Whenever someone asks me to speak French, or Chinese, or Russian, I know that I need to improve my vocabulary. But, I hate flash cards, I hate vocabulary lists, and don’t even talk to me about smartphone apps!


Sometimes, my students find a vocabulary app for their smartphone. Then, all of a sudden, they will start wanting to know how to use a word like “amiable.” I have to tell them that very, very few people use “amiable” in conversation. It’s what I call a “ten dollar word.” Ten dollar words will not help you make friends. They will, however, make you sound like a walking dictionary.


So, put away the flash cards, and turn off your smartphone app. There are better ways to build your vocabulary!


All you really need is a native speaker. Let me share some really easy activities you can use to effectively build your vocabulary while you work with a native speaker on italki. I use all these activities with my italki students, adjusting difficulty and topic depending on the student’s ability and interests.



Get hands-on with your italki session


Do you like to cook? Then bring some ingredients to your session!


(Personal photo)


Collect a dozen food items whose names in your target language are new to you. Also, grab some kitchen utensils such as small knife and a cutting board, a spoon and a bowl, and a pot and a lid. Set up your camera so that the teacher can see the items in front of you.


Your teacher can name the items and give you the verbs for using each of the the different tools.  Then you can listen while your teacher gives you instructions – for example, “pick up the carrot,” or “cut the potato with the knife.”


Then tell the teacher what you are doing – for example, “I am peeling the orange,” or “I am pouring the milk.”



Use children’s picture books


Most large bookstores have a whole shelf of picture dictionaries for children. I got mine - a French picture dictionary - from a used bookstore. The pictures are really good, so I just used some correcting fluid to paint over the French words - please don’t hate me if you’re French!


You can scan or take a photo of the pages with your smartphone, and then email them to your teacher.


The pictures show much more than just a word. You can spend 20 minutes talking about just one picture! This means you can use new words over and over again, in different sentences.



Listen to stories you already know


(Image by Milo Winter, Public domain)


You probably already know many stories that are shared by people all over the world (have you seen any movies by Disney? So has the rest of the planet!).


Ask your teacher to tell you a story that you already know, for example, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” Make a recording of your teacher telling the story, then listen again very carefully.  Stop every sentence or two and make sure you understand every word. You will find new words that you can ask your teacher about. Then you can retell the story to your teacher, using the new words.



Watch and listen to YouTube videos with your italki teacher


(Personal photo)


Do you like hiking? Why not go on a virtual hike with your teacher? Ask your teacher to find a video on YouTube in your target language that is on a topic you find interesting. It should be about five minutes long and not too difficult for your level.


Watch the video before your session, and make some quick notes about what you did and didn’t understand. During your class, watch the video together, stopping every 10 to 15 seconds to make sure that you understand everything. Ask your teacher about anything that you didn’t understand. Look for things in the video that you don’t know how to talk about in your target language, and explore them with your teacher.



Talk about daily life


During your italki lessons, you have before you a real, live human being from another culture!  What do they eat for breakfast? How do they get to work?


You can start with simple questions, but the conversation will often lead you to new vocabulary. And you will learn more about another culture too. Wow!


(Personal photo)


To get the most out of the conversation, record your teacher while he or she talks. Then listen to the recording carefully with your teacher. Stop every sentence or two to discuss and make sure you understood everything. Then you can retell your teacher’s story, or tell your teacher how your life is different.


How do you use italki?  Leave a comment in the discussion! I’d love to hear how you get the most out of your time with a native speaker!


Hero Image (Cardboard Rocket) by Matt Biddulph (CC BY-SA 2.0)