Italki Review: Get the Most Out of the Language Learning Resource
The last 15 years have brought revolutionary change to language learning. Amongst the most popular new opportunities is the possibility to connect with native speakers of the languages we are learning via the Internet, and specifically via Skype. We all take Skype for granted today, but the app was first launched in 2003, in Estonia. That is less than 15 years ago.
About 10 years ago, in 2007, italki was launched in Shanghai, China and registered in Hong Kong. The site is a popular place for language learners to connect with native speakers of languages they are learning, and in particular, tutors of these languages. I have used italki for a number of languages, and will describe my experience with it, and talk a little about how to get the most out of online language lessons.
What about input-based learning?
I am a great proponent of input based learning. I believe, along with Stephen Krashen, that we learn languages primarily through meaningful input. As I have mentioned frequently here and on my YouTube channel, the past years have seen technological developments such as MP3 files, online dictionaries, the availability of language content on the Internet, as well as our site, LingQ, which brings all of this together.
These factors combine to make input-based learning more accessible and more powerful than ever before. The Internet has replaced the language lab. However, the ultimate goal of language learning is to speak in the language. To learn to speak well, we need to speak a lot. Speaking is an integral part of language learning, and is synergistic with input activities. Listening and speaking, reading and even writing, all complement and reinforce each other.
At an early stage in our learning, we can only speak to very sympathetic speakers of the language we are learning, since we need help. That is where tutors and in particular italki come in. We can go about our speaking activities in various ways.
There are more and more opportunities to find people interested in language exchange in cities where we live. Just Googling such names as Meetup, Mundolingo, Polyglotclub, and undoubtedly many more, will get you in touch with people who like to practice languages. I have attended such group meetings and they can be a lot of fun.
However, it is important to know going in, that these meetings may not help you as much if you are not yet a strong speaker of these languages. You may find, depending on the group, that most people just want to practice English. Most of your discussions may be with other learners, in other words not with native speakers.
You could also attend a class or hire a tutor where you live. Classes are not cheap, and may involve the time and cost of getting yourself to where the classes are located. I tend not to avail myself of these opportunities.
Online language exchange
Today it is easy to arrange to meet people online. A number of language exchange sites exist, where you exchange your language for the language of your partner, so to speak. You speak, say English for half the time, and then switch to, say, Spanish.
The problem here can be that you and your partner don’t have much in common, and the conversations become a little artificial and uninteresting. If one of the speakers is weak in the language he or she is learning, it can become difficult to keep the discussion going. Furthermore, half of the time you spend on these language exchange sites you are speaking your own language. In other words, you are watering down the amount of time you have available for learning a new language.
I have done some English tutoring at LingQ. The points I earn can be used to sign up for lessons with native speakers of the language I am learning. However, I tend not to want to teach my language, because it is, in fact, a tiring thing to do. I am more eager to spend my time speaking the language that I am learning.
There are many ways of finding language tutors online. One need only Google to find them. There are individual tutors offering services, and there are other websites offering language tutors. I have only tried italki because I am used to it, and have found the tutors that I needed. I may one day try other sites.
I have used italki quite a bit, although we have online tutoring via Skype at LingQ. However, for many of the languages I have been studying recently I have not been able to find tutors on LingQ. Instead I have turned to italki and I am, on the whole, very satisfied.
The italki interface is comprehensible, although some of the steps in the process of booking lessons were not intuitive, at least to me. Since I am now used to the site, I no longer remember where I felt that things that took two steps could have been accomplished in one. It may be that the complexity of scheduling and keeping track of lessons is such that it is not possible to make things smoother. In any event, the navigation on the site is not an obstacle to finding good tutors, and I have been able to find good tutors.
What I like
Tutors set their own rates: There is quite a range of cost. Tutors are divided into professional tutors and community tutors. The latter group are usually cheaper than the former. I have tried both kinds. I have had more success with community tutors, not only because they are less expensive, but because they are more flexible.
Introductory videos of tutors: All tutors post videos of themselves speaking English and the language I am learning. This gives me a sense of who the tutor is, and possibly the sound and video quality of their setup.
Tutors are rated by learners:
Most learners are reluctant to give tutors low marks, granted. However, the ratings of tutors, and the learners’ comments are helpful. They probably help to eliminate the least capable tutors.
Tutors provide reports: Many tutors, although not all, understand the need to send a report of the learner’s errors, the way we do at LingQ. This often takes the form of a Google Document, which I can import into LingQ for further study. I ask the tutor to make this mostly a list of phrases, and not to use English. Most are quite willing to comply.
There are a lot of tutors to choose from: I am impressed by the number of available tutors, even in less popular languages. This is important, since if you don’t like your tutor, you need to find another one. In addition, not all tutors offer lessons at times that are convenient to you. I have always been able to find good tutors at times that work for me.
What I like less
Skype connection sometimes not great: The quality of the Skype connection seems to vary from country to country, and from tutor to tutor. A language lesson via Skype with poor Internet connectivity is a strain, and not a pleasant learning environment.
Tutors who are poor conversationalists: The tutor’s role is to keep me talking. Starting the lesson with “what do you want to talk about?” is not helpful. I am not confident enough in the language, usually, to control the conversation. The good tutors have an endless supply of interesting questions that get me talking on subjects of interest to me.
Tutors who impose their agenda: “Today we will cover numbers, colours, the subjunctive etc.” is not how I like to use my time. Since I am paying, I usually am able to persuade the tutor to conform to a more conversational form of lesson.
How to get the most out of italki
Maintain your input activities: Online lessons at italki or with other tutors are not free. They usually cost between $10 and $30 per hour. Even at the lower number, if you were to speak 2–3 hours every day, you would soon run up a large bill. Input activities like reading and listening are free. Although you may have to pay to acquire the audio and text content, or to use a site like LingQ, these costs are very low. You can put as much time into them as you want, once you have the material. It is important to continue to do so even while you are taking online lessons.
Tie your lessons to your input activities: Make sure your tutor provides you with a report of the words and phrases you struggled with. Study these reports. Mine them for words and phrases that you wanted to use and were unable to. These are vocabulary items that matter to you.
Don’t schedule too many lessons:
To me, a period of intense online italki lessons means about three hours a week, maximum four. I find that any more than that is stressful, and the benefit starts to decline. I find I need time to work at noticing structures, words and phrases in my listening and reading that are based on problems that arose in my lessons.
Look up grammar issues on your own: You will become aware of your weaknesses during your lessons. You should consult grammar resources and try to notice these issues in your listening and reading. I like to save phrases that embody these issues while LingQing. I often refer to the grammar related dictionaries that are available at LingQ as I do this.
Don’t expect to improve quickly: Language improvement is a gradual process. You may do better one lesson, and then not so well the next lesson. As long as you continue with both your lessons and your input activities, you will gradually improve. Trust the process.
If you don’t like your tutor, change: If your tutor is not satisfactory, or the Skype connection is poor, don’t wait. Find another tutor.
Conversation practice resource italki provides a valuable service. It is but one of the many developments that the Internet and related technologies have brought the language learner over the last decade or so. It is a great time to be a language learner.
Originally posted on my blog at The Linguist.