Horse, you’re on the wrong end of the cart.

I don’t write much about my work teaching, but I reckon this one little gem hides a lesson.

I teach several languages through a website called Italki. It’s essentially a huge directory of teachers that students can use to find a person that can teach them a language they want to learn, that both matches their budget and their free time. It doesn’t only do that, but it does it through a pretty much bulletproof transaction system that makes booking classes safe for both student and teacher. I think that’s awesome, and that’s why I’ve made it my primary channel for teaching a language.

A guy that we’ll call A, hailing from a certain Spanish-speaking country, has been exchanging messages with me for a while now. He has no idea how to use the system; I don’t expect everyone to know how to navigate it, so I spend considerable time to help him understand how to get the best out of it.

“A” wants to learn Japanese. Check, I teach that.

“A” needs someone who speaks Spanish, because he doesn’t speak English. Check, I speak that.

“A” wants someone who will accept payment outside Italki. Uh… no. I only accept bookings from Italki for several reasons, one of which is that it’s really not cool to do that on a site that makes its profit off teacher bookings, and another being that it’s actually against the rules to do so. Off he goes for a while to figure out how to book through Italki (it isn’t hard — it only requires a Paypal account, which he seemed reluctant to open for some reason).

After “A” finds a way to pay through Paypal, he asks that we sit down to talk about class prices. I tell him my rates are stated clearly on my profile (I teach Japanese for the equivalent of 11 USD per hour). He goes “well, won’t you take 8 USD?”

After choking back a statement about how this is not up for bartering, as he’s not buying beans at the market, but a trained professional’s services, I put my business smile back on and tell him “well, no, and regretfully I cannot change my rates for individual cases, but I’m not the only Spanish-speaking person who can teach Japanese on this site”. This I know for a fact, because there’s a Japanese native teacher who speaks Spanish and lives in Mexico in the Italki directory, and several others from continental America and Spain that teach the language. Many of them (including the Japanese man) have lower rates than I do, and I don’t mind him going to them for classes.

“A’s” response: “Oh, the Japanese guy? His profile says he speaks Spanish, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t speak Spanish, if you know what I mean.”

Now, let’s rewind. “A” wants to learn Japanese for fun. He likes the culture and the country, and that is great. And yet, he’s firm in that he will not learn from anyone who doesn’t speak “A’s” own language, much less a person whose native language IS the language he wants to learn. Let’s look past “A’s” offensive assumptions about a complete stranger’s linguistic skills: there is something inherently backwards in his ideals about how one learns a language.

One thing I try to grow in people’s minds through my work on The Polyglotist is the idea that learning a language requires a certain sense of adventure, a curiosity and willingness to step into the unknown and try one’s hand out at stuff you haven’t done yet. Learning a language requires not stepping, not walking, but taking a flying leap outside your comfort zone; it’s scary at first, but in languages, one always lands firmly after daring to do it, and the rewards are absolutely worth it.

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