Language learning is not my forte, no matter how much I really want to be a polyglot to speak the language of most places I visit. These past few years I’ve based myself in cities such as Milan and Chiang Mai, and manage to learn a few words or sentences in the local language, to some degree. I managed to at least be able to communicate the basics with a few sentences (in Italian) or a few words (in Thai).
Now that I’m here in Brazil I wanted to make an effort to learn how to speak the language, just like I did before; on my own through books and assimilation. While it has somehow worked for me in the past, it isn’t necessarily the best way for me to do it. About a month ago I was contacted by italki.com and they were interested in a review of their services. To me, it was perfect since it gave me the opportunity to try a real language learning service at the moment I wanted to learn Portuguese. So, how did it go?
Italki is a platform that connects language tutors with students, both in a formal and informal way. On the informal side, imagine like the most basic version of a social media platform, where you can add friends and message them. Of course, the friends you add will be mostly people who speak the language you’re interested in learning (and they are interested in learning yours), so you can practice through informal conversations. At first, I played a bit with this feature, but as much as I wanted to chat, I really needed to learn my words, so I needed something more formal.
Then there are the Professional Lessons, where qualified tutors charge you per lesson on a credit based system established by italki. Depending on your language of interest, you’ll find hundreds or more qualified tutors, so you can check their profile, see their feedback and recommendations from past students, and their rates.
In my case, I chose a tutor named Adriano for several reasons. He had a good hourly rate, he is native from Brazil, so he is fluent in Portuguese (from Brazil) and he also speaks Spanish fluently (which I also speak), so it is an added bonus to explain certain grammatical rules that may not necessarily apply to English but to apply to Spanish too (singe it is a romance language along with Portuguese).
Adriano, along with several other tutors, had a 30 minutes trial session available. When you sign up to italki, you’re given 4 free trial sessions, so I gave it a go. Within minutes of talking with Adriano, I knew he was a good tutor for me. We started the conversation in English, introduced ourselves, and he got a scope of what I wanted to learn. In that half hour we went through the basics, like how to say the numbers, days of the week, basic introductions, and more.
The lesson is done via a Skype call, so we could write the words on the Skype chat while talking. It’s pretty much like using Skype as your chalkboard and notebook.
By the end of the chat, Adriano gave me an assignment and that was it for the session. That is, until the next full 1-hour session where we reviewed my assignment verbally and continued on with more material.
Basic Observations About the Interface (AKA, How to Use italki)
The site is quite intuitive and easy to navigate. Before you decide to take any lesson, make sure to create your profile (it is free) and fill out some basic information so people have an idea of who you are and which language you’re looking to learn. (you can see my profile as a sample) This is not only useful for the informal chats, but also to your tutors.
Once you do a search for tutors on the language you’re interested in, read through their profile and reviews and see their rates. You need to add credit to your italki account via PayPal or credit card.
Here’s a tip from me, so you don’t make the same mistake I did… When you’ve narrowed down your tutor and are ready to schedule a session, a calendar will pop up showing the available hours. Make sure to look right under the calendar to see its time zone. Make sure it is under your time zone. For my first lessons, I failed to notice that the time zone was UTC 0:00 and not “Brazil” time (as I thought it would be since the tutor and I were both in Brazil). I mistakenly scheduled the session two hours ahead of time and missed it.
In that case, I explained the situation to the tutor and we simply rescheduled.
There are more features on the site that I haven’t explored yet (to be honest), but I believe you can ask open questions to the italki community to get feedback on anything related to language learning, read articles with tips and other relevant information, find language partners, and participate in discussions. I believe this “how it works” page will give you a good overview of italki’s features.
Did I learn anything in the end? Did I like it?
I’ve only taken a handful of lessons, so I’m far from fluent, but I believe I’ve significantly improved my Portuguese in a matter of a couple weeks (a couple lessons). I guess my best compliment came from a friend, who just a few days back during carnival told me “seu português é muito melhor!” (your Portuguese is a lot better!).
It has improved, but I’m definitely only at the beginning of this language-learning goal.
I personally liked the interaction I had with the tutor since it is one on one and I could ask anything I wanted and had doubts with. We chatted about random stuff happening in Brazil to contextualize our conversation and put things in practice.
Do I recommend it?
I believe italki’s strength lies on the wide variety of tutor they have and the possibility of choosing your own tutor based on what you like and what you’re interested in. Should you not like one tutor, you can choose another any time. I also believe the rates are quite affordable, though that varies by tutor.
Take a look at italki; start chatting with people if you want to start informally, and then if you’re serious about learning a language, schedule some sessions with a tutor. I’m pretty sure you’ll like it!