In the days before language lessons could be done live over Skype and before videos on YouTube, I studied Spanish at university, with Italian and Portuguese to a much lesser extent. There were very few foreigners at my university and so the only speaking practice we had was through our course. However, once I started working in jobs using my languages and working alongside foreigners, I started to see my speaking skills improve very quickly.
After university, I got a job working within a European Finance Department of a large, international company. I was going on business trips to Spain and working with Spanish people for the first few years and then I moved on to work with the Italian office. I went on regular business trips to Milan for around 3-4 months to work on a project. Following that, some Italians came to work alongside me back in the UK. When I first went to Milan, my level of Italian was much lower than my Spanish, although my Spanish helped me pick it up. I definitely wasn’t able to speak about anything I wanted to and I remember trying to watch the TV and only understanding about 20% of it. After the first 3-4 months of having regular business trips to Milan and having to speak Italian the whole time, my level was around the same as my Spanish. I was watching TV again on my last business trip and realised I could understand at least 80% without subtitles. I had progressed much more than I would have by doing a classroom course. Following my project in Milan, I then worked alongside Italians every day in the UK for the following few years and sometimes I was finding myself thinking in Italian before English.
It was at that point I realised that lots of speaking and listening was the method that really worked for me. It wasn’t easy and I’m not sure it how it would have been for a beginner because I already had basic level Italian when I first went to Milan. I also found someone in our company who was learning English and I had lunch with him in the staff canteen several times so we could have a language exchange. Those lunchtimes were the only time I was able to speak English during the whole time I spent in Milan. It was tiring at first and I had headaches, but these eased after several weeks of constant exposure.
Fast forward a few more years and I had to move to a different area away from the big city, still working in Finance but sadly without the European languages part. I therefore had to find other ways to maintain my language skills that I had worked hard to achieve. At first, I went to a local college one evening a week on Advanced Spanish, Italian and Portuguese courses. The Portuguese one worked well but the other two teachers for Spanish and Italian said my level was beyond the other students and they were worried I would get bored in the class, so for pairwork they would pair me up with students who were slightly more advanced than the others. I also made sure I travelled countries where my languages were spoken so I could get some more practice. In my local area, there are very few foreigners and no language exchange events which therefore limits my opportunities to practise my languages.
Then four years ago, something exciting happened. I discovered Italki. Italki is a website listing over 4000 language teachers (and also language exchange partners) who are able to give lessons over Skype or on Italki’s online platform. As the lessons are one-to-one and prices are quite reasonable compared to group classes in my area, it was a win-win situation. I remember my very first lesson which was German. I was only basic level and was worried about speaking. My first teacher was very experienced and I couldn’t believe that she was able to keep the whole lesson going in German considering my low level at that time. After that I was hooked!
In the beginning I used Italki to improve languages I had at a low level. I then started booking lessons in my more fluent languages for maintenance. These languages improved a lot too because by speaking about various topics or discussing articles, this widened my vocabulary.
Then came the various language challenges, usually 90 days in length. I love doing challenges and I used Italki teachers to teach me various languages quite intensively for 90 days and I would make videos like this one with my tutors on Day 90 speaking for a minimum of 15 minutes in the target language. I even won the Add1Challenge by learning Chinese on Italki and my prize was a return flight to China! You can see the video of my trip HERE.. Other languages I did challenges in include Slovak, Greek, Arabic, Welsh, Catalan and Afrikaans!
Italki even gave me unexpected opportunities, for example learning unusual languages. In my Italian lessons, I found out two of my teachers also spoke Sicilian and Napulitano and so I did 90 day challenges to learn those too! Following these challenges, an Italian journalist found my videos and did an interview with me. She thought it would be interesting for their readers to read about someone from Scotland who wanted to learn the minority languages of Italy! You can read that article here.
Last year, Italki did their own challenge called the Diversity Language Challenge where they encouraged people to learn unusual or endangered languages. I decided to give myself a mini challenge. I chose 11 languages I had never learned before and I took a one hour lesson in each one. I told my teachers that my intention was to be able to make a video speaking for a couple of minutes in that language after just having a one hour lesson. I was very happy to say I achieved this but it was hard work and you can watch my video speaking all 11 languages HERE. . I took lessons in Croatian, Urdu, Fuzhounese, Blackfoot, Welsh, Yoruba, Azeri, Lithuanian, Latvian, Georgian and Faroese. I then went back to study more Welsh and completed a 90 day challenge in that. I am currently working alongside two Urdu speakers who enjoyed watching my video in Urdu and this has given me the confidence to try some more Urdu lessons because I now have people at work who are willing to speak to me in Urdu.
One of the more unusual languages I came across was Hmong. I took a lesson in that to learn the basics for my next trip to China, where I will pay a short visit to a Hmong speaking region. I made a video speaking Hmong after my first lesson. You can watch that video HERE..
Recently, I was even able to learn survival Russian before my trip to Russia because I didn’t have time to learn the language in-depth. I discussed a plan with my teacher and we had a few lessons that were appropriate for my needs. I then spoke Russian every day on my trip and had just enough knowledge for my needs!
My weekly schedule now consists of around 8 Italki lessons from my basic level languages up to my fluent languages (I only need to take a lesson in my fluent ones every two weeks or so and it’s enough to maintain my level). I can’t recommend Italki enough to language learners, especially to learners like me who improve much more with speaking practice rather than just self-study from books. Italki is now a part of my weekly routine and I would be completely lost without it!
If you haven’t yet used Italki, you can sign up using this link and after you’ve had your first lesson, Italki will give you $10 credit in your account to buy another lesson!