We have around two hundred and fifty active students taking one-to-one online ‘lessons’ with club teachers, amongst whom I number myself.
I try to do thirty minutes each of Swedish, French, Turkish and Spanish conversation each week. I rarely, if ever, cancel my regular practice sessions, though I have forgotten a few recently, due to lack of sleep and the general chaos in my daily schedule (when I miss a lesson by accident, the teacher gets paid anyway, which I think is correct, don’t you?)
The teachers/conversation partners cancel on me from time to time, which I don’t mind, as it gives me an easier day and time to catch up. People get sick, or have job interviews, or go on holiday. That’s totally normal.
Since I’ve been doing online conversation practice as a student, so for around four years, one thing has become very evident to me, both from my own experience and from reading what club members write in reviews (for example, here.)
Perhaps the hardest thing to do when learning a language is to find a way to get regular speaking practice, even if you attend an evening class, or courses in the country where the language is spoken.
And yet it’s perhaps the most important aspect, at least when it comes to feeling more confident that you’ll be able to actually USE the language that has taken you so much effort to learn.
Paying for conversation lessons, as I do, is one option, but even then, not all teachers are willing to ‘let go’ and ‘just chat’. Surpisingly, ‘conversation lessons’ can actually be harder for teachers than the much more routine grammar-input based lessons, or working on a text together. They can be more difficult for the teacher because of the unpredictability and the risk of failure – what happens if conversation dries up, for example?
As a conversation lesson teacher myself, years back, I realised that the trick of it was to show an interest in the other person’s life, interests, job, or whatever they wanted to speak about. Which they might not initially know themselves, so sure, there’s an element of trial and error involved.
Think of it as being like stuck on a train with a stranger. The train is stopped, for no obvious reason, in a data blackspot, so your smartphone will only hold your interest for a short time.
There’s one other person in your compartment (it’s an old train), so naturally, after a while you’ll start to exchange comments, initially about the situation, about how long you might be stuck there, and then about your destinations, your reasons for traveling, and so on.
And when after a few hours, you’re still not moving? By now you’ll be the best of friends, perhaps even to the extent that you’ll know each other’s potted life histories. And at least chatting together helped pass the time!
Now let’s reimagine that. The person on the train doesn’t speak your language, or any other language, except her native tongue that, coincidentally, you happen to be studying! Well THAT’S an opportunity, right?? Surely you’d be foolish to hold back and not want to practice?
And here’s a further leap of imagination – your new friend, who you’ve just spent a couple of hours getting to know and practicing (say Italian) with, is also traveling to the town where you live, to spend a year as a student.
Well, you think, students always need cash, don’t they? Perhaps she’d like to meet with me in a coffee shop or some place for half an hour each week, so I can get some speaking practice in, and she can earn a few dollars for books. I think I’ll suggest it!
And there you have it. A relationship, approximating a real-life one rather than a simulation, with a native speaker of the language that you’re learning. Perhaps she’s your daughter’s age, so shouldn’t be hard to interact with, right?
That’s basically what I do, anyway.
I try to focus on conversation only, I try to form relationships with my ‘teacher’, I try not to ever miss a week. Enough time passes and, there you have it, I can chat away in Spanish, or French, or whatever. With limitations, sure, but without that terror of having to speak a language that I had had no experience in communicating in previously.
Getting to that point in Swedish took me about a year and cost (with a cheaper competitor) less than a thousand British pounds. Which sounds like a lot but is a mere fraction of the price of a year’s tuition at a British university, currently £9,250 for full-time study and £4,625 for part-time study for UK residents, and considerably more for ‘foreigners’.
There’s one problem with my approach.
Sometimes, language teachers tending to be young and transient, my conversation partner will have to move on. Hopefully (because by now this person is my good friend) to something better. A new job, an opportunity, something with more of a future than doing freelance conversation practice from her bedroom via Skype or Zoom.
Which means, relationship-wise, I’ll have to start again with someone new, so a bit like getting stuck in a train once more, but with a different stranger. And who knows what that person will be like, and how suitable a conversation partner they might turn out to be?
Beh, that’s life. Things change!
Sometimes (as I tell my kids) you need to go out and make new friends, or find a new boyfriend, or get a different job, or whatever the problem is.
But when you know what you’re looking for, and especially if you’re willing to be a little flexible (considering that everyone is different), the chances are good that the next conversation partner will work out for you.
One time I ‘sacked’ my teacher (she insisted that it was the teacher’s role to decide the lesson content, not the student’s), but on every other occasion I’ve either stuck with them no matter what or only moved on to someone else when something changed, such as for example regular scheduling clashes that made it impossible to meet up.
And when I have to change, I try to make my needs and preferences totally clear BEFORE the first meeting. What I want is this, not that, you do NOT need to ‘teach’ me, I expect only to be able to ‘practice’, and the closer that is to a normal conversation, the happier I’ll be.
Put like that, it’s a relief for the teacher not to have to guess at what might happen in the first ‘lesson’, to know that I’m expecting thirty-minutes in which we can spend ‘getting to know each other’, as if we were strangers stuck on a train.
Understand – no one LIKES first lessons, not the teacher, not the student. That’s because of the uncertainty.
But without them, there are no new friends you can practice speaking with.
And if the new teacher/conversation partner doesn’t work out, for whatever reason? Sometimes, quite incredibly, the teachers don’t like ME, can you credit it?
But that’s why we have Lucia, our Teaching Manger.
If you, or I, are not happy, not getting what we’re paying for, then it’s her job (one of them) to sort it out and find a solution or, if necessary, a new teacher.
Obviously, you need to TELL HERE that you’re not happy, and explain what change or changes would inprove the situation.
And also, sometimes the customer is wrong, it does happen. Some people are impossible to please. Some people insist on doing everything ‘wrong’, then moan that they haven’t made any progress.
So it’s never a bad idea to be willing to try what the teacher suggests, at least once, or for a while, before insisting that she does things your way or she’s history.
Goodbye teacher, hello new teacher!