Working with a Language Mentor: Tips and Tricks

So You Found a Great Mentor…Now What? 

When working with your language mentor, it’s important to remember that you and your mentor are individuals. What works for you might not work for someone else (and vice versa), and each mentor-mentee relationship is different. With that being said, there are a few tips and tricks that can help in every situation! As you read through the advice below, remember that none of it is set in stone-rather, these tips are intended to act as guideposts, giving you a general idea of how to prepare to have a successful and productive language learning experience with a language mentor.

  1. Come in ready to collaborate. A language mentor is different than a friend that might speak the language, but so too is a language mentor different than a traditional instructor. Finding the balance between those roles requires collaboration, something that can only be achieved through honesty and respect. While you should feel empowered to take control of your own learning, remember that there is often much to be learned by sitting back and listening. To that end, be willing to try out you mentor’s suggestions, take their correction as a gift not a criticism, and try and move past the hierarchical or oppositional frameworks that can sometimes accompany traditional language learning.
  2. Have a vision for what you want to accomplish each session. As you get more comfortable with your language mentor, it might be tempting to approach your sessions as an informal conversation. While these types of relaxed discussions can be beneficial to language learning (and enjoyable in general), it is important to remember that targeted practice will pay off in the long run. Preparing for each session, whether by drafting an outline, finding target language materials, or coming in with specific questions you might have. While this process can feel arduous at times, the efficiency that comes with preparation is hard to beat. At the same time, be careful not to become too rigid. You want to stay on task during your meetings, but digressions, asides, and anecdotes can be invaluable opportunities to expand your language skills while building your relationship with your mentor.
  3. Remember, learning a language is a privilege. No matter how amazing your language mentor is or how much progress you feel like you’re making towards your goals, there will come a time when you feel exhausted or defeated. It can be challenging to show up to session after session motivated and excited to practice your language. Those feelings are 100% valid; the grind of working towards fluency with a language mentor gets to everyone. What matters most here is perspective; the opportunity to learn a language is life changing. It transforms your outlook, builds connections, and revolutionizes the way that you exist in and with the world around you. When times get tough, it’s helpful to think about the wonders of learning a language-those small moments that make everything worthwhile, and those larger moments that seemed impossibly far off when you were just starting out. In my opinion, this attitude allows everything else to fall into place; being grateful for the opportunity to learn a language will cause you to prepare for you sessions, inspire you to treat your mentor with respect and openness, and reduce the feeling of hopelessness and exhaustion that the day-to-day grind of self-instructional language learning.

Ultimately, these suggestions are just that: suggestions. Take the time to reflect on your learning styles, your goals, and your personality. Tailoring your sessions to fit your needs (and the needs of your language mentor) is the best way to ensure a happy and productive relationship. Remember, we all have crucial reasons to learn our chosen language: keep yours in mind as you go through the process of working with you language mentor.

Personally, I’ve tried to structure my meetings with my language mentor to correspond to the goals I set for myself in my ISP. While I try to add variety to my sessions, these are some standard activities that have composed the backbone of my meetings with my language mentor:


ISP Goal: I will be able to speak on everyday things unrelated to the themes that I’ve studied on the past (in other words, I want to increase my vocabulary.

  • To work towards this goal, my mentor and I have been intentional about deciding on vocabulary lists together. These target words then play into our discussions. One specific activity we’ve done is to define each word at the beginning of our sessions. By defining the term in Hmong, I not only increase my comprehension and retention of the vocabulary word itself but improve my general vocabulary by working through the act of defining these new terms.

ISP Goal: I will be able to carry on sustained conversations about significant events, both current and historical (with a specific focus on preparing myself to conduct oral history research).

  • In order reach this goal, my mentor and I have connected our sessions to other activities, most notably my reading activities centered on Haiv Hmoob Liv Xwm and my listening activities focused on the radio station Zeem Muag. To engage with these subjects, my mentor and I will have a debate on a topic taken from each source. So, for example, when Zeem Muag had two callers argue about whether the future of the Hmong rested in agriculture or in business, we spent a good chunk of time having the debate on our own. By preparing a discussion question or two prior to our sessions, I also find that I’m able to get in the right headspace and make our time together as productive and efficient as possible.

ISP Goal: I will be able to lead Q&A sessions related to educational topics, including preparing written resources. 

  • Although it is difficult to replicate the volatility of a true Q&A session, my mentor and I have used roleplay exercises to try and achieve this goal. Often times, this will take the form of my mentor asking me a series of questions, encouraging me to expand on my answers by offering additional details. When I find an idea, word, or phrase that I’m unable to articulate correctly, we will pause for correction. This method has been extremely productive, as it has allowed me to learn colloquial phrases, slang terms, and expressive language that might otherwise slip through the cracks of my language learning process.


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Resources for Self-Instructional Learners of Less Commonly Taught Languages Copyright © by University of Wisconsin-Madison Students in African 671 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.