How conversation lessons can boost your speaking skills

Do you get enough speaking practice? I’m guessing not.

I’ve mentioned several times that I use conversation lessons when learning foreign languages. But what exactly is a conversation lesson and what are the factors that make a good conversation lesson?

You may have had bad experiences with lessons in the past. I’ve also had the misfortune to attend language lessons that involved way too little speaking and almost no conversation. But conversation lessons are different from other lessons. This article will look at how conversation lessons can help you to boost your Vietnamese speaking skills.

Conversation lessons face-to-face

Why have conversational lessons?

Conversation classes can be a great way to learn and practice Vietnamese. There are several reasons to take conversation lessons:

  • Help you overcome your fear of speaking – having a supportive and kind teacher can improve your confidence.
  • Get speaking practice – for example, if you’re self-studying or taking traditional classes where you don’t get enough practice speaking. Conversation lessons are also good for maintaining your level by keeping the language fresh.
  • Engage in a wider range of conversations – daily life can consist of the same conversations over and over again. This makes them useful if you want to reach a higher level.
  • Because you don’t have friends who you only speak to in Vietnamese.
  • Because you’re busy – time is money and you’d rather pay someone to speak to you than sacrifice your time doing a 50-50 language exchange.

What makes a good conversation lesson?

As a teacher and student, I’ve had over 100 conversation classes over the years. That experience has taught me that there are some common things you should look for in a good conversation lesson.

First thing to note, it’s possible to have one-on-one conversation lessons and also group conversation lessons (more often called conversation clubs or speaking clubs). Although this article focuses on 1-2-1 lessons, the same principles apply to both.

1. Student(s) speak more than the teacher.

In a good conversation lesson, you should spend much more time speaking than your teacher does. Of course, they will speak during the class but you should be the one speaking about 65-85% of the time.

2. The teacher is a facilitator, helping you to speak more.

They prepare some conversation starters to get things going. They let the speech flow naturally but they also guide the conversation – for example, asking follow-up questions.

The teacher has extra materials for when the conversation dries up and needs to take a new direction. For example, images or infographics which can give you new points to talk about.

How to have a conversation lesson online

Conversation lessons online

Step 1a: Find a conversation tutor and choose the length of your lessons

How to choose a teacher

I think it was Kerstin’s blog where I first came across the idea that it’s important that either the teacher should be experienced or the student should be experienced.


Obviously it helps if someone knows what they’re doing.

I’ve had good lessons with both experienced and inexperienced teachers. I’ve sometimes had problems with experienced tutors who have a fixed way of teaching or approach which doesn’t match up with my preferences. If you have a clear idea of how you want the lesson to be, a less-experienced teacher may be more flexible and accommodating to your needs.

That said – my favourite Russian teacher to take conversation lessons with is both a Professional Teacher and Community Tutor on italki*. She usually selects a theme that I’m capable of discussing, but it’s challenging. She finds a good prompt to stimulate discussion. And because she doesn’t have to spend a lot of time preparing, her speaking lessons are a bit cheaper than her professional lessons.** Win-win.

Interact beforehand

Before booking a lesson, you can view the teacher’s profile, their introduction video and read reviews. It’s also worth noting how many loyal students they have. If they have repeat students, they must be doing something right.

You can also send them a message before you book. I like to specify what kind of lesson I’m looking for so the tutor can see if that matches with their teaching style.

Overall, it can be trial and error to find a tutor who’s a good fit. It’s partly just finding someone you click with.

**Professional Teachers v Community Tutors on italki

Typical language lessons are more structured than conversation classes. The teacher spends time preparing and creates a lesson generally focused on learning. There may be games, pronunciation activities and so on.

Step 2: How long should a conversation lesson be?

It’s generally more effective and efficient to speak a language more often – ie. two 30 minute lessons per week is generally better than a 60 minute lesson once a week.

Again it comes down to personal preference. If you’re able to speak Vietnamese, you’re chatty and you have the time, you could take a 60 minute lesson.

Personally I like 30 minute or 45 minute lessons best. While I could easily talk for 60 minutes in Vietnamese and Russian, the notes I make during the lesson would get really long. I know I’ll never follow up and put everything in Anki. That extra 15 minutes feels unnecessary to me. Plus, depending on the topic, my energy levels that day, I sometimes feel a bit tired after a long one-on-one conversation on a difficult topic. So slightly shorter lessons work for me.

Note that not all tutors on italki offer 30 minute or 45 minute sessions, so make sure you check their profile carefully.

Group conversation classes are usually longer – 60 or 90 minutes – and that’s fine. You want the class to be long enough that you get enough chance to speak.

What about beginner conversation lessons?

When I’m a beginner or low-level, I choose 30 minute lessons. You may think even 30 minutes is impossible, but I assure you it’s doable. I’ll soon have a new article covering exactly how. Sign up to the newsletter to get notified when it’s published.


Step 3: Choose a topic and prepare for your conversation class

This helps you to make the most of your precious time with your tutor.

I like to know the theme of the topic in advance so I can prepare. I’ll think about some things the teacher may ask, look up and try to memorise some new vocabulary that I may be able to try out in the lesson. I might read a blog post.

Another option for one-on-one lessons is to read a text or watch a video before the lesson (ie. homework) and then start the lesson by discussing the text/video. If you want to practice speaking (as opposed to improving your vocabulary), it’s best if this material is kind of easy. Ideally there shouldn’t be much new vocabulary if the aim of the lesson is to practice speaking. Otherwise, you’ll spend too much time understanding and less time practising your speaking skill.

Likewise, if your tutor tends to share a document or infographic to discuss in class, you can ask to receive it beforehand so you can prepare. Again, you can think about what you may say and secondly, look up words you don’t know to avoid wasting time asking questions about vocabulary when you could be practising using it.

Step 3: Take notes and ask questions

It’s helpful to take notes during a conversation lesson in order to improve. You might want to write interesting phrases you heard your tutor say, and ask them to write down new expressions in the chat box.

It is also important to ask questions in order to check you’ve understood or clarify something you’re not sure about.

One top tip to really boost your learning is to make a note of things you wanted to say but didn’t know the right words. During the conversation, don’t worry about this. To improve your fluency, it’s important to find alternative ways to say what you mean to keep up the conversation. However, to improve your overall language ability it’s good to find out what to say for next time.

You can ask your tutor at the end of the lesson for help translating or rephrasing what you wanted to say. Or if you prefer to do it yourself (there can be benefits to this), read step 4 below.

By taking notes and asking questions, you will be able to improve your Vietnamese language skills.

Step 4: Follow up after your lesson

After your Vietnamese conversation lesson, it is important to follow up if you want to improve.

Sometimes you might just be taking lessons to maintain your level. In those situations, this fourth step is optional.

But if you really want to boost your learning, what happens after the lesson could be considered as important as during!

Personally I like to save my list of “things I wanted to say but couldn’t” for after the lesson. I’ll sit down with a good dictionary and even google translate and take time to rethink and research how to say those things. Often I’ll find a word I’d forgotten, or just by taking the time to think I’ll realise a better way to say something. Other times it involves new phrases or constructions and I’ll often ask a friend or language partner to check it’s correct, or else ask my tutor at the start of the next lesson.

Once I’ve got these new or better phrases, I’ll put them in Anki, add audio and spend the next few weeks learning them.

The great thing about this technique is that the language is personal and useful to you. Chances are, you might have a similar conversation with someone else in the future and you’ll be able to use these phrases.

If you have two tutors (see below), you can deliberately do this in order to practice.

Finally, it can be also helpful to review your conversation lesson notes again before your next class. This will help you to revise new phrases and to improve your speaking ability. Don’t forget to book your next lesson!

Tips for taking conversation lessons

Why I like to have two regular tutors

Firstly, from time to time your tutor will be temporarily unavailable due to holidays or sickness. We all have lives. 🙂 By having a second tutor, you can avoid having a break by just continuing (or increasing) lessons with your second tutor.

Sometimes, tutors leave italki* or change their hours and they’re no longer convenient for you. Again, having a second tutor means you’re not back to square one if that happens as it can take a few sessions to find a new tutor. (You can try to minimise the risk of losing your tutor by choosing a tutor who teaches on italki full-time and has been doing for a long time.)

The other main advantage of having two tutors is that you can repeat a topic and try to do better the second time. This is ideal for beginners, but can also be useful at higher levels to push yourself to use a wider range and richer language the second time. Recycling language is a key aspect of acquiring it.

Improve your speaking by taking action

If you’re serious about improving your speaking skills in Vietnamese, conversation lessons are a great way to get good quality speaking practice. Sites like itaki* let you find tutors from the comfort of your own home.

You can use conversation classes for speaking practice to help you maintain your level, or you can take it a bit further and spend time before and after class boosting your vocabulary as well. Both are good options, depending what your goals and priorities are.

If you can’t spare the money for lessons, we have plenty more tips for improving your speaking.

Over to you: Any more burning questions about conversation lessons? Or have you taken conversation lessons and got some tips to add?

Top Tips For Vietnamese Conversation Lessons


12 tips to improve your speaking skills (in Vietnamese)

Speaking a foreign language can be a challenge, but when you overcome that it can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

How can you improve this difficult skill?

In order to improve your speaking skills in Vietnamese, you need to practice speaking. These tips and techniques will help get you started!

Tip 1: Speak more often

Speaking more often is one of the best tips for improving your speaking skills in a foreign language. The more you speak, the more confident you’ll be and the better your fluency will become.

Of course listening, reading and writing will all help you to improve your Vietnamese. But if it’s specifically speaking that you want to improve, then you need to practice speaking.

So, if you want to really improve your speaking skills, get unstuck and improve your fluency – increase the amount of time you spend speaking.

How often should you speak Vietnamese?

In my 10 years of teaching and learning languages, I’ve found speaking 1-3 times a week is good for maintaining your level.

If you want to improve your fluency, you ideally should be trying to speak Vietnamese 4+ times a week. Conversations should be long enough that you have to push yourself (ordering lunch doesn’t count), but those conversations don’t all have to be hour-long discussions.

This is one reason why it’s easier to make progress when you’re living in the country. It’s easier to have frequent conversations.

If you’re not in Vietnam, it’ll take more planning. Fear not – we’re here to help. We’ll be covering tips for speaking in the rest of this article.

Tip 2: Find a Conversation Partner

Speaking can also help you to build a deeper connection to the culture and make friends. Conversation partners are a great way to do this.

I’ve covered this topic before in an article on language exchanges as finding a conversation partner can be difficult when you are learning a new language.

First, you could try to find a meetup that is specifically focused on language learning. If you’re in a city, there’s a small chance of meeting a Vietnamese speaker. I once spoke Vietnamese at a language exchange in Bulgaria! To be honest though, I’ve had more success with language exchanges when I’m in a country where the language is spoken.

Your second option is to find a language exchange partner online. This is pretty easy if you can speak English as there is no shortage of people who want to practice with you. Again, my other post on language exchanges covers this in more detail.

Finally, once you’ve found your language partner make sure to practice your new language regularly.

Tip 3: Take Conversation Lessons

Conversation lessons will help you improve your speaking skills, and give you the opportunity to practice your new language with a native or fluent speaker.

This is a big part of my approach when I’m a beginner and low level. Though to be honest, I really like conversation lessons at any level as they’re so convenient to schedule and I can get a lot of quality practice time. It’s similar in convenience to an online exchange, but you pay for a lesson instead of using your time to help someone.

A great option for busy people.

Tip 4: Take Language Lessons

If you want to improve your overall skills in a foreign language, not just your speaking ability, then taking language lessons may be a good idea. This can help you to improve your vocabulary, spend time on learning the grammar and pronunciation of the language, and to improve your spoken fluency through practice.

One of the main differences between traditional lessons and conversation lessons is the amount of time you spend speaking. Many good teachers will use a communicative approach in normal lessons so you will get some speaking practice. But you will also spend time reading or listening, learning new words, revising grammar and so on.

In contrast, a conversation lesson is more like speaking to a friend – except they’re paid to be patient and help you say what you want to say, make sure the conversation doesn’t dry up and provide feedback.

I like both types on lessons, but I take more conversation lessons because I want to improve my speaking and conversational ability most of all.

Tip 5: Think in Vietnamese

Speaking a foreign language often enough can be difficult. One way to make practising easier is to talk to yourself. If you don’t want to talk aloud, thinking in Vietnamese is a good substitution. Being able to think quickly in Vietnamese will help your spoken fluency.

You can decide to think in Vietnamese while you do a particular activity – like walking the dog or buying groceries. Every time you do that activity you commit to thinking in Vietnamese. I often think in Vietnamese when I’m buying groceries. It’s a habit I started years ago and still keep up with. Easy practice!

My other tip is to think in Vietnamese when you’re people watching. For example, when you’re waiting for a friend in a cafe. Use that time to describe what you see around you. Beginners can make simple sentences naming objects and colours. Higher level learners can guess how strangers are feeling and what might have happened to cause that.

Tip 6: Record yourself speaking

One way to improve your speaking skills is to record yourself speaking. This can help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and to improve your accuracy.

You don’t need to record a video – audio is enough. However, instagram users may want to share a reel and get encouragement from other learners.

To level up, you should listen to your recording and search for strengths and weaknesses. You can add strengths to your can-do list, and then create a plan to address your weaknesses.

An added bonus of recording yourself is being able to measure your progress. When you listen again to something you recorded six months or a year ago, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Tip 7: Mimic Audio Files

If you want to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language, one effective way is to mimic audio files. By listening to recordings of native speakers, you can learn how to produce the sounds well. This can help you sound more natural when speaking and can also help you to improve your pronunciation of tones.

This technique is great if you want to improve your pronunciation, but if you mimic dialogues you can practice common questions and topics that can be useful for your own conversations.

Tip 8: Learn to sing

This is not an approach I have much experience of, but people learn differently. Benny of Fluent in 3 months is a big fan of singing and it might appeal to you too.

I did learn the words of Diễm Hương’s Who Cares several years ago, and I can still remember the chorus when I listen to the song.

Learning to sing could be a good strategy if you struggle with smooth pronunciation. My Spanish could probably benefit from this, my Vietnamese and Russian less so as my pronunciation is more natural than my Spanish pronunciation.

If you like Vietnamese music, singing is something to consider to work on your pronunciation and fluency.

Tip 9: Go somewhere the language is spoken

If you want to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language, one effective way is to travel to a country where the language is spoken. By spending time in the language environment, This will help you practice and gain fluency in the language.

Of course, that’s not always practical but you can also seek places locally. I nearly always get to speak Vietnamese when I visit an authentic Vietnamese restaurant.

Practise speaking Vietnamese when you eat Vietnamese

Tip 10: Use apps and software

If you want to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language, one effective way is to use apps and software. These tools can help you to practice speaking the language, and can also help you to improve your pronunciation.

This isn’t something I’ve explored much (other than using apps for language exchange), but if I do, I’ll update this article.

Tip 11: Listen more

It can be hard to get as much live speaking practice as you’d like. One extra thing you can do for your speaking skills is to listen more. In time, this can help you to sound more natural when speaking. Listening can give you a better understanding of the language and keep vocabulary fresh.

I find that when I’m not using a language much, it’s important to keep up with it to maintain my level. Otherwise, you’ll start to get rusty and forget words. If you practice speaking but don’t spend much time listening to native or fluent speakers, your speaking can sound more foreign or unnatural because you’re missing out on natural expressions.

Tip 12: Improve your vocabulary

Sometimes the real problem is not your speaking ability after all, but a lack of vocabulary. That’s a topic for another day! Sign up to our newsletter to get notifications of new posts, so you’ll be the first to read that article when it’s published.

Finally – Practice, Practice, Practice!

Speaking a foreign language can be difficult, but with a little practice, you can improve your skills quickly. One of the best ways to improve your speaking skills is to practice regularly. Whether you’re trying to improve your pronunciation or fluency, making time for regular practice will help you build your skills faster.

Over to you: How often do you practice Vietnamese? Which tip above are you going to add to your routine?

How To Improve Your Vietnamese Speaking Skills


My language learning in 2021

Tết 2022 is fast approaching – Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!

What a year 2021 was again. Through it all I’ve still been learning and practising my languages. This post is my annual round-up of how I spent my language learning time in 2021 and what differed in my approach and study habits this past year.

Previous yearly reviews are available: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016.


Practised in occasional random conversations, but otherwise barely maintaining

As has been the case for the last few years, I occasionally get to speak Vietnamese in a restaurant or other chance encounters with Vietnamese people. While I’m a bit rusty, I am still able to speak the language. Twice in December I was called “fluent” (though the truth is my level is low intermediate).

It’s hard to keep up with learning more than one language – it’s rare that I read Vietnamese online although I still very occasionally think to myself in Vietnamese.


January – June

This language was again the main focus of my learning in much of 2021 – reaching 3 years since I started learning the language. I still feel that my level is low intermediate and I have good days and bad days.

As 3 years was the amount of time I spent in Vietnam, I wrote a comparison of spending 3 years on each language.

What’s the same?

  • As usual I’ve had variable periods of taking italki lessons regularly and having breaks. I took 9 Russian lessons on italki in 2021.
  • To help all this sink in, I still love Anki but I haven’t been using it for Russian since the summer.
  • I’ve used duolingo for a bit, in particular when commuting.
  • I still did a few face-to-face language exchanges and used Russian in my daily life and travel.

What’s different?

  • I did not have group lessons.
  • I didn’t use a lot of learner podcasts.
  • I haven’t been using instagram since I came back to the UK.


July – December

I started learning Spanish in 2017, reaching level A2 quickly. But in 2018 found I couldn’t keep it up and learn Russian at the same time. I’ve long been waiting for my Russian to get good enough that I could return to Spanish.

What I’ve done:

  • Half a course on FutureLearn (I got bored)
  • 4 lessons on italki* – three introduction lessons and one lesson using pictures to talk about a holiday
  • Duolingo almost daily for 6 months
  • Exchanged messages on HelloTalk for about a month
  • Tried a few other apps but none of them wow-ed me


2021 was a 50-50 split between Russian and Spanish with six months focused on each. Having left Russia, I feel my Russian is getting rusty. I’m forgetting words already. Losing your level can really happen quickly! On the other hand, my understanding of Spanish has come back quickly. Speaking is harder as I’ve forgotten a lot of vocabulary.

2022 learning plans

I’m busy with some other projects at the moment so for the next three months, I’m going to keep spending 2-3 hours a week learning Spanish and 1-2 hours maintaining my Russian. I might even get to squeeze in some Vietnamese.

I hope to change that up later in the year but we’ll see how things go.

Over to you: How was your language learning in 2021? What are you language learning plans for 2022?


Comparing 3 years of Vietnamese v 3 years of Russian – which is harder?

In 2011 I arrived in Vietnam ready to teach English after a couple of months backpacking and ready to learn the language. In total I spent 3.5 years in Vietnam between 2011 and 2016. Some of the time I was actively learning, other times I was just maintaining the language by using it.

10 years later, I’ve had my 3-year anniversary with Russian (actually 3 years, 4 months) and also left the country. What a coincidence that I spent between 3 to 3.5 years learning each language in-country. Of course, it’s natural to compare.


Vietnamese Russian
Learning environment and motivation Living in Vietnam (I also had a one-year break in the middle, so perhaps it’s technically 4.5 years not 3.5)

Motivation: to manage daily life, travels and speak to people around me. I fell in love with the Vietnamese language, culture and people.

Living in Russia

Motivation: to manage daily life, travels and speak to people around me.

I can’t imagine living in a country and not getting to at least A2 level!

Overall ability after 3 years (self-assessed) strong B1

I’ve written before about how I got to an intermediate level in Vietnamese: Part 1 and Part 2. I’d say my Vietnamese was probably a strong B1 or B1+ at its best.

I feel like I know well that level and below – I don’t have huge gaps and would be comfortable helping/teaching a lower level learner.

low B1

I don’t always feel like B1, but looking at the can-do statements for this level it seems to be correct.

My skills abilities Good at all four skills – listening, speaking, reading, writing.

I called myself conversationally fluent – being able to go about my life in Vietnam, hold conversations with friends and strangers, and deal with problems that came up (like taking my motorbike to the mechanic) although I didn’t know all the words, I could find a way to explain the problem. I spoke without much hesitation but I didn’t quite have a big enough vocabulary, and the ability to talk about abstract topics, to be considered B2.

Received many compliments how ‘natural’ my Vietnamese sounds. I spoke without having to think a lot (I felt fluent). I expect the most common mistakes were mis-pronunciations of tones.

Listening is by far my strongest skill, followed by speaking. I can understand the main points of webinars about teaching and doctors appointments, though I still miss some details.

I have good speaking days, average ones and poor ones. Most often average and poor ones, but some days I feel like I can explain what I need even if I don’t know the exact words I can get the job done (ie.feeling fluent).

Received many compliments on how well I can understand, even when people are speaking at normal speed. I received some compliments on my speaking and even on my grammar.

My weaknesses Lack of vocabulary to understand and discuss complex subjects (eg. lectures, politics).


Lack of vocabulary to understand and discuss complex subjects (eg. lectures, politics).

Reading and writing aren’t priorities so I haven’t developed them. I read slowly in Cyrillic and my spelling is pretty bad. However, I’ve never worked on it as I don’t need to write Russian by hand so I’m happy to rely on autocorrect. I can easily message people on Whatsapp, including booking appointments, so my level is sufficient for everyday life but not a strength.

Grammatical accuracy – I don’t think I could help/teach anyone, even a beginner, because I while I’m developing a good feel for the language, I’m rarely 100% certain I’ve produced an accurate sentence even when I have.

How I learnt the language I started learning by myself, from a phrase and later from friends.

I joined high Elementary classes and studied 3 x 80 hour courses to low Intermediate. There was good input but little speaking practice, but I spoke a lot outside of lessons anyway.

I then maintained the language by myself, still speaking to friends and tried to find interesting resources (that’s when I started this blog). I may have improved a bit, but I felt like I was at an intermediate plateau.

Read more in ‘How I learnt Vietnamese Parts 1 and 2‘.

I started with small group lessons once a week when I arrived in the country, however I had an advantage because I already spoke A2 level Bulgarian. For example, numbers and days of the week are similar in both languages (with some exceptions). These lessons continued for the best part of two years (estimate: 100 hours).

Over the last two years I also have taken about 70 speaking lessons (of 30 minutes or 45 minutes) on italki to supplement these classes – sometimes regularly, sometimes I’d have a break for a few months. I’ve also done some language exchanges.

My main input has been from the book Russian Souvenir 2 and self-study with RussianPodcast.EU dialogues.

Difficulties for learners Initial difficulties included pronunciation, problems with spelling and the fact there are very few words that are similar in European languages (cognates) so you really have to learn every word.

Accents: northern and southern Vietnamese are very different. Also there are all kinds of regional accents. Vietnamese people don’t always fully understand people from other regions.

There’s no denying the learning curve at the beginning is steep. But once you get through that, there are a lot of beautifully simple things about Vietnamese. I personally don’t consider it a hard language.

The biggest difficulty has been and remains the grammar. It’s the most grammatical language I’ve ever studied and it can be demotivating. Even Russians have to study Russian grammar in school, and many people say it’s their least favourite subject.

Spelling is not phonetic although there are various rules that can make it easier – I guess this is something else Russians learn in school.

Easier aspects for learners The language is very phonetic – how it’s spelt is how it’s pronounced.

The grammar is not particularly complex and easy to get your head around.

There are words that are similar to European languages (cognates). This is one reason I’m able to listen to webinars about teaching – often there are words I’ve never heard before but I can understand because they’re similar to a word in English or sometimes when speaking I can make an English word sound Russian and that’s correct.

Accents are minimal – they exist but there aren’t huge differences that make it difficult for people to understand each other. This also applies to other countries where Russian is an official or second language.

Overall, I reached a roughly similar level in each language however my Vietnamese after 3 years is better than my Russian both in terms of ability and confidence (with the exception of listening which is slightly better in Russian).

I attribute this to:

  • my time in Vietnamese group lessons (even though the teaching wasn’t great, the input was useful, as was the consistency)
  • Vietnamese grammar being easier than Russian, so you can focus more on vocabulary
  • greater motivation – I fell in love with Vietnamese but I never fell in love with the Russian language or culture

On the other hand, Russian is the 6th language I’ve started as an adult so my learning techniques are a bit more developed than when I was learning Vietnamese (my 2nd). Plus I had a head start because I already knew some Bulgarian (a fellow Slavic language). I didn’t know a lot about self-study when I was learning Vietnamese. However, the difficulty of Russian has held me back – I had enough motivation to keep chipping away at the language but not enough motivation to put in a lot of time.

In both languages, it takes a lot of effort to amass a big enough vocabulary to get to B2. It’s not something I personally managed in 3 years. That’s not to say it’s impossible. Personally much of my learning is what I’d call ‘social’ – speaking with others, practising in group lessons and I do not read or listen to a lot of the language. This exposure is a key factor in getting to a high level. B2 level (also called upper intermediate) is a good level of fluency where you can easily cope with daily level and discuss both simple and more complex topics, read and listen to general news and so on. This has never particularly been my goal (my aim has always been to speak to people around me) but I do see it as an important level to get to if you want to keep your language ability and not forget the language as soon as you stop learning/using it.

My Vietnamese was a strong B1 or B1+ at its best which is why I haven’t forgotten it, although I’m getting rusty and it’s hard to maintain the language when I can’t understand TV well (which B2 level can). When I last travelled to Vietnam, I quickly remembered a lot and was able to use the language to get around and talk to people (including an hour-long conversation with an old friend). I’d say my level when I was in Vietnam 18 months ago around low B1 once I’d brushed back up and was using it daily. I’ve been trying to get my Russian to a higher B1+ level like my Vietnamese used to be so that, while it may get a bit rusty, I can maintain the ability to speak Russian for life.

Over to you: Have you learnt a language (or two) for 3 years? How does your progress compare to mine?


My language learning in 2020

We’re a couple of months into 2021 and Tết has recently passed – Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!

In this post I’ll be reflecting on my language learning in 2020, updating you on what study habits I’ve kept up with and what I’ve changed about my language learning routine.


Practised in January 2020, but otherwise barely maintaining

I actually spent 9 days in Vietnam last January, just weekend before world plunged into Covid-chaos.

I felt like Vietnamese came back to me quite quickly. Apparently in the airport I spoke a mixture of Vietnamese and Russian, but as I continued speaking it felt more and more comfortable to speak Vietnamese. I was a bit rusty and had to search for alternatives to words I’d forgotten but that improved throughout the trip.

I used my language skills to hitchhike, negotiate bike rental, buy bus tickets over the phone, and catch up with a friend. Although my level was lower than it was when I left Vietnam in 2016, it was nice to have my language ability come in handy!

Other than that period in Vietnam, I occasionally read a little Vietnamese on Instagram and occasionally think to myself in Vietnamese. I’m glad I had a chance to visit Vietnam in 2020 and refresh my skills a bit.


This was again the sole focus of my language learning. It’s been another year in the low intermediate levels, where it’s hard to feel or notice progress although others have commented that I have made progress.

What’s the same?

  • For input, I used dialogues for learners to learn new vocabulary.
  • As usual I’ve had variable periods of taking italki lessons regularly and having breaks. I took about 36 lessons on italki in 2020.
  • I had face-to-face group lessons until March (for obvious reasons).
  • To help all this sink in, I still love Anki.
  • I used duolingo for a bit, but uninstalled it a few months ago when I needed to free up space on my phone.
  • Over the summer I started doing face-to-face language exchanges again, but less often in the autumn.

What’s different?

  • This year I haven’t been as active on instagram (what with much of the year being spent indoors), although I still posted 29 times.
  • Started using authentic listening materials (ie. select TV shows). I hope to write more about this topic in then near future.
  • Tried various online ‘Russian Speaking Clubs’ that involved not very much speaking (only when nominated by the teacher, and no discussion between learners.)

Reading & Writing

These skills are just not a priority. Of course I use written Russian a bit: to book appointments via Whatsapp, message friends, read notices put up in our block of flats or at work. I also sometimes read short articles for discussion in my italki lessons, and I flipped through a copy of Cosmopolitan an old flatmate left behind. But overall my main reason to learn Russian is to communicate while living in Russia – hence the focus being on vocabulary, listening and speaking.

Other languages

  • Spanish (2017) – nothing this year. I’d like to pick this up again in 2021 or more likely 2022, once my Russian is a solid intermediate level (B1+).

2020 was again focused on one language – Russian. I’ve continued to make slow but steady progress. I don’t feel like there’s much to report compared with the end of 2019 and I feel like 2021 will be much the same – continuing to learn bit by bit, slowly edging towards B1+. Maybe I need to do something to push myself, like I did with Vietnamese?

Over to you: How was your language learning in 2020? What are you language learning plans for 2021?