iTalki Challenge Update (and Tips!)

stanford blatch

Stanford: How can you not have a shrink? This is Manhattan. Even the shrinks have shrinks. I have three.
Carrie: No, you don’t.
Stanford: Yes, one for when I want to be cuddled, one for when I want tough love and one for when I want to look at a beautiful man.
Carrie: That’s sick!
Stanford: Which is why I see the other two.

Having upped my number of tutors from one to six — I keep thinking of this moment from Sex and the City. Different tutors offer different advantages. My favorite has always been female tutors around my age with whom I can just talk, talk, talk about pop culture and boy problems with. They offer corrections and answer questions — but mostly allow me to get comfortable speaking French without fear.

One of my new tutors though, offered a little more structure and discipline. In our lesson he provided this article about the spelling reform changes that have been enacted by the Académie française, and I read out loud while he corrected my pronunciation. He explained that the corrections may seem nit-picky — but only because I had a good accent to begin with and that these were the type of changes needed to get me speaking at higher level. It was intimidating but incredibly productive.

That said, I wanted to share a few other observations I’ve had during the iTalki challenge in hopes that I’ll be able to reference this should I re-attempt next year, or to help anyone else interested in participating.

How to Succeed in the iTalki Challenge:

  1. Budget: I’ve found most informal tutors run an average of $10 per hour. I never thought twice about this when I was taking a lesson once or twice per month, but the iTalki challenge is 10 – 30 hours meaning you’ll be blowing $100 – $300. YIKES! Sure, you can try and find cheaper tutors who charge less than that average (my tough love tutor was only $7 per hour) but they have limited availability. I hope in future challenges iTalki lowers the hours required for each level to encourage wider participation — but for now, I made it a priority and set money aside in advance.
  2. Schedule Ahead of Time: This. Is. Key. Booking on iTalki is far from instantaneous. You do a search for tutors, watch their introductory videos, decide who you jam with, go to book with them, discover they have no availability, go back to your search, watch more videos, select a new tutor, discover they have availability at 6 am your time, decide you can suck it up, submit your lesson request — and after all that!? You have to wait for the tutor to confirm (and that’s if they confirm).With a tight budget scheduling becomes even more important as your iTalki credits are put on hold anytime your reserve a lesson and not returned until your tutor declines or 48 hours has passed without a response. When you’re trying to cram in multiple lessons a week — it is imperative that you book early! And that you…
  3. Be Prepared for Cancellations: Because sometimes no matter how meticulously you plan — things won’t go your way. I mentioned I have 6 tutors earlier. Really though, it’s that I’ve attempted to schedule with 6 tutors. To date, I’ve only completed lessons with 3 different tutors. One of them I had to cancel and reschedule, only to have her cancel on our new date, to reschedule again, have her never confirm and finally just have my pending credits returned to me. Lesson? Don’t take your requested lessons for granted! I have two more pending requests with new teachers and if they don’t accept, I’m prepared to do lessons every day to complete this challenge so help me god.
  4. Review: This may be a no brainer for some people, but frankly, I’ve been pretty bad at reviewing after my lessons are over. I end lessons feeling accomplished for speaking French for an hour, but without sitting down later in the day to review my notes and vocabulary, I’m not getting as much out of the challenge as I could be. And having just shared what an investment in my time and money it’s been — it really doesn’t make sense to not get every bit of worth out of each session.

  5. Be Open: To trying different kinds of tutors. To trying tutors from different places. To waking up early (very early). To talking about different subjects. To trying new methods. The real thing you take away from the Challenge, is not this grammar tip or that pronunciation — it’s knowing that for one month your prioritized all of your efforts and resources to expanding your world by learning a new language.

Progress: 3.75/10 hours Completed
Time Left: 15 Days (!!!)

If you’re attempting the iTalki Challenge — I would love to hear your experience and tips!

Bonne chance à tous!


Speed Date Speaking Practice

First off, a quick update on the iTalki challenge. I’m now 2.75 hours in with 7.25 hours to go! Yikes! Ten hours sounded like such a small amount but with two cancelled lessons last week, I’ll have to complete 2.5 hours of practice every week to complete on time. Considering my former italki schedule was one lesson every other week at most — this is a real game changer.

One great thing about this challenge is that it’s forced me to venture outside my comfort zone and seek out new teachers. I loved the first tutor I tried on iTalki and have since only booked with her — but as scheduling overseas chats multiple times a week can be a real pain, I’ve opened up to trying new tutors and am finding it only helps to have a variety of native speakers to practice with.

But that wasn’t the only way I manned up in my French studies! A few weeks ago I attended Speak Easy, a language exchange hosted by French Morning at the Alliance Française de Los Angeles.


The event worked like this: an even number of French native speakers and English speakers reserved places to attend. French native speakers sat on one side of a long table, and English native speakers on the other. Our host moderated the time and allowed seven minutes of speaking in French followed by seven minutes of speaking only in English before switching partners and starting over again.

I was sure that it would be impossible to find an even number of native French speakers to try their patience at a bunch of Americans bumbling in French, but alas! It was a fun mix of young and old, French and American — all very helpful and patient. All in all, I spoke with four people one-on-one and would attend again in a heartbeat! It was so gratifying to find myself in real conversations with real French people in real life.

A tip if you plan on attending an event like this: bring business cards. Seriously, you may never have an opportunity to make this many French friends in your city again. If you don’t have real business cards, do as I did and make up a handful of scrappy ones on printer paper:


They might look cheap compared to the nice business cards I received in return — but I was glad to have something to pass off to people in the hopes of meeting up again, or even to have something to write down recommended books or movies we discussed.

Have you attended a language exchange? Have any to recommend? Comment below!

À la prochaine,

A Language Learning Fail

Bonjour, mes amis! J’ai trouvé cette vidéo courte des Américains qui ont utilisé Duolingo pour apprendre le français. Comme vous verrez, sans la consistance c’était un peu inutile. Beaucoup de gens dans cette vidéo dit aussi que le plus efficace mode de améliorer était en conversation. Alors, c’est un bon rappel pour moi de continuer avec mon tutor sur iTalki.

J’espère que vous aimerez cette vidéo, et que votre apprentissage est plus réussi que le leur.

Hello, my friends! I found this short video of Americans who used Duolingo to learn French. As you will see, without consistency it was somewhat useless. Many people in the video also say that the most effective way of improving was in conversation. So, it’s a good reminder for me to continue with my tutor on iTalki.

I hope that you will like this video and that your learning is more successful than theirs.

À bientôt!

P.S. How’d I do?

Translation of the Day: Charlotte’s Web

Salut mes amis!

I am now on Week 2, Day 2 of my 12 Week Language Learning Challenge and that means one hour of reading! I would highly recommend “Le Petit Monde de Charlotte” for any early beg-intermediate readers of French out there. As I mentioned previously, there is a lot of farm vocabulary to get used to, but the new vocabulary is repeated often enough that it makes it easy enough to pick up on. (After this book I will never forget that le fumier means “manure” and yet I hope I will never have an occasion that requires me to use it in France…)

The best part about reading children’s literature in French is that it makes stories written for children sound very serious and somber indeed! It’s been a busy day for me but I wanted to share a quick translation from my reading today to show you what I mean..

La Citation:

“C’était vraiment le plus mauvais jour de sa vie. Il ne voyait pas comment il pourrait supporter cette affreuse solitude une minute de plus. L’obscurité noyait tout.” 

My translation:

It was truly the worst day of his life. He couldn’t see how he could bear this terrible solitude for one more minute. Darkness drowned everything.”

Pauvre Wilbur! I mean, I know that it’s a sad passage in English, but in French? That little pig is downright existential.

May your day be better than his, and stay tuned for happier updates from the farm!

À bientôt,


The Struggle Is Real: Conversation Practice on iTalki for the First Time

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“Struggle is the father of all things.” – Heraclitus

Oh là là… A few things! First, I wanted to give you all a look at what the first week of the language learning challenge looked like for me:

Lundi: 30 Minutes of exercises from the Complete French Grammar Workbook followed by 30 minutes of Living Language Audio and Text.
Mardi: 1 Hour reading Le Petit Monde de Charlotte.
Mercredi: 30 Minutes of Duolingo followed by 30 minutes of flashcard input and review on Anki.
Jeudi: Day Off! Briefly reviewed flashcards on Anki.
Vendredi: 30 Minute Composition on iTalki followed by 30 Minutes of Complete French Grammar Workbook.
Samedi: Day Off! Again, quick Anki flashcard review.
Dimanche: 30 Minute Review/Preparation for 30 Minute Informal Tutoring Session on iTalki.

A ton of materials to check out, and many that I will come back to in another post to review and evaluate. For now, I just want to talk about my first tutoring session on iTalki! First, it was super easy to set up. I really like that you can watch introduction videos for every tutor on the website. I chose by price, but also because my tutor’s profile expressed a focus in conversation as a teaching method. Something I am in dire need of! It was WONDERFUL that the website shows you a tutor’s availability in your own time zone. When it came time for my scheduled lesson, I kind of sat around waiting on Skype for a minute before realizing I should add, and call her. And sure enough! My tutor was there smiling, ready to go, and had me start by introducing myself.

Now, mind you, I had prepped for this. Last night I made a list of topics I could expect to talk about in our first lesson (where I live, what I do for work, what my family is like, places I have traveled to, why I want to study French) and this morning I spent a good 30 minutes reviewing how I’d talk about these topics. Still, when it came time to actually open my mouth and spew out all the lovely and coherent phrases I’d prepared, I totally blanked. “Euhhh… Bonjour, je m’appelle Zena. J’ai…. euhhhh… vingt-cinq ans. J’habite à Portland?”

It was like being in my 8th grade French class all over again.

Vraiment pathétique.

It got a little better as we talked more in our half hour session, but honestly, not by much. I realized that while I may have covered other tenses long ago, that understanding how to form them in my review books now, does not mean I have any grasp of them in conversation. I was lucky to use even the passé composé and imparfait correctly. So, so humbling. 

Still, the most surprising part of today’s session is how I felt afterwards. I had been so nervous to speak and knew that I was going to make a mess of it and have to face exactly how far I have to go, but even after butchering the language for 30 minutes, I felt very happy and proud to have taken the first step in becoming a better French language speaker and was not ashamed or embarrassed, but rather, incredibly motivated and excited to improve.

I went for a 4 mile run later in the day and thought about how difficult it used to be to run even one mile. A good reminder that being bad at something doesn’t mean you’ll always be bad at it. Dedication and consistency go a long, long way.

When I got home I got in the bath and put on The French Minister (on Netflix) and thought this quote from the movie was the perfect expression of this week’s experience. And if I were Heraclitus, I’d probably add that struggle is the father of all things worth doing.

Struggle on, people!

À bientôt,


12 Week Language Learning Challenge

12 Week Challenge

For years and years I thought I hated any and all forms of working out. Then somehow I decided I wanted to give running a try. It did not come easily to me. I huffed and puffed and ran slower than any little old lady you’ve ever seen, but I made it through a 12 week training program for a 5k, and then again for a 10k. In a few days, I’ll be starting a 12 week training for my first half-marathon.

Thinking about how well working on a set schedule has worked for me with running, I thought I’d go ahead and make one for language learning. The one above is what I personally aspire to stick to, but it would work just as well if you only wanted to do thirty minutes a day or three days a week instead of five. Can’t commit to 12 week? Try six! Work your way up! The point is just to give yourself some sort of varied structure to look forward to and keep you stimulated throughout your language journey.

A few of the tools I’ll be using to implement this plan:

Classes: I’m signed up for an intermediate class at my local Alliance Française but there’s always independent language schools (I took classes at Fluent City in New York and would recommend them), private tutors, and community colleges for an affordable option.

Reading: I always liked the idea of reading in French but was off-put the second I actually opened a copy of a French novel. The solution? CHILDREN’S BOOKS! I like to pick up a few picture books from the library while also working my way through a small chapter book. Right now I’m reading Charlotte’s Web, or “Le Petit Monde du Charlotte,” by E.B. White. I still have to stop and look up words all the time but they’re mostly farm words so I don’t feel too bad about it. Other authors I’ve got my sights set on are Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. So they’re not exactly French… but with Amazon it’s easy to find used copies of translations and personally, I find it helpful to read books I am familiar with but don’t remember word for word.

Conversation & Writing: Hellloooo iTalki! I first heard about this website from The Iceberg Project and have been poking around on it all week. Once you set up a profile you can post writing and have it corrected by native speakers, ask questions about vocabulary or grammar, and set up Skype dates with language exchange partners and tutors. I posted a paragraph two night ago and by the next morning there were already two different corrected versions for me to see my mistakes! I’ve put in a request for my first paid one-on-one conversation tutoring and will report back on how it goes. So far it seems like a really great resource.

It’s also worth looking for conversation meet-ups in your city! I was surprised there were so many French ones in Portland. If your google search comes up empty, you can always check on Meetup.

Listening: Someone mentioned to me that I should start listening to French Radio and it has made my commute to and from work soooo much more fun. I’ve been using the French Radio app which also has German and Italian counterparts, but I’m sure there are more for other languages.

Alright! Hope this was of some help. I would love to hear from anyone who gives this a try and will be checking back in frequently myself.

À plus tard!