Tutors: The key to picking up a language abroad

Find a nice language teacher for your next trip
Find a nice language teacher for your next trip

I just realized that I have used a language-learning technique multiple times without realizing it. When I travel to another country, I get a language tutor. That way I get some directed learning before I go out to speak to the people. As a result, I have advanced quickly in my language while abroad.

With a tutor you’ll be forced to speak the language. Some people I know go to a country with the hope of “picking up” the language. Since they may work or socialize with people who don’t speak the language, they actually lack opportunities to speak. A tutor makes sure that you speak every lesson.

Moreover, speaking with the tutor will give you substantial language content, that emboldens you to converse with other native speakers. For example, my Arabic tutor in Marrakech gave me an assignment to go to the local wholesale food market, where farmers bring their food to sell to local shops, so I had to speak to people there. My Ukrainian tutor gave me great colloquial phrases that I could use with my host family and classmates.

I have found tutors on Find my Favorite Teacher back in 2014, but in looking again for tutors, I see a lot more resources out there. I invite you to Google your language and “private tutor” to see who you can find in-country.

Here are my experiences with getting tutoring in-country.


When I was a student in Kiev, Ukraine, I had studied Russian in high school and college for four years, but I wanted to learn Ukrainian. So I lived with a Ukrainian-speaking family and took private lessons.

The combination worked really well. The teacher challenged me to speak, and would give me work to do based on my weaknesses. She spoke only Ukrainian, so if I didn’t understand what she said, she had a broad imagination and nerves of steel so that she could find limitless ways to express the same idea with different words.


After college I lived in Marrakech, Morocco, for nine months, and I found an Arabic tutor. I didn’t know any Arabic whatsoever, and Morocco offers the twin problems of learning Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), for reading and for media, and the local dialect, for speaking with and understanding people. I lived with a local family, so I was surrounded by local dialect all day.

My teacher focused on MSA, but it was really hard without a formal grammar and little practice. As I learned more dialect, my tutor focused more on that speech variety and helped make my speech more sophisticated, even giving me exercises to do. He used that to then build some more MSA practice on top.


A couple years ago I took a business trip to Lisbon, Portugal, and I lined up before I left private lessons for every day. That way, I spoke a minimum of 90 min of Portuguese each day.

While the language at work was English, I managed conversations in Portuguese each day. I also talked with people on the street, asking for directions when I was lost, for example, and talking with people in a restaurant.


I’m going to be visiting the Basque Country this summer. Right now I’m looking for a tutor there who can teach me Basque. Even though I won’t be staying for very long, I love taking the opportunity to turn a vacation into a way to study languages.

Lost opportunities

As I write this, I think of lost opportunities. I used to visit my friends in Barcelona fairly often. During the day I would teach myself Spanish while they were in school and at work, but with a tutor I would have learned a lot faster. In addition, I never learned Catalonian, which a tutor could have taught me.

When I worked for a month in Lebanon, I already knew Arabic at a conversational level. Nevertheless, I could have taken lessons in local dialect or in MSA, even if just a couple days per week. Then I would have improved even faster for my conversations with students.

Are you traveling in the future? Have you set up language-learning lessons?

Photo credit: George Eastman House via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions


2 thoughts on “Tutors: The key to picking up a language abroad

  1. Pingback: Language hacking ≠ language love – Loving Language

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