So you get to the italki website, look at the profiles and wonder which teacher to pick. Do you need a professional to help you with high level grammar, a community teacher to help you with conversation practice, or something in between?


This article will focus on how to get the most from your chosen teacher. Of course, it’s not possible for me to tell you which teacher would be the best fit for teaching you your target language or which would best suit your personality. This is because choosing a teacher is highly personal. In addition, some languages offer only limited choices in teachers. However, this article will help you to be sure that you’re the right student for whatever teacher you choose.


So, what do I mean by “being the right student”?  


Well, I can guarantee that you will only get as much out of your lessons as you put in. As many people will tell you, there are no shortcuts in language learning. We simply need to get on with it and practice what we learn as much as possible. This advice is very important: practice, practice, practice!


A book I bought a number of years ago from an old book shop in the UK had something interesting written in the introduction that has never left me and that illustrates this point very well: “language learning is over-learning.” At first, it struck me as odd. Then I thought about it for a while and I realized that it is actually true.


We learn our own language as children by repeating the same things over and over again. And it took us a long time to do it well. As adults we sometimes forget that and pressure ourselves to learn everything right away. While we could cram a load of information into our heads for a test, or try to rapidly memorize long lists of vocabulary, information such as this is often very quickly forgotten afterwards.


Moreover, the kind of information that you learn from memorizing or cramming is very different than having knowledge of our target language at our fingertips for use in a natural conversation.


So, when looking for a teacher, I have some set ideas about what I would like to focus on with them in the lessons, starting from day one. These are:


  • My language foundation
  • My goals
  • My plan


My Language Foundation


Starting the first lesson from absolute zero is challenging. That’s why I make sure I have already researched what I’m planning to study and have already made sure that it really does appeal to me. I will typically find a book on the language and work through the first few chapters alone, using the audio material.


Having this basic awareness of the language, its sounds and its introductory vocabulary helps move things along and gives you something to start practising right away during the lessons. Apart from anything else, you should feel a buzz in these initial stages that will get you motivated to learn more.


Improving your pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary will happen over time. There is no use sweating over being perfect from the get go. The proverb “slowly but surely” definitely applies to language learning. There is no pressure to master everything you’ve learned in your first few lessons immediately. Remember, you are a learner and you’ll need to get things wrong quite a few times before the correct forms begin to stick.


However, doing some basic study before your first lesson helps you to have a general awareness of the language and to ensure that you are committed to it. Also, demonstrating to the teacher that you have already attempted to learn something makes a good impression.


My Goals


Sharing your language learning goals with your teacher can help him or her to better understand why you are learning your target language (more on setting language goals can be found here). Once your teacher knows the reasons why you would like to learn the language, they can better structure their lessons to hone in on the skills that you need. Sharing your goals can also help spark conversation and help build a strong student-teacher relationship.


Over time, as you work through your short-term goals together with you teacher, you will see progress. Slowly but surely, your short-term goals will add up to success in your long terms goals too.


My Plan


The plan for the lessons sometimes needs to be driven by us students, and not just by the teachers. This is where doing some background research in the target language prior to your first class helps a lot. While most teachers will come up with a great plan for your lessons, sometimes you need make the effort to reach your goals yourself in order to stay motivated.


Last year, my goal was to learn Latvian over the summer in order to spend some time in Riga. When I started my lessons, I had already studied the language a little bit with the colloquial Latvian book that I had. Therefore, I was already able to make basic introductions, as well as comfortably read the dialogues that I had studied in the first three chapters of the book.


When I got to the class, I wanted the opportunity to speak Latvian as much as possible. Personally, I am not a fan of language classes in which I speak more English than the target language. I don’t find them to be nearly as productive, being that I don’t receive enough practice of the language that I want to learn. While it is occasionally necessary to explain certain complex grammatical points in English for the sake of understanding them better, this should not be the norm for effective language learning with a teacher.


However, keeping the lesson in the target language is made much easier if you have already covered a few chapters of a grammar book. You can use part (or all) of the lesson time to practise pronunciation of the dialogues and texts that you’ve already studied with your teacher. You can even take turns reading parts of the dialogues together, or roleplaying them.


Another strategy that could really enrich your experience, is to try retelling a dialogue on your own after you have finished reading it with the teacher. This should be done by using the vocabulary and grammar in the text itself to help you do this.


Additionally, you could even take this a step further by speaking about your own situation in your life. For example, if the weather is sunny in the dialogue, and it’s rainy where you live, you could talk about the fact that it is raining in real life. Speaking about these differences will help you to expand your vocabulary and to practise the language even more.  


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