learning languages: 4 posts

How I Learn Languages 3 : How to Pick a Tutor on Italki

When I shared my tips on learning languages, I received many letters and comments from you with your own experiences, and above all, with questions. I apologize if I wasn’t able to answer every letter or with as much detail as I would have liked, and so I’ve decided to separate all of the questions into  categories and address them in a series of posts. One topic in particular was finding a tutor on Italki, a website that I use to learn languages. Italki is a platform that offers a chance for students to find tutors, conversation partners, and help with grammar or word usage in dozens of different languages. It works on a referral system, so if you want to join and get an automatic $10 discount on your lesson, be sure to get referred by another user (they will also get a referral credit). My Italki profile is here.

Italki has grown tremendously over the years, and today it has so many options that newcomers may feel overwhelmed. Should you choose a professional teacher or a tutor? How do you know that the tutor is trustworthy? How do you plan your study? Finally, how do you select the ideal tutor for you among hundreds of profiles? OK, you won’t have that problem if you want to learn a less common language like Uzbek, since there is only one Uzbek tutor on Italki, but let’s assume that you want to learn Japanese and there are around 400 people offering their language teaching services. Where to start?

I’ve written this article using the example of Italki, since that’s what I rely on, but these tips can be applied to other other language tutoring service.

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How to Learn A Language by Reading and Listening

In my first two articles outlining my methods for studying languages, I mentioned that I rely on reading both to learn new languages and to maintain the ones I already speak. However, I wanted to explain what I do in more detail, because my strategy differs from the more usual ones found in language books and classrooms. Generally, we’re told that we should just start reading, look up the words we don’t know and just slough through the book despite the difficulties. In the same vein, we’re advised to watch foreign films and listen to music.

The problem with this approach is that it takes a long time to learn a language in such a passive way. Of course, we should plunge into books we want to read as soon as we feel that we have enough of the basics and we should watch films and songs. The latter is especially important to get used to the rhythm and melodies of the language you’re learning and to create your own language bubble. (Watching films with subtitles, by the way, is not particularly effective, since our brains use the path of least resistance and effectively tune out the incomprehensible by focusing on the familiar.) I often tune into German, Portuguese or Japanese radio stations and listen to them as I cook or edit photos.  However, if your goal is to learn to speak the language, then you have to follow a different strategy when reading and listening.

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How I Learn Languages 2 : What Languages To Study

I didn’t anticipate the interest that my first article on my language learning strategies would generate. Your comments and emails sharing your experience with studying were fascinating and full of great tips. Above all, many of you asked me questions such as the resources I use for reading, writing, and listening, how I maintain all of my languages, how many languages one could study at the same time, and so on. I’m glad to reply to them all.

I learn languages for a variety of reasons. Some I’ve learned because I moved to the countries where they were spoken. Some I’ve studied for my degree in Political Science and to facilitate research. I’ve also learned languages as I traveled or wanted to understand better the cultures that fascinated me.  In the this article on the languages topic, I’ll discuss how to decide what languages to study. It may sound like a straightforward decision, but how you take it will determine your success and your ability to persevere with studying a new language.

Do Not Study a Language Just Because It’s Popular

Let’s bracket the real issue of needing to study a language for work or to adjust to a new country. Today I want to talk about a situation where you’re simply picking a language to learn and are not sure whether you should study French or Italian.  First, think about what language you would like to speak? Hearing what language do you feel your heart skip a beat? What language do you find beautiful? What language belongs to a culture (cultures) you find fascinating?

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How I Learn Languages

The KGB blacklisted my stepfather, making it impossible for him to travel outside the Soviet Union. He satisfied his wanderlust by reading and learning languages. I remember our bookshelves filled with self-study books and dictionaries: English, French, Italian, German, Bulgarian, Serbian/Croatian, Czech. I opened them at random and the more unfamiliar they looked, the more I wanted to learn and enter the universe of new languages. It felt exciting and liberating.

That exhilarating feeling of discovery has remained with me, and it drives me to learn new languages. I speak, read and write 17 languages and am currently learning my 18th. Besides English, these languages include French, Italian, Persian, Indonesian, Japanese, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Vietnamese, Urdu, Bulgarian, German, Hindi, Uzbek, Portuguese, Albanian–and Greek. Most of these I’ve learned in the past few years when I figured out a method that worked for me. I’m often asked by many of my friends and readers to put together my strategy for studying languages, and so I’ve jotted down certain rules and important elements that make my learning efficient. Once I started writing, I realized that I could come up with a whole book on the topic, but since my goal today is to summarize my approach in an article, I’ll leave the comment field for any additional questions and clarifications. Please feel free to ask your specific recommendations and share your experience with learning languages.

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