Russian Mission: My first time as an iTalki student

This is my recount of finally biting the bullet and finishing my first iTalki session as a student. It’s rather long, but I've attempted to share my experience as honestly as possible and sprinkled a bit of humour in there. I hope you enjoy!

Ever since I started my Russian project I knew I had to get help at some point, at least semi-professional help. I'm not a natural speak from day 1 person and on top of that Russian was my first self-taught language. I had read experiences from other language bloggers saying that getting a tutor was the best way to accelerate the learning process. But I was nervous about it.

Note: During the post I make a lot of references to iTalki – a tutoring platform that connects students and teachers of hundreds of languages at very affordable prices. 

For more information on the site and how it works, please read my full italki review.

This is my recount of finally biting the bullet and finishing my first iTalki session as a student.

Realising I needed help

Ever since I started my Russian project I knew I had to get help at some point, at least semi-professional help.

I'm not a natural speak from day 1 person and on top of that Russian was my first self-taught language. I had read experiences from other language bloggers saying that getting a tutor was the best way to accelerate the learning process. But I was nervous about it.

When I befriended a Russian girl and we started Skyping, quite early in my progress, it was definitely helpful to both my pronunciation and knowledge of the language. But I always felt bad because she didn't sign up to be my tutor.

Russians are incredibly friendly people I've discovered, so they will not say no to anything you ask them. But I was feeling bad and the more our friendship developed the more distance I took from Skype. She was also extremely busy, so it worked out both ways.

I had also hit a bit of a bump in the road, I felt like I was missing tons of words and I could barely string together sentences. It’s the infamous “runner’s wall” where you have depleted all the stored energy, and the body has to transition into using fat for energy, which is a much slower process.

This means that you hit this point in a run (or anything really) where you just cant seem to move on. This is the most important point that you must persevere.

I didn't handle the language learner’s wall particularly well. I took a break from the studies and only casually came back to it. Then I suddenly realised that I had been learning the language for over 6 months. Something had to happen.

I decided to hire an iTalki teacher, because I felt that person could provide me with guidance on how to move forward, and also provide me with motivation to study harder outside of the lessons. But I soon ran into another problem.

Finding an online tutor or teacher to work with

Note: After publishing this article I wrote a new one called: How to pick the right language tutor online. Please read that article for more extended advice on what criteria to look for.

For days and possibly weeks I would look through iTalki tutors, read their feedback, watch their videos and so on. I had extremely high requirements for my teacher, because of my brief background in tutoring I knew what a good teacher could be capable of. I decided to search for women, because I've always found them to be better teachers for me. The next requirement was a high command of the English language. Although I wanted the lessons to be in Russian it was important for that the teacher could understand my advanced questions and also explain the very difficult grammar. I'm also much more focused on the content, if there isn't a heavy accent to go with it.

Ultimately I found no-one that fit the bill. I browsed hundreds of teachers and in desperation I simply gave up on my search and started sending them messages, asking for how they would approach my case. I felt like this was a bit of a test that could hopefully point me in the right direction.

Out of some 10 sent messages only 2 replied. So this had me thinking, either the rest are so busy actually teaching that they can’t reply to my stupid questions, or they just don’t really care too much. Or they were away, and in which case they were of no use, as I don’t plan far in the future usually.

I gave up again, and you can see how weeks and even months could pass. Then in the Add1Challenge Facebook group I noticed somebody had posted a rave review of a Russian tutor, and relying on her assessment I just booked a lesson out of the blue. Trying to simplify the thought process.

Everything was set and my nervousness was building rapidly, “I know I'm terrible at Russian, what if I can’t say anything?” My emotional brain seemed to say. The rational brain countered this by saying: “You've selected an experienced teacher, she will know that you are a beginner from your message and design the lesson accordingly”

The day of the lesson arrives and I'm pretty nervous now, for unknown reasons. I'm half-wishing that she cancels, so that I don’t have to do it. It’s funny how our minds so desperately want to keep us in our comfort zones, that it wants a cancellation of something that can only improve us to happen.

Funny enough, that was exactly what happened. Due to instability in her country, She had to cease all tutoring activities until further notice. My emotional mind breathed a sigh of relief and went on to interpret this as a sign from above that I shouldn't do tutoring just yet. These arguments easily overpowered the cries of “keep going – just find another tutor!” cries from my rational brain.

I didn't. This was 24th of July.

Again I pushed it off and I did not pursue a Russian teacher for a while. It wasn't until August 9th that I was chatting to a fellow learner, who heartily recommended someone to me. Again going in with blind faith I just booked the lesson for the next day and told her about my level and my desire to become more fluent in spoken Russian. And with no apparent disruptions in America, where she was living, the day soon approached.

Day of the session – my mind is thinking: judgement day

When I woke up on the day I was nervous. I don’t know why. I had a lot of things to do though, as I recorded multiple interviews for upcoming podcast episodes as well as working on some behind-the-scenes stuff that you should be able to see soon. The last interview I was recording ended 1 minute after my tutoring was supposed to start, so I didn’t really have time to worry too much about it.

I hung up on the interview and waited anxiously. Nothing happened. Is she not coming, I thought hoping for another miracle. But no, the Skype status bar changed to writing and my tutor wrote “добрый день!” (Good day!) and my heart skipped a beat. I simply returned the favour with a nervous “hi” and almost instantly the familiar Skype call sound came on and before I knew it, I was in the session.

My tutor started immediately in Russian, no introduction in English, no explanations, no nothing. Just STRAIGHT in. I'm actually quite happy with this approach (after the fact.) And for the next 60 minutes I would speak almost entirely in Russian. It took a few sentences to warm up and lose some of that initial nervousness, but after that the session flowed quite nicely and like I said, almost entirely in Russian.

Her approach is to ask a lot of questions like, where do you live, do you have any brothers or sisters and so on and I would try to answer to the best of my ability. If the answer was correct we would move on, but if it was wrong she would patiently correct me and guide me along the way. Sometimes she would say, this should be in genitive case – what is the genitive for this? Which was an amazing way to do it. I'm really grateful to my language learning friend (Hi Jo!) for recommending me this teacher.

After the session I was absolutely mind-blown. My head was spinning from digging deep for my Russian vocabulary, but I had done it. I had been able to understand almost every single question she fired at me, and although my answers were somewhat rudimentary I managed to make somewhat sense. I made a fair amount of mistakes, but 99% of the time it was related to endings, which I know I need to work on.

I can’t explain the feeling I was having. Adrenaline and endorphins were surging through my body and I was just left with a big fat smile on my face – I’ve actually just spoken Russian for an hour. And the hour FLEW by. I immediately booked a new lesson for next week, keen to go with the flow, and left her a raving review.

I only have two regrets from my iTalki experience:

  1. Why on earth did I not do it sooner
  2. I didn't record the session for later review (or even showing you guys) damn! If I just haven’t been in that interview I might have remembered.

Aftermath and my recommendation to you

During the session she also provided typed vocabulary for me when I didn't know a word or when she said I word I didn't understand. My plan with this is to put it into my own Memrise course and to learn it. I call this the patching method, because you are not learning frequency based vocabulary, but you are learning vocabulary that you would have used in a sentence – if you had known it. That makes it incredibly powerful

I'm on cloud 9, and I'm getting closer to my goal of speaking Russian fluently by the end of the year.

If you are hesitating to get tutoring, don't! Simply jump over to iTalki and get going! Trust me, you won't regret it.

Who was my Russian tutor?


My Russian tutor was Anastasia Skibina, who is currently living in America. I highly recommend her for your Russian tutoring. Go check out her iTalki teacher profile.

Your turn

How was your first experience getting tutoring? Were you as nervous as me?