There is only way to learn to speak a language: speak it, speak it, and speak it some more.
While the easiest way to immerse yourself in a language is to travel – or, better yet, move – to a country where the language is spoken, all is not lost for those of us who can’t do that just yet. Thanks to the wonders of Skype and free websites like italki.com, we can immerse ourselves in any language from the comfort of our living room couches! (Actually, in my case, it’s the dining room table. I still haven’t quite mastered the art of using a laptop on my actual lap.)
If you’re looking to ramp up your language learning, then you might want to consider signing up for italki.
* Please note: this review is very long. I can’t help it. I’m full of words. Believe it or not, I actually cut out a good quarter of each post before I actually publish it. If you don’t like posts with a lot of words – well, you probably won’t like this blog. Sorry.
First of all, it’s important to point out that italki itself isn’t a language program. It won’t teach you grammar, or provide you with video lessons, or offer you with step-by-step how-to-learn-any-language instructions. What it will do is provide you with access to a much more valuable resource: actual, thinking, communicating human beings.
Registration on italki is free. Once you’ve registered, you’ll set up your profile, including which languages you speak and which languages you’re learning. There’s lots of “social stuff” on italki: upvoting, friending/following, discussion threads and so on. While some people might love the social media stuff, I don’t bother much with most of it. My goal is to connect directly with Spanish speakers who can help me, or with French speakers who need my help.
In my opinion, these are the five best ways that italki is helping me learn Spanish:
1. Find a language partner
A language partner is someone who speaks the language that you’re learning, and who is learning the language that you speak. If you click on “Language Partners” at the top of your italki screen, you can search for someone to connect with, being as specific as you like.
Once you have a list of results, you can read people’s profiles and find someone who seems interesting. When I first signed on to italki, I followed people and they followed me back, but nothing ever came of it. My “followers” count went up, so I suppose I might have looked a bit more popular, but it wasn’t actually helping me learn Spanish.
I’m much more specific now. After clicking the “follow” button on someone’s profile, I send them a note requesting that they follow me back, spelling out exactly what I’m looking for. I include time zones in three major Spanish-speaking cities. This might seem a bit too straightforward for some people, but I don’t want to waste lots of back-and-forth time. As lovely as a person might be, if our schedules don’t mesh, then she isn’t the language partner I’m looking for.
Once I connect with a language partner whose schedule matches mine, we set up an initial Skype meeting. From there, we can decide if we would like to meet regularly for practice sessions. So far, I’ve had nothing but good luck with language partners. I meet weekly with five fun, encouraging, friendly women – a different one every weekday.
I use a webcam for all of my language exchanges – I like to see a person when I’m talking to her. I know, though, that some people prefer not to use webcams at all. If you’re not comfortable with video, make that clear from the beginning, and you should be able to find someone to talk to using audio only.
2. Hire a professional teacher or a community tutor
If money is tight, or if you’re happy with your progress, then language partners might more than meet your needs. I wanted to progress more quickly, so I decided to hire a professional teacher to help me learn.
On italki, you can choose between two types of paid lessons: professional lessons and informal tutoring. Teachers offering professional lessons have to have some kind of certification, whereas informal tutors don’t. Teachers are generally more expensive than informal tutors, but many of them are very reasonably priced. Some of them are so inexpensive, in fact, that the language teacher in me feels a bit bad about how low their rates are.
Many teachers and tutors offer trial sessions, lower-priced half-hour sessions for new students. Some of these trial sessions can cost as little as 10 credits, or one dollar. This lets you “sample” a teacher to make sure that your styles and personalities mesh well. Each student is only allowed to take three trial sessions, perhaps to discourage people from taking trials without committing to any teacher. (I personally disagree with the three-trial policy, but it is what it is.)
One great thing about the italki booking system is that there’s no back-and-forth needed. You access the teacher’s schedule, click on an available time, and send a session request. Best of all, the schedule is automatically converted to your time zone, so you don’t even have to figure out what time your session actually starts. I booked two trial sessions, with the idea that I would take two weekly lessons with the teacher that I clicked best with. Then I clicked with both of them. Rather than choosing between them, I decided to do one weekly session with each of them.
Connecting with Skype tutors ended up being one of the best things that I’ve done to speed up my language learning. Between my conversation partners and my tutors, I’m spending a whopping seven hours on Skype every week, five and a half of which are in Spanish. While this might seem like a lot, the time flies by, and I credit Skype conversations for 80% of my progress.
3. Write a notebook entry
The best place to seek out corrections is in your written work. While a patient and encouraging teacher or language teacher will correct you at times when you’re speaking, it would be counterproductive to expect them to correct every single mistake. Too many interruptions would break the flow of conversation, which is the whole point of doing a language exchange.
In a notebook entry, though, you’re laying down your work with the understanding that native speakers will correct it, change it, and point out your mistakes.
Don’t forget to return the favour and try to correct other people’s work as well. There are always notebook entries that go without corrections, which must be very disappointing for the writer. When choosing notebook entries to correct, it’s best to stick to your own language or to a language that you know very well. I’ve seen corrections made by a non-native speakers that were very inaccurate.
4. Find a penpal
I connected with one potential language partner, but no matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t schedule a Skype meeting. Instead, we decided to be penpals. We write to each other using the italki private message system two or three times a week. Eva writes to me in English, and I send her message back to her with a few corrections and suggestions. Then I respond to her message in Spanish, and she corrects my work.
I struggle with writing in Spanish. A lot. I’m surprised by how helpful it is to have a penpal! I appreciate being able to take the time to think about what I want to say, and to really dig in to the corrections that Eva makes on my work. I also like having a penpal because – unlike with notebook entries – we can develop a relationship and have longer and more personal conversations.
5. Ask, answer and read questions
I click on this feature when I have a few spare minutes and want to help other learners. People post brief questions in any language, and native speakers answer them. You can look at all of the questions, or sort them by language. I try to answer as many French questions as I can, focusing first on the ones that haven’t been answered yet.
Reading questions and answers in the language that you’re learning can help you clear up understanding, build vocabulary, and learn expressions.
Out of the five components that I mentioned in this post, I think that asking and answering questions is the one that I use the least. Still, it can be a very useful way to interact with native speakers without much of a time commitment.
What I would like to see at italki
Of course, no review is complete without a mention of what’s lacking. Here are a few things that I would like to see at italki:
- a live chat feature that would allow you to exchange messages back-and-forth with a native speaker.
- three trial sessions allowed for each language being learned, rather than three trial sessions total per student.
- a way to connect with community tutors without setting an appointment in advance. Sometimes I have 30 spare minutes that I’d like to spend in conversation. It would be nice if community tutors could sign up for “drop-in” sessions. Potential students could message them and, if they’re available, the session could start immediately instead of being booked 24 hours in advance.
If you aren’t regularly talking to people in the language that you’re learning, then you’re missing a huge piece of the language learning puzzle.
Sites like italki can help you find that puzzle piece. Once you start talking to real, live, unpredictable human beings, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your ability to speak progresses!
Go ahead and sign up for italki. Find a partner. Write a notebook entry. Start actually communicating with people. After all, human communication is the reason that languages even exist in the first place!
A few final notes:
This is a completely unbiased review. Italki does have a referral program that allows referrers to earn credits, but the link that I posted in this review is not an affiliate link. The only thing that I’m hoping to get from anyone who decides to join italki is the satisfaction that one more person is seeking out native speakers to communicate with! If, however, you would like to support me by providing me with one free lesson (at no cost to you) when and if you buy any credits, you can use this referral link when signing up for italki.
I’m not looking for any more language exchange partners at this point. But if you’re an intermediate or advanced Spanish-speaker and you want to practice for half an hour every week or two (just Spanish – no French or English), please contact me!