A couple months ago I stumbled across a new website called italki, which describes itself as a “language learning social network.”
On italki, you can meet strangers from all over the world and practice your language via one of three arrangements:
- Language exchange – Meet someone who speaks the language you’re learning, who also is learning your language. For example, I’m learning Spanish, so I look for native Spanish speakers who are trying to learn English.
- Informal tutoring – A tutor works with you, often for a very reasonable fee. I had a session with an informal tutor who charged me $5 for an hour.
- Professional tutoring – A tutor works with a professional teaching certificate works with you. The fee is a little higher than with informal tutoring, but usually very reasonable.
After you’ve set up one of those arrangements, you then meet on Skype and begin talking.
I’ve only been using it seriously for about three weeks, but I feel like I’ve made some progress in my abilities. I’ve tried all three arrangements and discovered a few things you can do to maximize your experience on italki and really help you along.
1. Write notebook entries and correct others.
The site lets you create notebook entries, which are kind of like mini-diary posts. You write something (and can also include a picture and an audio of yourself reading something aloud) and then someone else comes along and corrects your text.
You should absolutely write something. Doesn’t have to be serious. Just talk about your day, or your family, or your favorite movie, or whatever. Maybe 50 to 100 words using vocabulary you know.
Then when someone comes along and edits your work, embrace the corrections! No one expects you to be perfect on a language learning website, and getting feedback is a fantastic way to improve–perhaps the best way.
Finally, pay it forward and correct others who are learning your language.
A side benefit is that notebook entry corrections are an ice breaker–that is, an easy way to meet new people.
2. Don’t be shy.
As a social networking site, italki is a little like Facebook or Twitter in that you follow people and make “friends.” And sometimes it’s nerve wracking following someone and requesting that he or she follow you back. Normal human shyness might keep you from asking people to follow you.
But don’t be shy. Everyone on the site is looking for a language partner, and people trying to make friends with people from other cultures tend to be pretty nice. You won’t really enjoy the site until you have a couple people that you get to know a little.
Also, FYI, even though you’re using Skype, most people I talked to didn’t use the webcam function and instead just spoke on the Skype “phone.” If you’re shy, this might be a better option for you as well.
3. Spend most of your contact time with language exchange partners.
Out of the three learning options I mentioned earlier, speaking with language exchange partners is the only one that’s completely free. For that reason alone, you should use that option and use it often.
Chatting with a stranger isn’t as awkward as you might think. Both you and your language partner are limited by your language skills, and sometimes it is the confines of limits that allow us to unleash our creativity.
There are no rules other than the ones you and your partner set, so sometimes you might do a 50/50 split, where you’ll talk for 15 minutes in your partner’s language and 15 minutes in your language. Sometimes it’ll be more natural where you have a conversation and speak in both languages. Every time I met up for a language exchange, though, it worked out fine.
4. Try both professional and informal tutors.
I’ve had sessions with both professional and informal tutors, and they each had their pros and cons. In fact, my informal tutor had a college degree and was working on her second. I had a great session with her.
My professional tutor was also good. He went by a curriculum, and was a little more punctual because he treated tutoring more like a job.
I got benefits out of both kinds of sessions, and really the differences came down to the individual more than the “professional” or “informal” distinction.
5. Be encouraging.
Everyone there is trying to learn. When someone is trying to learn your native language, you’re going to hear mistakes, sometimes in every sentence. Pick your battles. If you absolutely rip apart every sentence and word someone says, you’ll just frustrate the other person and they won’t get any benefit from your “help.”
Spend most of your time being encouraging. I’m not saying be phony. I’m just saying focus on the good that someone is accomplishing rather than the bad. In my experiences so far, this removes pressure and has really helped people relax and has made them open up and start talking more naturally. I usually take the lead with this attitude when I’ve met with language partners, and I’ve noticed that often our “language exchange” just becomes a chat session where we’re actually talking.
I’ll throw in some corrections once in a while, but no more than five to ten a session (unless more are solicited), and the rest of the time we’re jamming in our languages, the way you might jam in a garage band.
The site contains a chat capability, so you can type out instant messages to your language exchange partners. It’s not exactly like speaking but it’s cool because it forces you to try and come up with a way to say what you’re thinking, which is half of what’s preventing you from speaking. Also, if you get hung up, you can quickly tab over to Google Translate and get some help.
Best part? You’re actually communicating. Your goal is to transfer an idea to another person, not to make up some sentence just for studying.
Hint: The italki chat functions can be a little buggy, so don’t forget to use Skype chat.
7. Never forget that you’re dealing with humans.
When you’re logged on to italki, it might be easy to get wrapped up in the technology and the cool interface. But that interface exists to support human communication.
If you want to get the most out of italki, always remember that the person on the other end of the line is just that: a person. Be courteous, patient, funny, nice, charming, and anything else you would be in face-to-face interactions. Keep cultural differences in mind and don’t get hung up on misunderstandings.
And if someone does upset you, invades your boundaries, or makes you feel uncomfortable, handle them the way you would handle those kinds of people at your work or out in public.
But I don’t anticipating any of you having too many problems. I’ve been studying Spanish for several months, but the last three weeks were the first time I ever got to speak to people in Spanish and struggle through and try to get my ideas across. It’s been an amazing resource and I plan to continue using it to improve my language and, perhaps more importantly, make friends and connect with other people.