Clearly the most effective way to learn a language – spending a substantial and immersive period of time in a country that speaks your target language – is unattainable for many of us. However, there are other fruitful options.
Enrolling on an adult education class, for example, is a good way to find an approved teacher and meet others hoping to achieve comparable goals, with the additional, obvious possibility of working with a partner or in a group. These kinds of classes are often provided by local authorities, but depending on your chosen language it isn’t always easy for the organisers to find or retain teachers. You may run into similar problems attempting to find a private tutor – an option that could be highly effective, though potentially expensive.
There are also audiobook courses (such as Michel Thomas) based on repetition with a focus on essential language only; or the multiple-choice, test-and-check-based Duolingo; or there’s Memrise, based on flash cards and video clips. These apps can be great if your goal is to learn the basic vocabulary required for a holiday or travelling, but if you want to develop and retain an in-depth knowledge of a language, they might not be enough alone.
One strategy I can highly recommend – which takes advantage of our connected and technologically advanced world and is unaffected by national lockdowns – is to work with a tutor who lives in a country that speaks your target language. For about a year now I have been working with a teacher through Italki, which offers online one-to-one language lessons in a staggeringly long list of languages. In my own case, I consider this activity as continuing professional development. It may seem odd to take the step of developing knowledge of a language I work with practically every day, but in my experience those who profess to know all do not evolve and grow in their work.
I have now been talking (on Skype – again you have options) to a native Italian speaker living and working in Rimini roughly once a week since last January, and this has given me renewed confidence and a sharper awareness of my strengths and weaknesses.
Once you’ve created an account on Italki, you can choose a teacher according to your self-assessed level, your requirements or your budget. The teachers range from students or those starting out to skilled tutors with qualifications and many years of experience. You can also choose from a native speaker of your target language, or someone of the same mother tongue; there are advantages to both. Moreover, some teachers will be formal and serious while others will be more light-hearted. You may also prefer conventional, highly structured lessons, or more relaxed conversation with no particular focus or topic. Your desired vocabulary may require you to prioritise specialised, industry-specific terms, or you might wish to learn what is needed for general conversation. One of the main benefits of Italki is the sheer amount of choice available.
Each tutor on the website has recorded a short presentation which can help you decide who to pick. You can also book up to three trial lessons, to ensure you get the teacher that’s right for you. You can also select your preferred lesson type, depending on your focus – conversation, pronunciation, spelling, grammar, writing – or even ask for support in preparing for an interview. There is also considerable flexibility around the time, date, lesson length and number of lessons you sign up for.
My own experience with an Italki teacher has shone a light on my confident and less confident areas, with some surprises. It is fascinating to talk with someone working in a completely different sector, in her case the hospitality industry, and the lessons often drift into a sharing of how our respective days have gone, with the associated humorous anecdotes about the workplace. There is a genuine sharing of views and encounters that goes beyond a teaching and learning experience, and I never know what is going to come up. We’ve discussed everything from Dante’s Inferno and Etruscan archaeological sites to her family recipe for frittata.
As someone who usually prefers to secure several safety nets and relies heavily on ticking off a list of advance preparation tasks when tackling any challenge, this randomness and unpredictability goes against the grain for me. But that’s what makes it such an effective learning tool: a reflection of those real-life, unforeseen dialogues generated when working or travelling that cannot be rehearsed. There is no textbook, no hierarchy to the lesson progression over time. In fact, my teacher actively encourages me to avoid preparing for my lessons. She encourages me to ask questions, without writing them down in advance, thus generating a conversation that is allowed to flow in any direction it chooses. She corrects any mistakes or pronunciation problems and I make a note of new vocabulary, keeping my own handwritten dictionary of new words.
This has so far worked well. I have learned expressions and proverbs that would never appear in a textbook and become quicker at formulating a reply. Most importantly of all, my confidence has increased – especially when someone wants to contact me on the phone or talk face-to-face on Skype.
Such an unstructured approach isn’t for everyone; others would no doubt prefer a more systematic method of learning. Nevertheless, whatever one’s needs, whatever one’s choice of language, style, or teaching method, I would recommend giving sites like Italki a go. As far as I can see, the range of options and flexibility as a language learning tool are unrivalled.