Over 350 italki classes have honed my ability to get the most from this unique learning format. My goal has been to become fluent and functionally literate in Chinese, with little concern for composition. From this experience, I have gradually formulated a proven method, which I would like to share with you.
1. Find Media to Learn From
I select media that has spoken content. Movies, serial dramas and other TV shows with normal, day-to-day dialog are among my favorite. Many of these have scripts (search for ‘剧本’) that can be downloaded from the Internet. I read through them and mark any unfamiliar words.
2. Save New Words
NJStar is my learning program of choice. It has a built-in dictionary, to which I can add new words that I encounter. Before each lesson, I prepare a section of text, which has the words or phrases with which I am unfamiliar. The software has a host of functions and a free trial period.
3. Get Examples
I look up example sentences containing unfamiliar words on nciku.com, jukuu.com or baidu.com. The latter has an image search (图 片) tab, which can give a visual aid to help you remember vocabulary.
Jukuu.com gives sentences in both Chinese and English, with many examples, so I can see the breadth of the word's usage. Nciku.com has fewer examples, but still gives you an idea of how words and phrases are used. I have found both these last two websites are lacking when it comes to slang words, which is when Baidu.com is helpful. Other times, Baidu’s ‘知道’ function can, if you use Chrome’s translate function, give you an idea of what a phrase means.
4. Tell Your Teacher
Using the above tools, I create a document of unfamiliar words. Beneath these, I paste the examples and translations that I found, and color-code the text to make it easy to spot which example relates to which unfamiliar word.
I send this lesson in RTF format to my teacher 12-24 hours before my class. It is my expectation the teacher has read over the lesson before class and will be able to explain the usage of these words, as well as compare and contrast them with similar words. An excellent teacher will be able to give you many examples.
5. Record Your Session
I record Skype class sessions as mp3 files. During class, I might ask the teacher to pronounce the word, go over the examples provided and correct any mistakes I might make in attempting to use the words myself. It is very helpful if the teacher uses a headset microphone. Clear pronunciation and lack of stuttering on the part of the teacher are important, as is a good Internet connection. Poor sound quality makes for a less-than-productive session.
6. Practice your Target Words in Context
During the last portion of the class, I will have a freestyle, subject-specific discussion, asking the teacher to use the vocabulary words with me in a meaningful conversation. It has been my experience that the best teachers can provide a variety of scenarios in which a particular phrase or sentence can be used.
7. Stretch Your Abilities and Make Mistakes!
I learn a good deal by stretching my abilities. In other words, I try saying sentences that are typically just beyond my comfort zone. Making mistakes in this way will also elicit a correction from the teacher. On playback, I pay particular attention to these segments.
8. Edit the Recording
After class, I edit the mp3 recording with Audacity, a free downloadable program. I delete my voice, compress the empty space and edit the teacher's voice down. If they speak well, there is little need for me to edit out stuttering or incomplete utterances. A distilled version yields between 20-30 minutes of tutorial review.
The audio editing usually takes about 5 minutes. The audio recording is usually set up with your voice on one track (usually the left stereo channel), with the incoming sound (your teacher) on the other.
One needs simply to select “Split stereo track” from the pull-down triangle icon and delete the track containing your voice. Next, convert the remaining teacher track to mono. By selecting the whole track and “Effect” followed by “Truncate silence” will usually compress silent parts 2:1, making for a shorter mp3 to review.
9. Review the Recording
I listen to the mp3 first with the printed lesson material in front of me. Thereafter, I listen to the mp3, mimic the teacher and make sure I can master the material. It generally takes three-to-four more listens to get everything out of the lesson. I usually further edit down the mp3.
Though this usually takes about twice as long as listening through it, the editing process is helpful to me in several ways. Usually I cut out the banter, and the stuff I already know. Listening to and editing the teacher’s voice actually helps me reinforce the points he/she was trying to make.
You can tell how clearly the teacher enunciates from the waveform of the audio displayed in Audacity. Someone who has superior speaking ability speaks crisply and usually has a smooth wave.
10. Replay the Recording
Usually I will reply these lessons when I’m driving or during any other down time, quietly repeating the teacher. In this way, I've been able to make steady progress over the years.
Hope this gives you ideas!
NJStar (free trial period)
MP3 Skype Recorder (free)