Today I’m ready to share one of my favourite discoveries of this year for learning a language; italki.
I’ve reviewed several websites in the past, such as LingQ, Livemocha & Busuu, DuoLingo, and paid courses such as Rosetta Stone. They each have advantages and disadvantages, but my conclusion is generally the same, that you can’t beat the best language learning system in the world; HB 2.0. (Spoiler alert, HB stands for Human Beings)
And that’s the reason why I like italki so much. There are no courses or gimmicks to distract you, it focuses entirely on connecting you to Human Beings.
If you live in an international city, there are some social networks like Couchsurfing and meetup.com can be great sites to check out to try and meet up with people in person, but if you can’t find those people, then of course thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can simply Skype a native speaker and speak to them to practice your language from the comfort of your home.
As I’m trying to demonstrate with my current project, you can actually learn to speak a language very well by doing it entirely via Skype. Once you find those people to practise with and learn from via Skype, then you have no excuse to not make progress as quickly as possible, which your speed depending on how many spoken sessions you get and how intensively you are learning.
Wide range of languages available
I started using this site back in February with Chinese, and I found it worked out cheaper than getting in-person lessons, even though I was in the country with plenty of teachers available around me. The selection was actually better on this site for Mandarin teachers than what I could find on online advertisement boards or in newspapers in Taipei itself!
As well as this, it was way more convenient to do it from home, than travel across town for the more affordable lessons, so I actually moved all my lessons to be entirely Skype based.
And over the summer, I wanted to work on improving every single one of my languages. So I actually got Skype lessons to help me improve my Spanish, French, German and Italian (analyzing cultural subtleties, such as complex lines in a movie, or improving my accent, as these are my best languages – as well as fixing a few annoying mistakes that were slipping into my dialogues). (I used another resource for Dutch, and didn’t bother working on my Portuguese since I knew I’d be spending three months in Brazil)
I continued to use it to help me maintain my Chinese, and even get back into my American Sign Language to prepare for my visit to Gallaudet university. Yes – you can learn sign language via Skype of course. It was great to be getting back into ASL despite being in Hong Kong of all places! I found my ASL teacher on this site.
And finally, now I’m learning Arabic, and once again the vast majority of my lessons are with teachers I’ve found via italki. There were a large enough pool of teachers to choose from that I could even focus specifically just on teachers from Egypt, as that dialect is my priority.
You’ll find that all the major languages are covered with a lot of teachers and exchange partners to choose between, and some minor ones have a couple of teachers – this is only going to improve with time as the site is growing very quickly.
Three options: Lessons from professional teachers, Practice with enthusiasts and free language exchange
I have personally used the site exclusively for paid lessons, although I haven’t even paid that much (see below). Having said that, it can also work for those looking not to spend any money at all.
You have three options to choose from when searching for someone to help you with your target language:
- Language Lessons
The language lessons option is given only by professional teachers. So this would be those who have experience teaching offline/in the real world, with certification as language professionals (uploaded to the site for verification).
This option tends to be more expensive, but you can be more confident that you’d get a high quality lesson, as the teacher is expected to guide the lesson more and adapt to your needs better, based on their experience. This obviously varies with the person you have the lesson with.
- Speaking Practice
This option is given by a native speaker (if you select it) who is eager to help others by teaching the language. They may not have any experience teaching off Skype, and would have a day-job unrelated to teaching.
It can be tricky to get a lesson with a less experienced teacher when you are starting off yourself. These lessons are more appropriate when you are truly interested in practising, with someone who will patiently listen and correct your mistakes. This option is usually more affordable than the language lessons option, specifically because it’s less likely to follow a lesson format.
In my case, this option is quite fine. I’ve got teaching experience so I can decide to take the role of deciding where the lesson goes. This is a LOT of work when I’m also a beginner in the language however, and it’s difficult when the teacher keeps asking “So, what do you want to talk about now?” with my current very limited vocabulary.
The thing is, sometimes even when someone doesn’t have a certificate, or experience in a classroom, they can be an excellent teacher. I’ve found people at this level that are honestly way better teachers than those with diplomas, who can also take the lesson in a direction that works well for the student, while some professional teachers have a fixed programme that they stick very rigidly too, which may not work well for a particular student.
The ideal thing is to try out several teachers (see “Trial” explanation below) from both categories and go with the one(s) you feel is helping you the most.
- Language Exchange
This option is great if you can’t afford to be getting private lessons, but still want time with a native who is motivated to patiently listen to you and correct your mistakes. All you have to do in exchange is to teach them your native language!
And yes, the demand for English teachers is huge – especially if you speak a dialect they happen to be interested in.
In this sense, the large pool of people and the ability to search means you’ll find quite a lot of people here! Since the conversation is ultimately over Skype, and the site just acts as a way to find these people, you could also search in other sites like Livemocha/Busuu and message them to connect to Skype. The forum on this blog also has an active language exchange board where people announce the language combination.
Since it’s free, I’d recommend trying italki out with the other options until you find the person or people you find is/are definitely helping YOU out. If you end up speaking just in English (presuming that’s your native language), then you should consider finding someone else. The search facility makes italki that extra bit easier to use.
Many trial lessons for… $1-5? Ideal for finding the best teacher for you
There are loads of other sites that let you search for paid teachers. I’ve tried a bunch out (I’ll actually share all of the ones I used for Chinese in a separate post, since I didn’t exclusively use italki; although if you have Arabic alternatives for me, let me know so I can perhaps review that later too), and generally I just find italki’s interface so much cleaner and easier to navigate.
But one thing that makes it stand out is that (if the teacher has enabled that option) you can get a trial lesson with each teacher for a much better rate than their normal class rate.
This allows you to actually go through a bunch of trial lessons at first and find which teacher works in a way that is going to help your needs best. Whenever I started to use teachers for any of the languages of this year, I went through trials of as many as I could find, and had full-price lessons only with the good ones.
For me for example, if the teacher is doing most of the talking and teaching “at” me, with a pre-made course that I just have to basically keep grunting to show them I’m still online, then I consider it wasting my time, as I can get this information from a book or Youtube just as easily without paying by the hour. Then again you might prefer the traditional course approach and dislike teachers that I’d enjoy classes with.
It was great to be able to try out dozens of teachers, but not actually end up spending so much money. (Of course, you only get one trial maximum per teacher) A few people have been asking me to recommend specific teachers, and I really think trying several of them out for yourself is by far the best option, as the cheaper trial option really won’t break the bank.
The actual price of the trial and the main lesson depends on a lot of factors, including:
- Does the teacher have enough reviews to be able to raise their rates yet (he/she may be a new teacher, but still really good, and as such has cheap trial rates to encourage more people to try out a lesson),
- What country are they from (my teachers in China were cheap for both trials and main lessons; the main lessons with some of my teachers were as low as US$5!! And these are good teachers! They just happen to live deep inside China where living expenses are much lower. But currency differences means that teachers in Europe, North America, Japan etc. tend to be more expensive)
- The teacher’s experience overall and possible lesson quality
Interesting referral system for saving money
Now, I’ve been getting two spoken lessons/practice sessions in Arabic a day since my project started almost a month ago. Speaking from day 1 is my mantra, and it’s the only way a fluent in 3 months goal is feasible, so you can bet I encourage you to also speak as much as often, as early as possible.
Those in Egypt are charging about US$8-15 per hour long lesson. So with a bit of mathematics, you may guess that I’m spending about US$600 a month on private lessons (which would already be better than most generic courses where you are sitting in a class being talked at, especially considering you are getting one-on-one attention).
In fact, I’ve spent much less. You see, italki have an interesting referral system – so if you click this link to their site, you’ll connect to my profile on the site and see some details of how my learning is going (although I’ve enabled privacy settings in some cases). By signing up on this referral link, if you decided to go for paid lessons then I’d earn credit for this, and ultimately it costs the exact same for you.
At the moment, the referral gives you US$20 credit to be used on the site, for every $40 spent by those you have personally referred.
I’ve dropped the italki link to my profile inside of a blog post or two this year, and promoted it actively in the Language Hacking League email once. The resulting sign-ups have given me free credit, which I’ve been using for my lessons. So by writing this blog post and sharing a resource I genuinely find useful, I’m also ultimately getting more free lessons – cool huh?
This means that after you get into it, if you decide to tell others about it, use your referral link (on Facebook, or on your blog’s sidebar if you have one etc., or even in an email) and you’ll get enough for several lessons if that person decides to pay for some lessons. [If you don't want to sign up on my referral link (since I'm using it in this blog post), just type italki.com into your browser, although the result is the same, whether you buy lessons or go just for the free exchanges]
I have also spent my own money though. Another advantage of this system is that it lets you pay by credit card, paypal, Moneybookers bank transfer, Skrill, China Union pay, Allpay, cashu, and webmoney. In my case, paypal is really convenient as I prefer to avoid paying a lot on credit, as doing so had me in debt a few years ago.
Earn money as a teacher
As well as using the system to learn a language, you can also earn money through it by applying to be a teacher. You should consider this both if you are a qualified professional and if you are simply enthusiastic to teach your native (or high level fluent) language to others, while earning from it.
The system takes a 15% commission from your classes (which is way less than what a school like Berlitz used to take from student payments to teacher earnings when I used to work for them ), and since it’s a large network you are much more likely to find students than you would by trying to advertise independently in many cases.
Easy to use international time manager
While testing out a LOT of alternative sites for finding private language lessons (especially for Chinese), one major headache was trying to synchronise times with the teachers. When we were in the same country, it was a non-issue, but otherwise I had to use online time conversions to figure things out.
One site I found sticks to only using GMT, which drove me crazy because during the summer (because of daylight savings), this time only applies to Iceland!! Since I was checking London time (even though I wasn’t even in that time zone), I wasted an hour waiting for my teachers on that other site.
italki simply shows you a calendar for whatever you have set your time-zone to. It’s all you have to concern yourself with – but it shows you availabilities that your teachers have that they have selected, based on their own timezone. This synchs up nicely and there is no confusion about it, and you see all times from your perspective.
As well as this, the system will email you two hours before your class starts, to remind you, which is great if you aren’t super organized.
Problems with the system?
italki is a recent start up that is growing very quickly. As such they are very receptive to feedback. In fact, I had the chance to meet up with Kevin Chang, the CEO, briefly when I was passing through Shanghai (where the company is based).
I held out on writing this review because I did indeed have several frustrating issues with the system, and wasn’t shy to vent these to Kevin throughout the year. He was very receptive in fixing problems with the referral system and annoying issues I had with privacy on the site, as well as a few other minor issues.
Luckily these problems have been removed, so I have much less negative things to say about the system, and it’s why I’m so eager to recommend it!
One recent feedback I gave Kevin though, which I’d like to see is a personal note to leave on teacher pages. After a lesson, you can write a review of a teacher for everyone to see, and this will help others decide if they should have a lesson with the teacher. But sometimes I’d like to write my own note that other people don’t need to see.
Maybe the teacher was excellent, but doesn’t work with my own approach or personality. In one of the systems I used for Chinese there was a non-published note only you could see, and this helped me keep track of what I personally saw as teachers’ strengths and who I probably shouldn’t have lessons with again, without punishing them with a public bad review. Having said that, seeing public reviews of teachers is a great way to vent out the bad ones, and make sure you don’t waste time to begin with.
Another thing is that I’d like to have an option to synch my italki calendar with my Google Calendar automatically, since I’d generally manually add lessons into my calendar each time.
Other than these two minor points that don’t affect the overall experience much, all other frustrations I’ve had with the system this year have actually been removed, so I can’t quite nitpick much further!
Overall, definitely worth checking out!
There are other features of the site, such as the ability to add public notes in your target language, that are like status updates, but that natives can comment on to correct you. It’s great to be able to ask a question about a grammatical feature, or quick translation question, of the language and have the community answer it for you for free.
There is also a chat feature that you can use with someone before you’d leave the site to call via Skype. I’m sure the site will continue to improve and expand with time.
Of course, the quality you get out of it, depends on how much work you put into it. At the end of the day, it will be you and another person on Skype and you’ll have to work hard to make sure you progress in your target language, and work well with them. In many cases, it’s as much the student’s fault as it is the teacher’s if progress is slow.
I’ll write another post later about how I’d recommend working with teachers efficiently to learn as well as possible, and get as much value out of that time as possible.
The system follows my own philosophy, by focusing on human connections and speaking languages as the focus, and as such I do recommend you give it a try.
If you’ve used it yourself, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Enter your email in the top right of the site to subscribe to the Language Hacking League e-mail list for way more tips sent directly to your inbox!
If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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