This is a repost from my German blog here, I’m posting all articles about the iTalki 2015 Language Challenge on both blogs.

As I’m fond of saying: You learn to speak a language by trying to speak it, poorly at first.

What this means is that you learn by making mistakes which are then corrected, the corrections being where the actual learning takes place.  Previously, I had recommended that people get this sort of error-correction via language exchanges where you help a native speaker of the language you’re learning with your native language that they’re learning in exchange for them helping you with their native language which you’re learning, e.g. you would do a 30 minute session where the first 15 minutes are you speaking German while your partner (a native German speaker) helps and corrects you and the next 15 minutes are them speaking English to you (presuming you’re a native English speaker) while you help and correct them.  This is all well and good…and free, most importantly…but, if you can afford it, a tutor is definitely a much better way to go about this.

With a one-on-one tutor this happens faster than in any other learning environment I’ve ever tried.  Not only that but, unlike with a language exchange, you’re not spending any of your time teaching someone else a language, all of it is them teaching you the language you want to learn, plus it’s a professional language teacher doing it unlike with a language exchange where that’s never the case (if you’re good at something never do it for free, right?), which means that they can not only tell you that you’re wrong but also why you’re wrong (most native speakers can’t do this, they can’t tell you why their language works the way it does).  They’ve also probably encountered this particular error/problem/question/confusion with another student, or several, before and consequently have already got an explanation or way of teaching it worked out that’s been refined via said experience.

Let me give you an example…

german tutor


Just today I had a German session with one of the German tutors I’ve decided I like, Céline (she’s excellent, has by far the most open schedule of any of the tutors I’ve tried, and she’s in Chile at the moment so she’s only 2 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time so she tends to have slots open at much more opportune times for Americans and Canadians than most German teachers who are in Europe and therefore 7 hours or more ahead).  Today we talked about, among other things, negation in German and the placement of “nicht” in a sentence, how its placement affects what it negates (a verb or a noun), and how said placement can affect the meaning of that sentence (it can drastically change it).

There was much confusion.

When used in a very simple sentence in the accusative or dative case without any objects or with just a single direct object, “nicht” always goes at the end, e.g. “Ich esse nicht.” (I’m not eating) or “Ich fahre mein Auto nicht.” (I’m not driving my car).  However, when it gets any more complex than that then you have to start worrying about where to put the negation (frequently “nicht”) and the appropriate place is usually not at the end.  The location depends on what you want to emphasize/negate in the sentence (placing “nicht” before a word usually emphasizes it) and what case(s) you are working with.  German cases are, in and of themselves, a massive headache, especially if you’ve never encountered cases before (English doesn’t use them with a very few exceptions, neither do any of the romance languages except Romanian) – if you’d really like to learn about cases I highly recommend this article (and that blog in general for German learners), that’s what got me to understand them.

Anyway, point is: it’s complicated.  Consequently, we spent a good half hour going back and forth on this, primarily with me saying “So what this means is…” or “So the way you would say this is [butchered German]” and her saying “No…” and then correcting me and trying again to explain this.  If I were doing this on my own god only knows how long it would’ve taken me to sort this out and come to the same level of understanding I had after about half an hour with her, I would estimate several hours of study over a period of a couple days, largely because this (negation, use of “nicht”) and cases are solidly intertwined with German, you can’t understand the first without the second, and as I’ve already stated, cases are very complex.

Instead we got it (mostly) handled in 30 minutes.

This is the advantage of a tutor I’m talking about: you have an expert there to whom you can ask every question that pops in your mind as you’re learning this material (you would have no one to ask if you were self-studying), who will immediately tell you whether each attempt you make to use the material is correct or not and, if not, how to correct it (and they’ll do it in such a way that you can understand it well, they’re a professional teacher, it’s their job), as well as allowing you to test your understanding of what’s being taught by feeding it back to them (“Ok, so this means that…”, “So when you have X and Y, you do Z…”, etc.) and seeing if it’s correct or not – again, you can’t do this if you’re learning the material from a book or course, you can’t know if you’re understanding it properly or not.

I hope that helps and that you’ll at least give a tutor a shot and see if it works for you or not (I’m doing the iTalki 2015 Language Challenge right now and I think they have the best system for this online).  Let me know what you think in the comments or by contacting me.



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