I have visited Germany a few times in the last several years and found myself frustrated by my lack of ability to communicate. I flippantly suggested to friends that the next time I go to Germany I'll be speaking German. This was perhaps an unwise promise to make, but I'd rather try something new than heap one more regret on my already-teetering pile of unfinished ambitions.

I have just taken a serious step to make it happen.

Not from the Duolingo app on my phone or the Rosetta Stone on my laptop. These are well-designed, actively marketed and widely accepted. They are even fun.

And they are not for me.

I blame my computer, which has all the old-world charm of an Apple store. I needed a real, warm-blooded teacher. But how does a busy person with a tyrannical frequent flyer card attend language lessons?

It took a random encounter with a young person who teaches trombone to help find the answer. He teaches, you see, via Skype. If the internet can teach a funny brass instrument, can it also furnish a private language tutor?

Yes! It turns out that there are many on-line services who will qualify teachers, introduce them to prospective students, and administer payments. And there is an active subculture of language teachers worldwide who appear to be making a living via video chat.

The Subculture

I made inquiries using. italki.com and verbalplanet.com, then ultimately chose a tutor using Preply.com. Each of these services follow essentially the same drill: you establish an account; introduce yourself to a prospective teacher or two, and pay for an introductory lesson.

The first thing you find is that a lot of people are interested in language study. Or, putting it another way, people are interested in a lot of languages. I saw offerings in Albanian--and Urdu.

The second is that there are a lot of teachers. How do you choose? You'll be asked to specify nationality, time zone and education level. Then you can sort using age, gender or any areas of specialization--for instance, some teachers work well with children, or with groups.

In general, a teacher with formal qualifications costs more than others offering conversation services. The question of nationality is surprisingly important. In German here are many non-natives who line up to teach. Since the question was asked, I simply specified that I'd rather have a native speaker than, say, a Romanian who is fluent in German.

First lesson

I chose a young lady (we will call her Nina) who is a trained German teacher. We corresponded via the app, and established a time to meet. Since I am in New York and she is in Europe, this is usually a difference of 6 hours. (When I travel to the west coast, it is a difference of a challenging 9 hours). On the morning of my first lesson, I set the alarm for an extra-early hour, armed myself with extra-strong coffee and connected via Skype. We chatted in English for a while, then Nina sent a worksheet to introduce simple phrases.

We went over the alphabet. And then colors. Numbers. A couple of simple verbs. Studieren. To study. Kaufen. To buy. The hour flew, and I found myself believing that someday I will have a congenial conversation over schnitzel in Schwabing or eis in Innsbruck.

Language and Personal Growth

To me, speaking another language is one of life's great pleasures. It doesn't matter if you've just learned your first word or if you're fluent--in both cases, there is a mystical language-pleasure center in the brain which lights up with delight.

But starting out, a tiny part of you turns into a child again. You struggle to express yourself but that struggle, in a real sense, renews the person. So remember that, while you create new neural connections inside the brain, you'll also avoid one of life's great regrets. And you'll be on a road toward more talking, laughing and learning.

Published on: Feb 10, 2017