Category Archives: Inspiration: Find the fire, and stoke it

The Underpriced Refinement Strategy: Private Tutoring

The Underpriced Refinement Strategy: Private Tutoring
The Underpriced Refinement Strategy: Private Tutoring

“Do you realise I’m speaking to you *almost* as fast as I speak to a French person?”

I was a bit stunned by this question: I hadn’t.  For me, I was trying just as hard, and making as many mistakes, as the previous 3 times I’d met with my French tutor.  After he asked me that question, it sunk in: I was making some good progress.

Did I still make lots of grammar mistakes?  Oh yes.  Wrong gender endings, and a bunch of other things that will just take some time to perfect?  You bet.  Still, I was ecstatic to be listening at *almost* a normal rate in French, for a whole hour.  The humungous coffee in front of me also helped.


I searched for a private tutor because I wasn’t making progress as fast as I wanted.  I’d been to all my classes, been a good teacher’s pet and done my homework, and listen to podcasts quite often, but I wasn’t feeling like I could have a good conversation yet.  I’ve had private tutors in the past (for Spanish and Japanese) and they worked wonders.

Hang on.. aren’t private tutors expensive?

They can be.  Many aren’t.  For $20 an hour, I get to enjoy great coffee with a genuine Frenchman who is about my age, is patient (thankfully) and speaks fluent French (funny about that).  $20 an hour?  At once per week, or even once per fortnight, that’s nothing to pay for the results you’ll get.

Does it really help?

Absolutely.  Rather than focusing on grammar and vocab like one does in classes, you bring any specific questions you have, and spend the rest of the time talking about whatever you want: the weather, your pets, or what you did on the weekend.  That’s the real way to learn a language, and makes you feel like you’re making great progress because you’re having a real conversation.


How to do it

  1. Think about who you know.  Is there anyone who’d be willing to chat with you for an hour for the price of a beer or a coffee?  A lot of people know someone who speaks the language.  If someone asked you to talk to them for one hour in English in exchange for a free drink, would you do it? I would. And I have.  It’s a win-win.
  2. If you don’t know anyone, start with websites like (AU and UK), (US) or (AU).  You’ll find loads of native speakers looking to make a few extra dollars in exchange for speaking with you.  An email or phone call, and you’ll be sitting in a cafe speaking French/Spanish/Chinese/whatever language you want.

What to look for

These are the things I have found to work best with private tutors:

  • They’re not jacks-of-all-trades.  I’ve seen people advertising tutoring for beginners’ French, beginners’ Spanish, Chemistry, Science, and on and on.  These are not the kind of people you want to tutor you.  Find someone who specialises in your language.
  • They’re not (necessarily) a teacher.  I like native speakers who aren’t teachers, and who have studied a language before.  Why?  I learn enough grammar in class, so I don’t want to focus on it over coffee.  I do, however, want someone who knows what a verb is, and who can explain basic questions I have.  I don’t need a super-qualified teacher who’s going to lay out a specific lesson plan for me, because I get that in my classes anyway.  Super-qualified people also tend to have higher prices.

Good example:  My current French tutor is from Paris, has just moved here with his partner, and charges $20 per hour where we spend the whole time speaking in French.  He’s studied English and speaks very well, so he knows what “past tense” and “conjugation” mean.  He’s not a professional teacher, so he doesn’t nitpick when I make mistakes – but he does point them out so I can learn from them.  He’s also open to teaching me naughty words, which I then use to surprise other French speakers and get myself in trouble with teachers.

Now that I’ve ‘sold’ the concept of private tutoring, will you consider one for your own target language?

I hope you do.  It’s cheap, easy, and fun.  Oh, and you’ll be kicking a** at your language in no time.


Question: What’s your experience with private tutors and how to get the best out of them?  Would love to hear in the comments.

Photo Credit: Fornal


If you liked this post, you might like My Book, which is full of lots more techniques to help you conquer your foreign language.  If you’ve read it, I’d be forever grateful if you could take a minute to write an Amazon review.  In any case, thanks for reading!

Granada’s Alhambra: Video Tour (In Spanish w/subtitles) – Southern Spain

Granada’s Alhambra: Video Tour (In Spanish w/subtitles) – Southern Spain
Granada’s Alhambra:  Video Tour (In Spanish w/subtitles) – Southern Spain

What do Sultans, Queens, Christopher Columbus and camera-wielding tourists all have in common?  Standing in awe of Granada’s gem of Moorish architecture:  The Alhambra.

I’d wanted to visit for the last 6 years, and on a perfect sunny day in November, ticket in hand, I climbed the short tree-laiden path to the entrance.  What follows is a short (~3 minutes) video tour, in Spanish with English subtitles, of two parts of the immense fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the south of Spain.


Part 1:  Of COURSE I need a summer house next to my palace (Generalife, summer house, 51 secs)

Huge palace, equipped with gardens, not quite enough?  I didn’t think so.  Let’s build a gorgeous summer house a few minutes’ walk away, shall we?

The immense summer house and accompanying gardens:  Generalife (see video below).


(Can’t see the video?  –> Click here)


Part 2:  The Nasarid Palaces (1 min 51 secs)

Wonderfully decorated, frequently visited and the most important spot in the Alhambra to visit (you even have to go in at a specific, regimented time), the palaces are beautiful.  Only a small-ish section of the palaces are accessible to the general public, but this is more than enough to get a taste of what the sultans, queens and sultans who lived here had as their surroundings.  It’s also where Columbus was given the go-ahead to take a trip to India, which resulted in the discovery of the Americas.  See video below.

Can’t see the video?  –> Click here)


As you can see, this isn’t a video tour of the entire complex (it’s a big place!).  If you’d like to see some more photos Read the rest of this entry

How to *really* qualify your language skills

How to *really* qualify your language skills
How to *really* qualify your language skills

Photocredit: kevinbongart

“So, how good is your [French/German/whatever foreign language]?”

Anyone who has studied a language has probably been asked this question.  Sometimes it’s difficult to answer – how good is good?  Can you order a latte?  Manage a project?  Strike up a killer conversation about politics?

Especially if you want to get a job using your foreign language, one excellent way to get a real answer on your concrete skills is to get – wait for it – formally tested.

Hang on… did you just say I should do a formal test?  Isn’t that boring?  Why would I?

Volunteer for a test, willingly?  Even pay a bit extra for it?  Yes, that’s what I’m recommending.  It might not be for everyone, but I think it’s excellent to validate your true language abilities at some point during your learning (how this works is explained further down).  Here’s why you might like to consider it:

  1. It gives you a real idea of your progress.  You have a measurable, standardised way of talking about your level.
  2. It gives prospective employers a concrete idea of your level.  Many companies require applicants to have a certain level of linguistic competence, depending on the role.
  3. It forces you to practice everything you’ve learnt up to that point, reinforcing parts of the language you might have forgotten, or which had slipped out of use.  It’s a great refresher.
  4. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment: motivation to keep kicking a$$ learning that language.  I’ve never published this until now, but, I failed the Japanese test the first time in 2005.  The pass rate was 65%; I achieved somewhere aruond 58%.  I was very disappointed with myself, and wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to pass if I did it again.  Two years later, I studied my butt off, practiced more than I ever had, and smashed my previous score to a pass rate I was very happy with and the best level of Japanese I’d ever had.  It felt great.

Hmm… I’ll think about it, but how is this done?

Most major languages have an internationally recognised test that’s administered centrally, usually in the country where the language originates, or where it’s most widely spoken.  You can book directly with the testing organisation, or through major language schools who work in conjunction with them.  You prepare as much as you can, turn up on the day for the test (2-7 hours, depending on the language and level), and receive the results a few weeks later.

Here are the two I’ve taken.  Keep in mind that a little Googling will help you find similar tests for most languages.

  • The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).  Beginner proficiency = Level 4; Native proficiency = Level 1. (Link to JLPT is here.).
    Level 2 is required by many employers in Japan, as it denotes a high level of fluency in speaking, listening, reading and writing.  I’m currently at Level 2, and hope to attempt Level 1 some day after I have chance to spend more time in Japan.  Having this test on my resume helped me move into a role which allowed me to use Japanese every day.  I was a happy boy.
  • Goethe Institut’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – German.  Range of levels from A1 (Start Deutsch) to C2 (Zentrale Oberstufenprüfung).  (Link to more info is here- note: this points to the Australian version, but Goethe has schools worldwide, and they all use the same framework.)   I’m somewhere in the middle, at B1 (Zertifikat Deutsch).  Passing this exam was a great landmark for me as I find German grammar very challenging, and it got me get into gear with all the preparation I’d been meaning to do for a long time.

Wrap up

If you want to get a clear idea of where you’re at with your language, get some proactive motivation to revise all you’ve learnt, or get a job using your newfound tongue, you might like to look into taking a formally recognsied test.  They’re not as painful as they sound, and you’ll feel great afterwards.

Question: Have you taken any formal tests, or do you have a better approach?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

– Side Note:  I’m travelling at the moment, so it might take a while to get to questions or comments, but I promise I will! Thanks for your understanding. –

Big Ambitions: Conquering Languages, Travel, and Other Mischief

Big Ambitions: Conquering Languages, Travel, and Other Mischief
Big Ambitions:  Conquering Languages, Travel, and Other Mischief

Photo credit: Jollino

Lately, I’m amazed to see what people can accomplish.  Running 50KMs without stopping, walking across the African continent, and visiting Antarctica are three of the biggest adventure goals I’ve seen set lately by the good folks over at The Impossible League.  (See the cat to the left, also, for an ambitious goal-setter.)

This got me thinking about my own goals related to language learning and other areas of life.  Today it’s with some nerves that I share my list of Big Ambitions.  Many of my ambitions relate to languages (surprise!) and travel, but I’ve included personal development goals, too.  I really feel that setting goals in an important part of achievement, and that also goes for language learning.

Here’s a small snapshot:

  • Complete the top level Japanese exam,  JPLT Level 1 (I’m currently a level 2)
  • Maintain German skills to Zertifikat Deutsch level
  • Attend a one-month French learning program in France or Switzerland
  • Learn French to a conversational level
  • Learn one other language fluently by my 30th birthday (2013)
  • Travel to Spain to practice my Spanish and perfect my ‘vosotros’ form (booked for November 2011)
  • Visit every continent (5 down, 2 to go).
  • Write a book (more on this later)

If you’re interested, you can check out my full list of Big Ambitions by clicking here (including the travel ambitions).


Question:  Care to share your own language learning goals, or big ambitions in other areas of life in the comments?


A table full of languages, teaching orphans in Zambia, and reasons why

A table full of languages, teaching orphans in Zambia, and reasons why
A table full of languages, teaching orphans in Zambia, and reasons why

Three nights ago, it felt almost like summer in Melbourne.  It was warm and balmy, and a big bowl of delicious Malaysian Laksa was staring me in the face.  ”Eat me.  Eat me quick.” it said.  Who was I to say no?

How lucky I was:  a table-full of languages

I was surrounded by four fellow French-learners from my Alliance Française class:  to my left, a friend who also speaks German and Chinese, and is moving to Vienna next year to study at university in German (!).  To his left, the only guy in our class who is able to make jokes that are actually funny in French.  Next, my wife, a bilingual who’s adding French to Spanish and English, and lastly, another classmate who already speaks excellent Japanese.  Between us, 6 languages at a Malaysian restaurant.  As a language nerd, I was in language nerd heaven.

Move to Zambia, anyone? – Language Learners tend to do amazing things

These are the kind of people you tend to meet in language courses.  Over the past 12 years or so, I’ve attended enough language classes to make most people curl up into the foetal position and ask ‘why, oh why?’.  One reason is that the people I meet in the classes are unique and amazing.  Meet these two:

“Yeah, I just thought it would be fun to pack up and go and teach English to orphans in Zambia.  Then I travelled through Africa for a while.”  You did what?  A friend from my French class told me this last week.  Astounding.  Now that’s what I call using your language skills as a force for good.

Australian-born former German classmate: “My (less than 1 year old) daughter is saying some words in German now.  Hopefully she’ll grow up being bilingual.”.   He reads to her often in German.  Consider for a moment: most bilinguals grow up either as having native-speaking parents and being introduced (or forced) into learning, or by learning of their own prerogative.  This friend, however, has taken it upon himself to teach his daughter his (excellent) German from birth.  As a non-native speaker, he is giving his daughter the chance to grow up bilingual; a chance he didn’t have himself.  It’s amazing.

The anonymous reasons why

Above are just two examples.  Then there are the thousands of other language wizards who learn a new language to ‘fit in’, travel the world, move countries, get closer to their family, do business, enjoy art, watch movies, read poetry, or impress their partner.  I’m constantly amazed at the variety of people that are interested in foreign tongues and cultures.

My reason(s)

This tricky, because I could write much more than you’d want to read.  I learned Japanese partly because I was forced to in the beginning.  Then I felt a fire for it and couldn’t stop.  I’ll confess I learnt German partly due to the creamy, delicious wheat beer.  (Ok, perhaps more than partly.).  I learnt Spanish to get closer to my wife (and partly to impress her when she was my girlfriend!) and be able to speak to her family.

And French?  Well, I’m just studying French because I think it sounds wonderful.  I once asked a French-Canadian friend to say “I’m going to kill you with an axe” in French… it still sounded beautiful.  If that’s not evidence of a nice language, I don’t know what is.

Question:  How about you?  What’s your motivation for learning, and have you met any inspiring people along the way?  I’d love to hear your comments below.


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Photo credit: residentevil_stars2001

Superstars and rockers: people I respect and admire for their language skills

Superstars and rockers: people I respect and admire for their language skills

One day, I hated watering my parents’ garden.  The next day, I liked it a lot, for one simple reason:  on the second day, I was listening to a podcast about Spanish, and it inspired me.  It wasn’t so much the garden-watering that I liked, it was the earphones talking about languages that distracted me from said watering.

I think finding inspiring people and latching on to them is one of the most important parts of learning a language.  I’m lucky to have stumbled across a few superstars.  Here are three of them.

1.  JP Villanueva

JP speaks 27 languages (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration, but he speaks Spanish, French, Tagalog, Mandarin and Italian at the very least, that I know), and is a superb teacher.  Without him, I don’t think I would have been able to learn Spanish, and that isn’t an exaggeration.  He is a former host of the wonderful Spanishpod shows, and podcaster extraordinaire.  I used to listen to him every day for a couple of years, and now I read his blog regularly and am fortunate to have had healthy loads of encouragement from him when I parked my full-time IT career to study linguistics.  JP is one of a handful of people who can make learning languages extremely fun, and explain complex concepts with examples that actually make sense.   (I challenge anyone else to try and break down the pluperfect tense using a crime series.).  I borrowed – read ‘shamelessly stole’ – several of his great techniques when I started teaching beginners’ Spanish.

At the moment, he’s launching his own wave of new podcasts.  I defy anyone to listen to them without learning something fun!

(Note:  Spanishpod was great when JP was there, but I wouldn’t recommend it now.  They’ve stopped producing new content. Feel free to check out some of their old shows – they were excellent – but I wouldn’t recommend a paid subscription.  I’ll leave that in your hands.)

2.  Ben Curtis and Marina Diez

Ben and Marina live in Spain, and are the spectacular hosts and producers of the Notes In Spanish podcasts.  Apart from providing 172 free podcasts (172!) for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners, they are just so positive all the time that it’s contagious.  They also do regular topical podcasts such as “La Crisis”, which was an extremely interesting take on the crisis from a European point of view.

Most importantly, Read the rest of this entry