaking is always better than no speaking!
During the conversation: how to make the most out of your italki lessons
Here are some things to keep in mind during your lesson:
- Chatbox: The Skype chatbox is your friend. If you don’t understand something, or your tutor teaches you a new word, ask them to write it for you in the chat. These will become your notes that you can revise from after the lesson.
- Example sentences: When you learn new words, ask your tutor to give you an example sentence. This will allow you to understand how the word is used in sentences and communicate more smoothly.
- Prioritise: Don’t try to learn everything. When something new comes up, ask yourself if it’s useful in your life now. If the answer is yes, ask your tutor to type an example sentence in the chatbox so you can remember it later. If not, just let it go for now.
- When you say something and you’re not sure if it’s right, check with your tutor. Remember to learn phrases like: Is that right? Do you say it like that? and use them often in class.
- Ask your tutor to correct you and thank them when they do. Getting feedback from mistakes is how you learn, so it’s important to make sure that your tutor feels comfortable correcting you, and isn’t worried about offending you.
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. You will mess up – a lot at the beginning – so you might as well have fun with it. The sooner you can learn to laugh at yourself, the easier you’ll find it to learn a language. Here’s an example of me making a goofy mistake in Chinese.
Remember, things will be slow and awkward for a while, it’s a normal stage that everyone goes through. Stick with it until words and phrases start to come to you automatically. With enough practice, they will.
How to remember what you learn in your italki lessons
So you’ve finished your lesson and you’ve got your notes in the chatbox. How can you make sure you remember all that stuff?
I use an app called memrise, which makes memorising new words and phrases into a fun game (and drills them into your brain!) Here’s how it works.
If you’re more of a pen and paper person, you can make a similar quiz for yourself in your notebook. Just draw a line down the middle, write the question/definition on the left side, and the word you’re trying to remember on the right. Cover up the right side with your hand, try to remember the word, then move your hand and check to see if the answer was right.
Here are a few more activities to help you remember what you learn in your lessons:
- Quiz: Ask your teacher to quiz you on what you learnt last lesson – the words are already there in the chat, so they can just scroll up and quiz you. And if you know you’ve got the quiz coming up, you’ll be more likely to study!
- Review: Go over any grammar points/vocabulary that came up. Think about when you might use them in real life and write example sentences. You can ask your tutor to help you check them in the next lesson.
- Record: Ask your tutor if you can record your lesson, then turn it into an mp3 and relisten to it as you go about your day.
Ready to start?
I hope you’re feeling inspired to start working with an online tutor. Before you do, I have a little confession to make. I don’t do all of this stuff all the time. I do it sometimes, and it works well enough. While it’s true that taking time to prepare beforehand and review afterwards will help you get more out of your lessons, don’t get overwhelmed. Just start with one idea you like and go from there.
The main thing is to meet with your tutor regularly and speak as much as you can. You’ll be speaking that language in no time!
Tutors in this post
If you’d like to take lessons with any of the tutors I mention in this post, once you’ve signed up to italki, you can find them by going to “find a teacher” and typing their names into the search box.
Over to you
Have you ever done lessons with italki? How did it go? Do you have any other ideas to make the most of your lessons with online tutors?