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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?

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?

Goal: upgrading my fluency in one month

My language studies are ticking along nicely but my speaking ability has hit a bit of a plateau. I can manage daily interactions like ordering in a restaurant or buying tickets. I can have a conversation with a native speaker, but it is not easy. Some days I have a ‘good Russian’ day, but more often I have a ‘not very good Russian day’. I remember going through the same phase in Vietnamese.

The problem: To be honest other than simple transactions like shopping and arranging appointments, I don’t actually speak Russian very often. At work, some colleagues speak to me in Russian but my work-related vocabulary is limited so I have the habit of replying in English. And due to my busy autumn, I’d been slacking on language exchanges.

This means that when I speak, I can’t always remember the words I want to use and I make lots of mistakes. I’m sure you know this feeling!

The goal: Improve my fluency by having conversations in Russian for 30-60 minutes, 4 times a week for the whole of December

The weekly plan to get there:

  • 2 conversation lessons on italki.
  • 1-2 one-on-one language exchanges.
  • And/or 1 language exchange event.

Bonuses:

  • Have more short 5-15 minute interactions in my daily life. Aim: 2 per week.
  • Record myself speaking 1-2 times a week. Replay the audio and improve it.

Of course I’m also going to keep up my Anki flashcards, my weekly Russian lesson and try to fit in 1-2 podcasts to continue building my vocabulary.

Over to you: What are you doing this month to improve your Vietnamese (or other language you’re learning)?

You may be interested in: 12 tips to improve your speaking skills in Vietnamese

How to get more practice #1: do a language exchange

I’ve said before that it’s really important to get feedback from a native speaker on your Vietnamese pronunciation. But what if you’re not in Vietnam? What if you’re learning at home with an audio course or textbook?

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a native speaker in your town. But it can still be hard to find someone willing to help you practice and to correct your mistakes. Even if you have friends who can speak Vietnamese, friends are not always the best language exchange partners.

That’s where the internet comes in!

Types of language exchange

When you first read ‘language exchange’ at the beginning of this article, what did you think of? Two people meeting up in person to practice each others’ languages? This is certainly a form of language exchange (or ‘language tandem’) but it’s not the only one.

Let’s take a look at the different ways you can exchange a language or otherwise practice with a regular partner.

1. Local face-to-face language exchange

This is the classic form of language exchange where you find someone who lives in your town or city and meet up with them in a coffee shop or similar. You spend half the time speaking in each language so that both of you get to practice.

2. Online face-to-face language exchange

These days it’s so easy to set up an online exchange where you chat via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime or another system. This can be a lot more convenient than meeting someone in person – and you don’t even have to live in the same country. Again, the principle is that half the time is spent talking in each language.

3. With a penfriend

The advantage of a ‘penfriend’ or ‘penpal’ is that you don’t have to schedule a time to talk. You can send emails or messages back and forth as and when you have free time. Because it’s not instant you can also take the time to look words up in the dictionary or refer to your class notes. This is great to focus on accuracy and for getting corrections.

There are a few ways to make this into an exchange: you can write your messages in both languages or you could write to them in Vietnamese and they reply in English, sending you some corrections at the end.

4. Pay someone to talk to you

The downside of traditional language exchanges is that half of the time is spent helping the other person to improve a language. If you’re busy, this can be limiting.

Instead of having a session where you split the time between two languages, you can pay to have a session focused on you, practising and improving your Vietnamese. Of course, no-one would help you practice without getting something in return so if you’re short on time for a two-way exchange, parting with some money could get you the attention you need.

This kind of session can be flexible – if you want a full lesson you can find a teacher to do this but if you just want to practice, some corrections and to learn some new or more natural expressions then any native or fluent speaker can help, like a Community Tutor on iTalki*.

Ways to find a language partner

Now you know what kinds of language exchanges are out there, how do you find a partner?

Local communities

Ask around. Someone you know may know someone looking for this kind of exchange, or may suggest where to go. Local university students could be a good option.

Online communities

Especially communities you’re already part of like the people who help correct your writing on Lang-8. Or you could add a comment on our facebook page if you’re looking for someone. Người Việt cũng vậy nhé.

Language exchange websites

There are a lot of Vietnamese people wanting to practice English so it should be easy to find someone on any language exchange website out there.

A few sites I’ve come across are:

  • Conversation Exchange lets you list what type(s) of exchange format you’re interested in, including local face-to-face exchanges.
  • Linguar recently started by a fellow Vietnamese learner, Carl Noresson, again lets you select and search based on what kind of exchange you’re interested in.
  • iTalki* for online face-to-face exchanges.
  • Polyglot Club is good for finding a penfriend.
  • HelloTalk is an app where you can send text and voice messages.

* affiliate link which gives me free credit if you sign up and buy credit (at no extra cost to you)

Top tip: You can end up getting a lot of messages, especially on more established sites, because so many Vietnamese people want to practice English. If this gets a bit much, you might want to change your settings so less people can contact you or send you a friend request.

How to get the most out of your language exchange

If you prepare for your exchange, you’ll get more out of it. The clearer you are on your goals and what you want to get out of the exchange, the better.

Over to you: Have you ever done a language exchange? Which type of exchange do you prefer? Are you inspired to try a new kind?

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