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.

Why?

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?

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