Being able to hold even a simple conversation in a foreign language is useful. I’ve found it’s a great icebreaker and can be a lot of fun too.
It is also grounding, and I’ve felt much more connected to the part of the world where I'm traveling.
’Ni hao (你好)’, “Zdrávstvujte (Здравствуйте)” or "Konnichiwa (こんにちは)" is a way to build rapport more quickly when you step into a store in China, Russia or Japan.
Besides English and my native Finnish, I can hold very simple conversations in Mandarin and Russian.
Having a conversation with high-level North Korean officer:
Let me tell you a story of unexpected situation where foreign language conversational skills have been useful, and totally unexpected, to me.
Two years ago, with my limited Russian, I was able to hold a conversation with a high-level North Korean officer over a business lunch.
(It’s really a story of it’s own, one which opened my world-view more than any other travels. I was staying one week in North Korea to teach local students basic skills in entrepreneurship. So here is just one snippet from the week.)
We were a group of about 10 people, and we were having an official business lunch in Pyongsong with senior government representatives. Pyongsong is know as “Silicon Valley” of North Korea (*ehm*), as there resides plenty of engineers and academics.
I was lucky to sit next to the North Korean Big Guy in the room. I tried opening up the conversation first in English with this officer. No response. Next, just for the fun of it, in German language ("Hallo, sprechen sie Deutsch?”). No reaction. His assistant was looking at me with a desperation in his face. He was probably thinking we can never crack a conversation without him helping to translate.
Then, to counter his desperation, I asked the assistant if his boss actually speaks anything else than Korean. The assistant promptly replied: “Of course, he speaks Russian!”. I’m like “Oh, Russian! Well, привет! Kак дела?” (Hello, how are you?) and I received a happy face and first smile from the officer and prompt reply "хорошо, а Вы?”.
He was happy as he could finally join the discussion without a translator. I asked how on earth he could speak Russian. Stupid me. As a senior officer, he had naturally received his communist training and education in the former Soviet Union in Moscow.
We talked for some 10 minutes in Russian language. We e.g. talked about the places we both had visited in Moscow. We had good laughs and a fun moment that I’ll never forget.
And it was certainly the last place, and with the least likely person, where I was expecting to speak Russian.
So, you never know where the language skill turn out to be useful, and how much fun it can be.
Triple your language learning and speaking skills with private online tutors
I have been studying Mandarin Chinese for two years now. I have explored various methods to learn a new language, and have found some novel ways of learning that I want to share with the world.
I feel there are so many misunderstandings regarding language learning. Most people see only two options:
1) Learning a new language in a classroom setting in your home country; or
2) Moving to the destination country and continue learning in a classroom
While Option 2, moving to the country and taking an intensive class, is definitely an effective learning method, not all of us can make such a move or take one year off to focus full-time on learning a new language.
On the other hand, Option 1, learning a language in a traditional classroom setting in your home country, is neither the most effective nor the most flexible method for numerous reasons. I will talk about these later.
I’ve discovered there are more than these two options, some that most people are not aware of.
Traditional classroom teaching is not the only method. It’s just the one we are most familiar with, of course, as we’ve experienced it through around 10 years of schooling.
There are more effective, more flexible, and more ‘targeted' ways of learning. With ‘targeted’, I mean vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, dialog practice and so on. Learning a language consists of many areas and you can utilize targeted method for each one.
Get yourself a private teacher and learn over Skype
Most people agree without hesitation that private tutoring is the most effective way of learning a language. That said, many of us think that the price level of private tutoring is out of reach.
For a long time, this used to be true. Thanks to the Internet, things are different now.
You can now find many professional private tutors online. The classes can be conducted over Skype anywhere in the world, with native-speaking, professional teachers. Prices are incredibly reasonable, typically between 5-25 EUR per hour.
In total, I have taken around 100 private classes online, each class 60 minutes, in three different languages.
Elena, who lives in China, has been teaching me Mandarin for well over a year now. I’ve had Svetlana teaching me Russian from Tel Aviv. Roćio taught me a few lessons in Spanish when I wanted to learn the basics before staying in San Sebastian, Spain, for a few weeks.
In short, private tutors have been my go-to method for rapid foreign language learning for the last few years.
Where do I find the teachers then?
Learning over Skype is rapidly gaining in popularity with teachers and learners alike.
Teachers typically use a platform called iTalki and are making a living out of online tutoring. My Mandarin teacher Elena has taught me over 50 hours of Mandarin on iTalki. She has had 9648 lessons in total with 704 different students. Her typical work week consists of 20-30 classes of language teaching — entirely on Skype.
In my opinion, iTalki is the best online service to find private language tutors. They have tens of thousands of private tutors listed on their site, many of whom are professional, university graduated, licensed language teachers. There are also community teachers who don’t necessarily have a degree and have lower hourly prices.
You can try several teachers and pick your favorite to continue your weekly classes with. The first ‘trial lesson’ of 30 minutes is half the price for new students, so you are encouraged to try out several teachers.
I think it is worth your time and money to get the best rated teacher if you are serious about learning a language. It will cost a bit more (while still being reasonably priced), and it’s so much more enjoyable and effective.
Also, once in a while, I’ve taken single classes from other teachers. This way I can practice some particular pronunciation or simply try to have an informal conversation in the target language with a new person.
What are the main benefits of private tutoring over classroom teaching?
1) You get the teacher’s full attention
Needless to say, with private tutors, you get their full attention. Moreover, because you pay them, they know what they get. They are there only for you — patient and polite. You don’t need to worry at all, even if you are just a beginner. This makes the setting comfortable for both the student and the teacher.
This is also the reason why it almost never works if you try to learn a new language through your friends who speak the target language. They will just get frustrated at some point because it’s a one-way street.
The same applies to ‘language exchange buddies’. It rarely works efficiently because enthusiastic learners might not be great teachers, and vice versa. Private tutoring is a completely different setting, and the small fee you pay guarantees your teacher’s attention and expertise.
2) You learn to pronounce like a local
One definite upside in private tutoring is learning pronunciation. The undivided attention of a native-speaking teacher is key to this. I remember repeating a single Mandarin word for 10 minutes in a row to get it right with the teacher. And I successfully used this ‘rinse and repeat’ method with several other words too. Finally, I learned the fundamentals of the four tones in Mandarin. I simply insisted we use the time to learn this, and it was the right decision looking back.
Later, I took a short traditional Mandarin language course in physical classroom setting. I was stunned by how all of the students pronounced in such a terrible manner. I wondered how the teacher could stand it. Other students simply hadn’t figured out how to pronounce the four tones yet, and the class was already progressing to following lessons.
Well, it wasn’t the teacher’s fault, she actually did great job as a teacher. The classroom setting just doesn’t give room for individual teaching and correcting the nuances of pronunciation. Learning to pronounce requires one-on-one time.
I felt I was so much ahead of everyone else with my earlier investment in better learning techniques.
3) You get to choose the most effective time for your class
Flexibility is important. We all know the time of day when we are most focused and productive, ready to learn and for new information to sink in. It can be different for each of us.
For me, the best time is in the morning, right after my regular mourning routines and my 30 minute morning run. I’m also mindful not to look at any emails, messages or other social media notifications before my language class. My mind is then relaxed and uncluttered, and I’m in my most attentive state to learn new things.
This is why I schedule my 60 minute lessons at 9 am every Wednesday. I’ve chosen Wednesday, because I might have other plans over the weekend, which could otherwise interrupt my routine. Mondays are usually busy at work and then I have Tuesday to prepare for my lesson the next day.
Due to its flexibility, private tutoring is ideal because it allows me to select the best time of the day for me.
Taking your first private tutoring class
When you take your first lesson, you don’t need to prepare, or to be too nervous either. Good teachers lead you through the lesson and make it comfortable for you. The teachers are generally polite and friendly people. They have taught the same lessons many times. And, unlike traditional classroom settings, if you don’t feel completely satisfied, it’s easy to try out another teacher.
I tried four different Chinese teachers before I stuck with the one I’ve now taken over 50 classes with. My teacher, Elena, has been extremely professional, polite, reliable and quick-witted.
She is also a quick typist in Skype chat. Yes, typing speed actually matters :) Teacher needs to clarify words in writing, especially with Mandarin. Some other teachers I tried were not as professional, or were simply not as available to suit my schedules.
I gladly pay a little extra to get the best teacher, as it is still a fraction of the cost when compared with face-to-face private tutoring.
My class structure
My typical 60 minute class structure is as follows:
1) First 10 minutes: We talk randomly in Mandarin just like you would catch up with any friend. What did I do yesterday, how was the weekend, how is the weather and so on. This is a smooth and comfortable start, and is also great way to learn to have simple conversations.
2) Next 20 minutes: The teacher asks me to recognize ten different hanzi characters one-by-one. These ten characters have been my homework, and I’ve learned them using self-made flashcards. We then speak a few sentences about each word to perfect the pronunciation and grammatical relevance of each.
3) Final 30 minutes: We follow the HSK book series, and typically go through one chapter. I do have a physical book in front of me (it’s much better than having just a PDF on your computer). At the end of the lesson, the teacher gives me homework to learn the next ten hanzi characters and prepare for the next chapter in the HSK book.
I’ve found this structure to be most effective.
Should the Skype lesson be with or without video?
When I started to take private tutoring over Skype some years ago, I first used both video and audio in Skype. I could see the teacher and she could see me. This was useful for the first one or two lessons to build rapport and to connect comfortably with the teacher.
However, I felt that the real-time video was distracting the language learning process. It takes extra mental energy to pay attention to the teacher’s facial expression and body language. My listening and speaking were a little distracted. Without the video, I felt I could fully concentrate on listening and speaking, and learn more effectively.
After my first two classes, I suggested that we continue the Skype lessons only with audio. This has worked well for me, as I’ve been able to focus exclusively on listening and speaking. It’s easy to try both ways and see which works better for you.
Start speaking from the day one
Over the years on my multilingual quest, I’ve found out that there are some novel and far more effective (and affordable) learning methods. These can accelerate your language learning speed to new heights.
One-on-one online tutoring is the number one method that I have recommended to many of my friends.
Benny Lewis, a polyglot (or multilingualist) who speaks eight different languages, discovered that people who are not afraid of speaking a new language from day one, despite many mistakes, are usually the fastest language learners. I’ve found this to be true for myself as well.
Online tutoring is so compelling because you actually get to speak from the day one. It’s a head start compared traditional classrooms setting.
Are you currently learning a new language? Or perhaps you studied a language for years, back in the days, and regret a little that you never really had good chance to learn how to speak it fluently?
I encourage you to consider giving an online tutor a try.
I’ll guarantee it will take your learning speed and enjoyment of language learning to new heights. Finding a teacher and booking a class for ANY language takes just 5 minutes.
PS. If you’re inspired by my writing, and found it useful, you can consider signing up with iTalki through this link. It’s my affiliate link, and we both get $10 USD free credits if you decide to book a class.