After reading a lot of Olly’s blog and listening to his podcasts, where he makes compelling arguments in favor of getting a tutor, I finally committed to paying for one-on-one classes through italki in February of this year. Since then, I have been diligently taking an average of 1-3 weekly lessons for 8 months. And let me tell you, these lessons have made all the difference. “How?” might you ask.
Well, because they make you speak on a semi-regular basis. No, really, that’s it. By having regular weekly lessons, I went from inchorent stammering and fumbling at a very low-intermdiate level to intelligible and fluid babbling at a very high-intermediate level. It was astounding.
My strategy was also simple. I started with half hour classes for 5-6 months and the last 2 or so switched to one-hour or 45 min classes. I figured if I set the bar low I wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed, and it worked. At the moment, hour-long classes feel so comfortable that I’m almost always surprised when the time is up.
At first, classes were tiring. My brain just didn’t seem to keep up with my thoughts. I felt frustrated. There was just such a big gap between my comprehension and production (I’d even venture to say it was about the difference between a B2 and a A2), that I thought it’d take me years to get my speaking caught up with my reading and listening. But I kept at it, hoping for a miracle.
Month #4 was a real milestone. My teacher said I’d made a lot of progress and I was starting to feel more comfortable. Then, he went on vacation. So, I looked for another teacher. When I first talked to this new teacher he thought I was already at a good level. So, he pushed me even more.
Month #6 was another turning point. I had worked hard on building my vocabulary from personalized lists that I’d create from words that I learned or heard during conversations. But when I started my Chinese class at the University it really sped everything up, the two classes combined meant a minimum of 6.5 hours of study a week. In just two months I learned 92 new words and 43 new characters, that’s 3 words a day.
So, in conclusion, what are some key take-aways?
4 Key Lessons learned
- Consistency really is the key: there were days that I didn’t really want to do classes, that I felt unmotivated and incompetent, but italki has this rule that you cannot cancel a class less than 24 hours in advance. Of course, life happens so you will have to miss class and reschedule (which is a pain), though this is rare. Just attending the classes week after week probably accounted for 80% of my progress. On a side note, I found that it’s good to schedule lessons at least 1 week in advance.
- Paying for classes keeps you accountable. Sure, you can get yourself a language partner for free, but paying for lessons is something else. You do almost all of the talking and you set the ground rules, which then equates to more corrections. And honestly, it’s not expensive. You can get decent tutors from $7 to $10 dollars an hour.
- Conversation classes online are an awesome complement to formal classes. For me, it also means I have Chinese class every day. You can put the stuff you learn in one class to use during the other and cement your knowledge.
- Conversation lessons mean that new words are always learned or encountered in context! And once you hear the same words a couple of times you know it’s time to add it to you Skritter pile (or whatever flashcard thingy you use).
Right now I’m at a point where I feel like I’ve reached my goal of conversing more fluently about a variety of topics, especially politics, my fave (that’s one of the reasons why I have 3 teachers and not only 1). Now, in conversations I have to look up no more than 3 to 5 new words, and rarely get corrected. Although I’d like to just keep hanging out with my italki tutors and chatting about whatever, my current state tells me it’s soon going to be time to change strategy.
When things get too comfortable you always run the risk of reaching a plateau. I’m not sure what my next move will be, but stay tuned.