The best way to learn a foreign language is to go to the country, right? We have all heard this advice, yet it doesn't always match the results. After all, there are no shortage of people who have moved to a foreign country and decades later have barely improved their grammar or pronunciation, despite the impressive odds against them.
So, what might be the reality of going abroad to practice? In my experience, often a lot of rudimentary or business-like exchanges with taxi drivers and hotels receptionists who don't necessarily want to derail a perfectly good taxi ride, hotel booking just to make a grammar point. Although this is good for confidence, it won’t extend our language skills much beyond the first few chapters of a tourist phrase book and provides little in the way of the feedback essential for improving.
But while the experience might not be as underwhelming as I just described, let's look at a more reliable option in the form of private lessons with native teachers over platforms like italki that offer a few distinct advantages.
1. Focus on what you want to improve
Do you feel that you have a weak area in your language skill in certain areas, perhaps discussing science or politics? Maybe you would like to expand your vocabulary in those areas and want to practice those topics with a native speaker. It sounds like a good idea, but try it with a hotel receptionist or a waiter in a busy coffee shop and see how it goes. Even if the person trying to earn a living is too polite to tell you that it is not the time or the place, the people waiting in the line behind you probably won't be eventually.
So, it seems we could do with a one on one conversation with no urgent time constraint in a relaxed setting with someone willing to correct us, who will be patient, let us choose any topic we want, and have the skill to keep the conversation going in new directions. This would sound like quite a specific requirement, but what I just described was an online language lesson taking shape.
And this is the beauty of one on one, online lessons. We can choose what we want to focus on. If, as a student, I had specific events to prepare for like a test or a job interview, I am sure those would be the areas I would focus on! As a teacher, I often role play these scenarios with my students.
2. You are free to take risks
Any communication entails a certain risk of misunderstandings. We can both be misunderstood and misunderstand, sometimes spectacularly and simultaneously, and such misunderstanding can entail consequences in a foreign country -- like ending up on the wrong train and completely lost in a strange city.
But no matter what your tolerance for uncertainty or public embarrassment is, we can relax when we take lessons with an online tutor because if we say something wrong we will be safely right where we started, in front of our computer, and hopefully wiser for the experience after a correction. Obviously, mistakes are going to happen when learning to speak a new language, but when talking to an online tutor we get to make our mistakes in front of just one person at a time and with someone with whom we have good rapport. They know the mistakes are coming, and they are there to guide us around them. In this situation, free to take risks, we can make one hour with a good teacher worth several days of holiday small talk.
3. Little and often
Little and often is advice that can be applied to many areas of life. Random bursts of intense activity, whether in the gym or the garden, that leave you too sore to go back for more the next day won’t increase our chances of developing the habits necessary for success. This mindset also applies to our language studies.
That is not to say that you might experience physical pain after too much language study, but intensive periods of practice abroad, while fun, may not be the best path to long term memory retention. One of the ways that the brain prioritizes information is through repetition, and with online teachers, we can space out our lessons to maximize this benefit. In this way, the new language will (over time) permanently pass from our short term to long term memory.
So, instead of packing a lot of effort into a week's holiday and then sliding backward once we return home, we could build a habit of having regular online lessons and generate steady momentum towards our language goals.
4. It is efficient
While going to a country with the hope of coming back better in the language may well happen exactly as planned, it may still not be the most efficient way to achieve this goal, both in terms of money and time spent. Planes, hotels, restaurants, and souvenirs can make the cliché of a “once in a lifetime” holiday exactly that, except due to the expense as much as the memories. And not only that, we will no doubt spend a fair bit of time simply sightseeing without much in the way of conversation taking place.
Contrast this with talking to an online teacher. Unlike during a trip abroad, private lessons over the internet guarantee that for 100 percent we are either listening or speaking in our new language instead of waiting for a plane. We are using a foreign language for an entire hour, with no wasted time, and the best part is that we can get up from our desk when it is done and get comfortable on our sofa, or whatever we want to do, without having to pack a suitcase and travel back home. We are lucky to live in an age when we have this kind of convenience at our fingertips.
5. You will be corrected
Now I do not have a special talent when it comes to learning languages, but I have it on good authority that I speak great Chinese. I was told this by many Chinese people in China, no less, after just a couple of weeks of practicing the basics before visiting the country.
As exhilarating as it was to hear these compliments from native speakers of a foreign language, of course I knew they were just being polite (the giggling was often a clue) in the same way I would be polite with a non-English speaker who is on holiday trying some well-rehearsed pleasantries on me. But if we are students wanting to learn, friendly strangers often leave us without the feedback necessary for improvement.
With a language teacher online, however, we have someone who is expected to give us exactly that feedback instead of nodding politely (or pointing and laughing) while we talk gibberish. They will give both verbal and written corrections to grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, all of which we are unlikely to get from a stranger on the street unless they are unusually pedantic about their native language or unusually irritated with tourists speaking it badly.
So, these are just a few of the benefits of online language teachers over an expensive trip abroad. There is no doubt that there are benefits to travel for language study, however, namely a cultural experience that we can't get over a webcam; but as far as value for money, efficiency and convenience goes, we can't do better than making use of the tools that we already have at home. By taking advantage of this, we will find that the next test or chat with a waiter in a foreign country is that much easier.
Hero image by Craig Garner on Unsplash