My name is Neal, and I live close to Boston. I have been interested in Russian for many years and was lucky enough to be able to study it full-time when I was young. Later on I went to University where I pursued my BA in Slavic Languages and Literature. That was back in the 1970s when studying language was much harder than it is today. I had not used my Russian too much over the past 35 or so years!
My daughter introduced me to italki a couple of years ago, but I have to say I didn’t get it for the longest time. She was using language partnership to study/improve her Spanish and it was working for her. But I couldn’t really figure out how to use it for myself. At that time the majority of the users were young people who didn’t seem to want to have language exchanges with someone old enough to be their father!
So, I tried updating my profile and sending out some language partner requests, but was getting no response. I was looking for language partners to exchange Russian/English with, and was so disappointed that nobody would respond. I tried editing a few submissions to the English Notebook section and that was okay, but was very time-consuming on my part and I really wasn’t getting anything out of it, other than the satisfaction of helping someone with their writing. Sometimes I’d spent 30 or 40 minutes correcting, without even the courtesy of a thank you or a response. As a result, I let it lapse for a while. I started studying German for an upcoming visit to Berlin, Vienna and Munich. I decided to spend long periods of time studying and even wrote a few short things in German and got some nice responses from some native speakers. More gratifying than the previous experiences in italki.
I put all of this away for a while, but got back into it recently when I was struck by the sudden urge to brush up on my Russian. I wanted more than just the occasional writing submission, but still couldn’t find a language partner. So, I decided to take a trial lesson with a professional teacher in Moscow. What a difference it made! At least for me. I was lucky enough to find a teacher on the first try who really understood how to teach, how to analyze what the student needs to work on and coming up with lessons to focus on those things. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, we spend time talking about, reading, writing, watching videos and analyzing subjects that interest me. So, it is really working for me now. I’ve had about 8 lessons so far and we meet once per week.
Since starting lessons, I have finally figured out how language partners more effectively. I have another exchange partner with whom I’ve talked a couple of times and have enjoyed our conversations. We’re trying to talk once a week, but this is much less formal and he speaks English and I speak Russian and we help each other with expressions, vocabulary, and such.
Skepticism about italki and Skype is mostly fear. Fear of the unknown, afraid of trying. I think you just have to jump in and give it a try. A trial lesson with a professional teacher, or perhaps a tutor is an easy and very low cost way to get started. In the end, it is really pretty inexpensive and once you find a good teacher to work with, buying a ‘pack’ for lessons is easy and convenient. And, it shows and even forces a commitment on your part to get engaged and stay engaged.
If you’re serious about improving your language skills, you probably need a professional teacher, at least to supplement other things you might be doing. There are benefits to the exchange process, but a teacher can guide you in working on the things you really need. Skype is a GREAT vehicle for language learning. It is literally like being in the room with someone. One of the powerful things is that at the same time you have face-to-face video, you also have the chat window where you can type words or sentences, or ask questions back and forth that perhaps are not coming across clearly. You can upload/download files, assignments, homework, etc. and it makes it all very convenient. I always take the time after the lesson to download the contents of the chat window and add it to my learning journal that I keep, along with notes, grammar, vocabulary, etc.
Now, after a number of lessons and having something of a track record, I am getting friend requests quite frequently!
My suggestion to teachers is to help your students focus on the things they most struggle with, even when it is uncomfortable. And believe me, it is uncomfortable for the student. Also, work with materials that relate to things the student cares about. For example, I study Russian and am very interested in Russian folk music and things related to the church and religion and we read things about those subjects and it makes a greater impact because it interests me and there is specific vocabulary that I want to learn. Sometimes it is a function of how much language you already have, but the teacher should be able to help you figure that out.
What are your goals as a student? Make sure your teacher understands that and they can help you achieve it. Again, don’t be afraid. Easier said than done, I know. But you’ll never know until you try.
Neal has been a member of italki since February 2014