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One of the best tools available to us nowadays to help us learn a language is to get on Skype/Google+/Facetime or any VoIP tool and chat to a native speaker.
The pros are many. It doesn’t require travel. Through many sites it’s cheaper than in-person lessons, and it usually has way more options than you would find in your home town.
Because of this, I’ve been doing a “Skype Series” of articles to help people get the best out of their online lessons. So far we’ve covered
- How to find the right teacher for online lessons, and
- How to prepare for your first online language lesson
Today I want to talk about what tools you can use during your online lessons that wouldn’t work easily in-person, and how you can get the absolute best out of your time on Skype with your teacher.
But first, let's cover something interesting that comes from all this: why online lessons can actually be better.
Advantages of using technology
I’ve already argued several times why online language lessons are just as good as in-person ones, or even as good as than travelling to the country, but there are some things that you can do better digitally than in “meat world”.
- Online, you can decide whether you’d like to see the teacher or not. If you’re having a bad hair day, or if you can’t stand the idea of someone seeing you struggling as a beginner, just don’t activate your webcam and make it audio only. Easy. This is especially useful for shy or introverted language learners!
- Your computer and your home is a familiar environment. This is absolutely key for people who are afraid of getting into language learning. It’s not just speaking another language, but sometimes just the place you do it in that can create bad associations.
- It's way easier to avoid excuses. If it's raining, or if there is a public transport strike, or if your dog is just really cuddly that day and you can't bear to part, then you may be tempted to skip your class, “just this once”. The only good excuse for missing an online class is if the Internet goes down!
- While you're speaking online, you can have a tab (or several!) open on your computer to a dictionary or translator that will help you speak and keep the conversation flowing, and you can use it without distracting your teacher. This “cheating” is something I do the first first times I try to speak, but I do it in such a way that it is less distracting and embarrassing than using dead-tree dictionaries would be in person.
- You can record your Skype lesson using software for personal use to review later, and the option is included by default in some software. Recording an in-person class is more cumbersome, or requires buying special equipment. Plus your teacher may become extremely distracted by the camera in his/her face.
- And, you can use a host of cool digital tools that I’ll describe below…
Now that I learn my languages almost exclusively online, I've improved my technique and have found some cool ways to make the experience even more rewarding and useful for me as a student.
Live correction with Google Docs
In-person classes are indeed great for getting spoken practice, but it feels awkward for getting written practice. You are either writing in silence, or waiting for your teacher to read in silence. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more comfortable typing than I am writing. So if I'm practising in-person, should I bring a laptop and then hand it to my teacher for correction? It’s sloppy.
One alternative is to write in your free-time and then hand it to your teacher. But I'm personally terrible with homework, so I found a way to improve my writing skills, while getting correction and not wasting class time.
I get live correction via Google Docs.
The way this works is that you and your teacher both view the same document and can both make changes to it, and those changes can be viewed in real time. If you want to get your mistakes corrected immediately as you write, you can do this, but what some of my teachers do is let me type and they will have another page open, or another document open, and they will type out corrections and explanations in real time as they see my mistakes.
Usually for this part, I turn off the audio/video feed and focus on writing, and then when I finish a section I get back on the call and my teacher immediately brings me through his/her corrections without needing me to wait while they read, since they were reading as I typed.
Another great use of Google Docs is that I will be talking to my teacher, and they will be typing what I say, but marking mistakes or commenting on them.
This is very simple, but the benefit is that they are still speaking to me naturally without saying any corrections, and yet they can still visually correct me. I have found this to be an extremely effective way to get feedback without interrupting the flow of the conversation.
Skype and many VoIP programs have an option to share your screen, or to view the screen of your teacher on your computer. This is a great simulation of reading a book together, and is very useful if they have the book or their personal notes scanned.
The software that my German teacher uses instead of Skype is Webex, that lets you share the screen and add annotations. This emulates actually writing into the book, if it’s not in an editable format like PDF. It's paid software, but only for the teacher, not for the student.
My teacher also shares files like audio within the program, which is more convenient than downloading them as you would from the Skype file share option.
I would also get my entire class (visual, audio, file attachments) emailed to me at the end of the class.
Get out of the classroom – virtually
Once one of my teachers on Skype had a very unique idea and took his smartphone with him to a festival, found a good wifi signal and I got to see and hear people dancing and singing.
These “day trips” are easier than you think, and just as effective as they would be in person. My teacher has also had me give a tour of my home in the target language, and at times if their friend pops in, instead of it being a nuisance, they've actually invited them to join in on the chat and give me practice with another native speaker!
Online video/audio calls are evolving all the time. These kind of cool tricks like being able to move around with your smartphone and setting up group calls were much harder or impossible years ago when the likes of Skype were in their infancy.
I'm excited to see developments that allow us to learn at a distance even easier, bringing teachers and students together and bridging the gap so that language learning is open to everyone!