Last year I religiously attended Spanish conversation classes twice a week, but I eventually gave it up at the end of the year as group study will never be the great love of my life and I generally prefer to sit and do my own thing.  However, trying to do my own thing when practicing how to speak a new language proved not to be one of my better ideas.  Plus, I’ve just entered my third year of living in Spain and my Spanish speaking ability is nowhere near what I would expect it to be after two years so I’ve decided to revisit the issue of taking lessons, but this time I’ve decided to splash the cash on private lessons.

Sadly, my problem with private lessons is that I can’t afford to pay for them long term, but I also don’t think that taking only 10 or 20 lessons will achieve too much for me.  If I were to make the decision to get a teacher then I would commit to taking lessons for at least a year, but I also like to eat so I had to consider the money side of it.  I had a conundrum on my hands.  I decided to investigate the possibility of taking online lessons as they’re usually much cheaper and I can find a suitable teacher from anywhere in the world, I’m not only limited to what’s available in my area and that idea appealed to me very much.

OK, so for financial reasons I had decided to find an online teacher, but that led me to think about my other problem with language classes in general and private classes in particular and that’s the issue of inertia.  Those of you who have ever taken a language class, have you ever reached that point where you realise you’re going to the class simply for the sake of going to the class?  You’ve been going there every Tuesday evening for the past six months and it’s become a habit so you continue going, but at some point you say to yourself ‘I’m not really learning anything, I’m just showing up and going through the motions’?  It always happens to me.  Every time.  I become bored with what we’re doing in the class and I stop going.  Every single time.  Sound familiar?

I decided to evaluate some of my past experiences with language classes in order to try and find out if there’s anything I can do to change things going forward.  I believe in the value of private language tuition, but I don’t want to start doing something again that’s not going to be worth the money I’ll be throwing at it.  So I delved into my past – I seem to be doing that a lot lately.

I was living in London in the mid-nineties and I thought it was a good idea to start taking German evening classes.

On the first day of class our very lovely Austrian teacher arrived and we talked about the structure our lessons would take for the rest of the semester.   She told us what book to buy and the name of the bookshop that sold it.  So far so good and after class I headed straight for the bookshop, excited and happy with my decision.

The next Wednesday evening arrived and we opened our books to chapter 1:  Booking a hotel room.  It was at this point that I realised my worst teaching nightmare was about to come true.  Roleplay.  For the next 6 weeks or so we all took it in turns to speak to the hotel receptionist (teacher) and book a sea facing, non-smoking twin room, speak to the travel agent (teacher) and book an economy class return ticket with airport transfer or speak to the waiter (yes, teacher) and order a meal with starter and dessert, sauce on the side and a coffee with milk and sugar.  I was ready to perform hara-kiri.

Then, in week seven, happiness returned to my life in the form of a satchel carrying, corduroy jacket wearing German who breezed into the classroom in order to replace our teacher, who had to return to Austria due to the illness of a parent.  Heinz promptly discarded the textbook and started to teach us the lyrics to a Marlene Dietrich song.  Then we learned some German poetry, we sang beer drinking songs and we ended the semester by taking it in turns to read and translate a short murder mystery.  I reckon it was the most enjoyable few months of schooling I’ve ever had.  Sadly, I returned to South Africa during the summer so I never had the opportunity to return to Heinz and my German is most definitely poorer for it.

Two years ago I arrived in Spain and duly joined Nelly’s intermediate level Spanish conversation class.  Before my first lesson, Nelly asked if I had any specific requests or requirements and my only comment was that I don’t want to sit and do grammar exercises, I only want to talk.  Excellent, she said, I’m in the right place for that.  There were 5 of us in the class and for the next few months we chatted away happily about everything and nothing and I loved it.  Then two of our classmates left and the three of us who remained decided it’s time to start learning some grammar and we asked Nelly about it.  She was happy to oblige and for the next few months we learned about the past tenses, reflexive verbs and other clever stuff.  Each week we would tell Nelly what we wanted to learn the next week.  It was working well until we took a few weeks off over Christmas and never went back.  You know how it goes, one gets lazy.

So, here I am a year later and I feel as if my Spanish has made absolutely no progress during the past 12 months.  I’m doing well with regard to studying on my own by reading Spanish books, doing translation and writing exercises and learning snippets of grammar, but I’m doing very little speaking practice as I simply don’t spend enough time around Spanish speakers.

This is where italki ( came into my life.  It’s a website that offers the opportunity to do language exchange or to find an online teacher.  The language exchange facility is free of charge and we can use the italki site to load our profile and search for language partners.  The idea is that if I want to learn Spanish and I offer English or Afrikaans in exchange then I can find a Spanish speaker who wants to practice English or Afrikaans and we can do an exchange by teaching each other.  It happens via Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts etc.

We can also find teachers on the site and this is how I found my Rafael.  I filtered my search so that I found a native speaker from Valencia and this was important to me as I have the opportunity to learn from a person with the same accent as my neighbours as I live less than two hours from Valencia.  I watched his introduction video, read his profile, saw his price (€5.50 per hour!) and booked a couple of lessons with him.  These lessons were to be conducted via Skype and at the appointed time I logged on with some apprehension, having never before taken an online class.

At the appointed hour my Skype ringtone sounded and just like that I was sitting in my study at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, taking a private Spanish lesson.  I was still in my pajamas…  I asked Rafael what his plans were for the lesson and he replied that we are simply going to chat so that he can have an idea of my ability and I thought that was fair enough.

We spent the next hour talking about the weather in Germany, eating chicken feet and my auntie Irma.  Twice he corrected me when I used tambien instead of tampoco.  He also showed me how to open a Word document in Google Docs that allows us both to view and edit the document at the same time so that we can work on it together while still having the Skype call open.  This is a very cool feature.

At the end of the lesson I asked Rafael what he would like to do in the next lesson and he replied that we’ll do whatever I want.  We said goodbye.  Afterwards, I thought about what he had said and then the penny dropped.  Yes, that’s it!  In order for me to achieve the best possible results from my teacher, I need to tell him what I want.

In order for me to achieve the best possible results from my teacher, I need to tell him what I want.

I thought about the German classes I took 25 years ago and how much more I got from the lessons when we had a teacher who taught the sort of stuff I wanted to learn and I remembered how much more I learned in my Spanish classes once we started giving the teacher special requests.   The more I thought about it, the more I realised that each one of us is different and this means that each one of us will have different learning requirements.

For example, Rafael may have three students who are more or less at the same level, but one of them likes to sit and work through a grammar book during her lessons, the next one wants to do roleplay exercises and the third one wants to spend an hour chatting about random stuff.  How is Rafael to know what his students want if they don’t tell him?  If he simply presents his own lessons to all three students then he may very well end up with three unhappy customers, because each one of them would have preferred something different.

I sat down and started to think about my future with Rafael and I started by making a list of all the things I don’t like.
*  I don’t like to sit and work from a book, it’s boring.
*  I most definitely don’t like roleplay.
*  I don’t like to sit and chat – lessons are not for chatting, they’re for working.
*  I’ve never liked grammar.  Even in high school I used to copy all my Afrikaans grammar homework from Reneé de Beer and my English grammar homework from Valencia Oelofse.  I realise it’s important, but as far as lessons and homework are concerned, less is more.

After I had eliminated all the things I don’t like, I realised that it didn’t really leave me with much choice.  What’s left after one removes conversation and grammar from a lesson?  It took me a while to work it out, but I got there in the end.  I remembered that during the past 2 years I’ve been making a list of all the things I still want to learn.  The list is long.  Eighty three items long.  Most of the items are only small bits of grammar or vocabulary that will take no time at all to learn but, crucially, I’ve never sat down and learned them.  I just keep adding to the list.  Here are some examples:
*  Using deber vs tener que vs hay que
*  Using bueno vs bien
*  The differences between por, porque, por qué and porqué
*  Using ya vs todavia
* Using connecting words like sin embargo (however), a pesar de (in spite of), puesto que (since), por lo tanto (therefore).
*  Using la misma, el mismo, lo mismo

I thought to myself that since these things were important enough to me that I bothered to write them all down, I may as well start to learn them and I thought ‘what the hell, let’s jump in at the deep end’.

STEP NUMBER ONE in getting the most from your Spanish teacher:


Poor Rafael came to lesson number two to find that I had copied and pasted a list of 50-odd connecting words and phrases into our Google document and his instruction was to help me understand and make sentences using these words.  We spent the next three lessons working our way down the list and now I understand Spanish connectors a whole lot better.

How many times have we walked out of a language lesson, or any lesson for that matter, and thought ‘well, that was a waste of an hour and €20’.  Now imagine how wonderful things could be if we could simply work out what we want to learn, tell the teacher what we want to learn and then be taught what we want to learn.  No more faffing about, just learning.

STEP NUMBER TWO in getting the most from your Spanish teacher:


One thing I’ve come to appreciate about Rafael is that he doesn’t get sidetracked very easily and that’s more important than I ever realised before.  During today’s lesson, I made a sentence about a painter and Rafael briefly mentioned the name of a painter he likes and what he likes about him and then we moved on to the next sentence.  I once had a teacher who would get so sidetracked by this comment that we would spend the next 45 minutes discussing art and that would be that for the rest of the lesson.  Now that I have Rafael I realise for the first time how much work a person can do in 1 hour.

STEP NUMBER THREE in getting the most from your Spanish teacher:


You may have noticed a very important aspect of my new way of taking Spanish lessons:  I do all the preparation for the lesson, I don’t leave it to the teacher.  I think of it like this.  I’m not Rafael’s only student so as far as his teaching is concerned, it’s not all about me and at €5.50 per hour for private tuition, I can hardly expect him to spend hours preparing lessons for me.  Plus, as we saw earlier, I’m the best person to know what I want to learn so who better to prepare my lessons than me?  Once I’ve decided what I want to learn next I simply go on the internet to find material related to the topic and I copy and paste vocabulary, exercises, article etc into the Google document so that we have material to work from during our next lesson.  Being responsible for my own learning and doing my own preparation is forcing me to be a better, more conscientious student and ironically, it seems to help Rafael be a better teacher.  He can see what I want because it’s there, right in front of his eyes and all he has to do is help me learn it.

STEP NUMBER FOUR in getting the most from your Spanish teacher:


Let’s get back to the Google Docs document.  It’s basically a Word document and Rafael and I just keep adding to it so that I have a decent record of all my lessons and I can keep an eye on my progress.  I can see what I’ve been struggling with and what needs more work etc.  It also reminds me of anything I enjoyed and may want to explore in more detail.  I no longer sit in class and take a note here and there, I now sit in ‘class’ with a document in front of me and I work, work, work.  It’s extremely gratifying and it makes me wonder why it took me so long to figure it out, but I’m doing it now and it pleases me a lot.

It’s only been two months since I started with my new way of dealing with Spanish lessons and I’ve already started to notice incredible results.  Because I get more speaking practice and I’ve been sharpening my vocabulary I’ve noticed that I’m a bit quicker off the mark when I start speaking to someone and I’m just that little bit more precise with how I speak.  My grammar even seems to be improving in the process, even though I’m not specifically working on it.  It’s just getting caught up in the slipstream of everything else that’s improving around it.

To be clear though, I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel so if you find a teacher who offers a two-week intensive grammar course or a Spanish literature summer school then I’m not suggesting that you start to advise the teacher on the curriculum.  I’m simply talking of my own experience with regard the the positive results I’ve been seeing during the past two months and how excited I am that it’s going to work for me on a long-term basis.

I’ll update this post in a few months’ time to let you know how things are going and in the meantime, if any of you try this method and see interesting results, good or bad, then please leave a comment as I would love to hear about your experience.

Good luck and enjoy!