Linguistics

A Complete Guide to Learning a Language with a Tutor on iTalki

At this point, I’ve spent the last 3 years learning Japanese and Spanish almost exclusively with iTalki tutors. It’s been working really, really well; I’ve been making steady, fast progress in both languages and I haven’t felt the need to crack open a grammar book or look for other sources of language content. As such, I wanted to write an article about how best to learn using tutors. I also commissioned a web app to make your tutoring work more efficient, and I wanted to share the early version of that web app with you, so you can help me beta test it ????

We’ll break this article up into three parts:

  • How to choose a language tutor and how to deal with nervousness
  • What to talk about with your tutor
  • How to remember what you talked about, by moving your tutoring sessions to your flashcards

So let’s get started.

How to choose a language tutor, and a brief discussion about nervousness

iTalki: 3 Types of Tutors

For those of you who haven’t heard about iTalki.com yet, here’s a brief run-down:
iTalki supplies three main services in a very wide variety of languages:

  1. Paid professional tutors (with teaching certificates, who will guide you through a curriculum, etc.)
  2. Paid community tutors (no teaching certificates, cheaper, more informal)
  3. Free language exchange partners (you chat for some time in your native language, then you can chat in their native language)

Prices vary from language to language and tutor to tutor, but generally, I’ve found that option #1 is around $8-20/hr and option #2 is $4-8/hr. One hour of target language practice is usually enough tutoring to keep me going for 1 week of study, if I’m doing flashcard reviews for around 30 minutes/day, and creating flashcards for 30 minutes/day. I tend to work with paid tutors because the added cost spares me 30 minutes of chatting in English, and the added time savings/efficiency is worth the money to me. That said, you can definitely do everything in this article with a language exchange partner.
Later in this article, I’m going to show you how to guide the discussions so that you don’t need to worry about following a set curriculum. That means you don’t need to spend the extra money for a professional tutor. That said, the professionals may be better at answering your tricker questions about grammar, so you can try this: do 2-4 hours with a community tutor, save up your more challenging questions, and then if you feel you need it, book a 1 hour session with a professional tutor to help explain some of the more complex stuff in your target language. [If you haven’t ever used a tutor on iTalki, then you can grab $10 of free credits by using this referral link.]

How to sort through the tutors

Finding a good fit is tricky, and it can get a bit overwhelming when you’re searching through hundreds of tutors. I tend to pick tutors based on a combination of the following criteria:

  • Location: Where are you going to be using your target language? Most languages have significant differences in pronunciation and even word choice from region to region. In my case, for instance, I’m learning Spanish so that I can interact with my future extended family-in-law in Mexico. So I only looked for tutors who were from Mexico, ideally near a large city, since cities tend to eliminate really strong regional accents.
  • Schedule: It’s easy to get your heart set on a particular tutor, only to realize that they’re only available at 4am on Tuesdays. Check schedules before you read their profiles so you can skip them if they’re not available
  • ​Cost: Low hourly rates make me more likely to feel relaxed when we’re chatting, because if we waste a bit of time getting Skype working, I don’t have to feel super concerned about it. So personally, I tend skip over anyone who’s not in the lower end of the price range.
  • English: If I’m a beginner or an intermediate in a language, then I want someone who can speak English at an intermediate or better level. We’ll talk about why this is useful later on in this article. If I’m an advanced speaker and I just want a conversation partner, then English isn’t needed.

Favorite a few tutors that fit your needs, then pick one and set up a time. You’ll find out later on whether they were a good fit or not, and you can switch to another tutor if you weren’t super happy with the hour. This leads us to…

Dealing with Nervousness

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I have major nervousness issues when it comes to speaking foreign languages. I’ve been chatting with my Hungarian tutor every week or two for more than 3 years. We’re friends now, we have interesting conversations and we like each other very much…and I still get super nervous every time we chat, at least until we really get started. Speaking in a foreign language can be scary; it just doesn’t feel good when you don’t know what your conversation partner said, or you can’t say the thing that’s in your head. Worse, when you’re having a conversation, you can’t predict when one of those uncomfortable experiences is going to happen.
I’ve chatted with some of you who have wanted to get a tutor, but just scrolled through the tutor profiles and never actually scheduled something, since chatting with a tutor is scary. I’ve absolutely been there before, and so here are a few things that have been helpful for me:

  • First off, I schedule an hour and pretend like I can always cancel it. Clicking buttons on iTalki is not the same thing as talking to someone. So I just tell myself that I’m clicking buttons, it’s not a big deal, and I can un-click those buttons later on. Then I go about my week, and eventually it gets to 24 hours before the lesson. At that point, I can’t cancel without losing my money. So I just have to do it. I find that it’s a lower bar to click some buttons on a site that affect me at some point in the future, rather than, say, clicking on a “Talk Live with an Instant Tutor” sort of thing like Verbling used to be. [THAT was terrifying]
  • Another thing that’s been helpful for me is to know what I want to do with that tutor, so I don’t need to worry about us chatting, me feeling lame, and us sitting in silence while I feel like an idiot. We’ll talk about that in the next section.
  • If you’re shy about video, ask if you can do a Skype audio call instead before you book the lesson. If they’re ONLY comfortable with video (seems odd), then you can find a different tutor. Sometimes I find the video a little annoying, since it takes up screen space that I could have a notepad on, though there is some value in being able to use gestures to help your tutor figure out what on earth you’re trying to say.

What to talk about with your tutor

Beginner Level:

In the past, I used to take a 625 Word List, learn the words in that list using Picture Flashcards, and then once I finished, then I’d start learning sentences/grammar/etc. Over the last few years, instead of doing that, I began learning Japanese and Spanish by taking a 625 Word List, sending a copy to my tutor, and then creating sentences together for all the words within the list.
So as an example, here are the words from the first page of the Spanish wordlist:

Tierra – cielo – arriba – luna – uno – blanco – punto – estrella
Earth – sky – up – moon – one – white – dot – star


My goal is to come up with sentences that I might actually say about the words in this list. That means sentences that are:

  • Stories about things I’ve seen/done
  • Future Plans
  • Things I can Imagine
  • Stories about Friends
  • Basically, anything that relates to past, present or future experiences.

I happen to be writing this article in a plane. If my tutor was here and I was a beginning Spanish student, I might ask him to help me make these sentences:

Estoy volando sobre la Tierra.
I am flying above the Earth.
Voy en un avión, arriba, en el cielo.
I am in a plane, up in the sky.
Cuando miro por la ventana, puedo ver la luna acompañada de una estrella.
When I look out the window, I can see the moon along with a star.
La estrella se ve como un punto blanco.
The star looks like a white dot.

How do you ask for this stuff when you don’t know any Spanish? Simple. Ask in English (/your native language). We’re not using these sessions to practice your speaking abilities (yet); we just want to generate high quality flashcard content, so use the tools you have and jump to English until you can handle doing it in Spanish.
During these sentence-construction discussions, also ask whether the words in the sentence are in their root, uninflected, dictionary forms or not. For Spanish, you’d want the infinitives of each verb, the singular forms of each noun, and the masculine singular forms of each adjective. Our first sentence, for instance, starts with “Estoy” (I am), a form of the verb “estar” (to be), and “volando” (flying), a form of the verb “volar” (to fly).
In my lesson notes, I’d write down the 4 sentences and all of the root forms of the inflected words. Then I’d ask my tutor to record each sentence (more on that below), and move on to the next page of the word list, and keep doing this until the hour is over.
Over the next 3-6 days after our lesson, I’d make flashcards for every new chunk of information in each sentence. If it’s my first day learning Spanish, everything in “Estoy volando sobre la Tierra” is new; I’d need flashcards for “estoy” “volando” “sobre” “la” and “Tierra”, along with the root forms, “estar” (to be) and “volar” (to fly). I’ll use the flashcard model I talked about in the last blog post.

Intermediate Level:

If I was an intermediate student, then I’d aim for higher sentence complexity, and I’d only make sentences for words that were new to me. Let’s say I was an intermediate student who somehow didn’t know the words for Earth, sky, up, moon, one, white, dot or star. I might have my tutor help me make these:

De todos los planetas del sistema solar, la tierra es mi favorito.
Of all the planets in the solar system, the Earth is my favorite.
Nunca he visitado la luna, pero me gustaría hacerlo.
I’ve never visited the moon, but I’d like to.
Creo que podría ver mejor las estrellas desde allá arriba.
I think I’d be able to see the stars really well from up there.
¡Sin duda alguna, todavía serían puntos blancos, pero vería muchas más!
Sure, they’d still be white dots, but I’d see so many more of them!
Cuando era niño, mis padres me dijeron que mi tío al morir subió al cielo.
When I was a child, my parents told me that my uncle went up into the sky when he died.

Since I’m an intermediate student, I can try to create parts of these sentences myself, and ask for help when I get stuck in Spanish. Now my vocabulary and grasp of grammar is large enough that I don’t need to do the whole lesson in English, and so the sentence construction process becomes speaking practice, as well. Feel free to ask your tutor to help you with utilitarian sentences like “¿Como se dice ___?” (How do you say ____?), and have him write/record THOSE sentences, too. They make for quality flashcards as well.
If you have any trouble identifying the root forms of your words, ask, but usually at an intermediate level, you’ll be able to look those up on your own, so if you don’t need it, skip it, and move onto more sentence creation.
You will find that you can come up with a potential sentence for a word in the word list, and your tutor will tell you to use a different word. Spanish has a lot of words for “up/above” that are all different from each other: “sobre” “encima” “arriba”. Get into a discussion about the differences between these words, and generate example sentences for them that clearly show those differences.
Also you’ll find that if you keep your sentences about your own personal experiences, that you want to tell stories that don’t use the exact words in the word list. This is good. Go on tangents and make sentences for those stories, too. Any time you’re tempted to talk about something and you don’t know how, that’s precisely the language you need to learn.
You’ll find that by the end of your 625 word list, you’ll have learned way, way more than 625 words. You’ll have a pretty solid grasp of the entire language. (For my Spanish, I just passed word #350, and I have 3200 flashcards).

Intermediate/Advanced Levels:

Finish your 625 word list. Then grab a frequency dictionary and go through the top 1000 words with your tutor. You’ll already know most of those words, so just make sentences for the ones you’re missing. Keep going on tangents and telling stories. Start asking your tutor about his/her experiences that relate to your stories (When’s the last time he was on a plane? Where did he go? What was that trip like?).
At this point, you should be 100% in Spanish. Any time you don’t know a word you need, dance around that word, giving examples and telling other stories until you can elicit the needed vocabulary:

[Sample conversation, translated into English. I realize I need the word “flying” but I don’t have any related vocabulary.]
Gabe: “OK, so what’s the word for when you’re not on the earth?”
Tutor: “Uhh…I’m not sure what you mean?”
Gabe: “Right now I’m on the earth, right?”
Tutor: “Right”
Gabe: “And if I was up, higher, where would I be?”
Tutor: “In space?”
Gabe: “I mean yes, but … let’s try this. I’m in Chicago and I want to be in Paris. What do I need to do?”
Tutor: “Take a plane.”
Gabe: “OK awesome. Can you write that sentence down? ‘If I want to be in Paris, I need to take a plane’?”
Tutor: “OK. [Writes down and records sentence]
Gabe: “Now when I’m taking a plane, what am I doing?”
Tutor: “I don’t understand.”
Gabe: “I’m not walking, I’m not running…what am I doing?”
Tutor: “You’re flying”
Gabe: “Flying! That’s the word I wanted.” [I then try and use ‘flying’ in a sentence]

Do the same sort thing when you forget words that you theoretically do know. Keep up this word dance. It’s building your speaking fluency. Your tutor will usually get used to it, and it tends to be a fairly fun game to play. Note that some tutors will not get used to this at all, and will get frustrated, and will ask you to just ask in English. Tell them that you want to stay in your target language, and if they keep getting frustrated or using English with you, then switch tutors. Maybe they were a good fit for you as a beginner, but not as an intermediate or advanced student. That’s fine. There are tons of tutors out there; just switch until you find someone who likes playing this game. In my experience, that’s only happened once or twice; I’d say around 80% of folks I’ve met are willing to play along.
When you finished your top 1000 list, you can either keep going and get the next 1000 (mostly using those words as sources for conversation topics), or you can switch over to a more discussion-based format, by using the questions in this article. Have your tutor pick out questions they’re comfortable discussing and ask them in your target language. You’ll need your tutor to translate them without saying the English out loud. (If they don’t understand the English, then you can work on translating the questions together, but ideally, keep the discussion entirely in your target language). Discussing these questions has the added benefit of rapidly producing rapport with your tutor; it’s very likely you’re going to become friends, which can be nice.

Getting your sentences to your flashcards

Your goal, between the end of your tutoring session and the start of your next one, is to memorize all of the content you just created. So take your sentences, and turn them into flashcards. You have a few options as to the types of flashcards you use – you can create New Word, Word Form and Word Order flashcards described in the gallery and in the book. Alternatively (and I’d recommend this, even if it takes a little work to get comfortable with it), you can mostly create New Word flashcards plus Root Form flashcards, using the card model described in this article. I’ll show you some examples.
Let’s say I was just starting out in Spanish, and my first sentence was:

​Estoy volando sobre la Tierra.
I am flying above the Earth.


First, I’d identify all the parts of the sentence that were either new or surprising to me. Since this is my first sentence in Spanish, almost everything is new to me.

  1. ​Estoy = I am. The root form is “estar,” according to my tutor. Lots of new stuff here.
  2. Volando = flying. Root form is “volar,” according to my tutor.
  3. sobre = above, used as a preposition
  4. la = definite article, used before feminine nouns
  5. Tierra = the Earth. Feminine noun, according to my word list.

The word order here is roughly the same as it would be in English, so there’s nothing surprising there. (My fourth sentence has some interesting word order chunks, like “punto blanco” [dot white], which is the reverse of what I’d expect from English if I wanted to talk about a white dot..)
I’d take this sentence and make the following 14 flashcards:

Then I’d go to the next sentence. As I learn more and more, I’ll make fewer flashcards per sentence, since there will be less new/surprising stuff in those sentences. In practice, I find that it takes me around 2-3 hours to create flashcards for one hour of iTalki tutoring, and since I’m getting SO many flashcards per sentence, that gives me enough content to keep me very busy studying for a full week.
After doing this, you’ll find that you don’t only have a collection of sentences memorized; rather, you have all of the content memorized, too. You’ll be able to talk about la Tierra, successfully conjugate estar, and use the preposition sobre in a wide variety of new contexts. You’ll actually know those words and how to use them. It’s really neat.
There are two important ways to make these flashcards even better. The first – if you’re an intermediate or advanced learner – is to add definitions to each word. Then you can add definition test flashcards, discussed in our last blog post, which are simply amazing for building fluency rapidly.
Second, regardless of your level, you can add a recording of your tutor saying each sentence on the back sides of all of your flashcards. This does great things for both memory and listening comprehension. The tricky part involves getting those recordings, which is why I’ve hired a programmer to build a tool for just that purpose. That tool is now available over here.

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