Italki Online Language Learning: a Review

italki is a global internet platform that links language learners with language instructors. A big, well-established platform: the about page claims five million students parsing verbs in one hundred thirty languages with ten thousand teachers.  Thirteen years old now, founded by two Shanghai entrepreneurs.  Betcha you’ve never heard of it.

Spain’s coronavirus quarantine has made me a grateful regular customer. I thought that you other Covid-19 shut-ins might be interested.

To book and complete my first session, I:

() Created an italki account, and used a credit card to buy italki credits. Minimum purchase: ten USD.

() Bought a webcam and a combo headset/microphone.

() Added the appropriate software repository to openSUSE to install Skype for Linux, and breathed a sigh of relief when Linux and Skype knew what to do with the above-mentioned gizmos as soon as I plugged ’em in.  (Debian-based Linux distro users would likely go here.) I also could have used “italki classroom” web chat in a modern browser. Skype looked safer.

() Clicked through italki pages in search of someone to talk to. Said someone could be booked in one of three categories:

⇒  Language partners. Free!  Found here.  A hispanoparlante would put up with my gruesome accent for a period of Spanish chat, then would expect a period of English in return. The online equivalent of Madrid’s pre-quarantine language exchanges.

I haven’t booked a free language partner on italki, but will predict confidently that native English speakers can find yak buddies this way much more easily than can English learners.

  Community tutors. Not free. I would pay up front and chat only in the Spanish I want to improve. Community tutors can be native speakers of the tongue in question, but don’t pretend to be credentialed teachers. Expect them to tell you what sounds right and what doesn’t; don’t expect them to explain why.

  Professional teachers. Also not free. (What did you expect?) Certified, bona fide, card carrying, genuine article teachers, who successfully jumped through the hoops of the italki qualification process. I don’t know how diligently italki checks paperwork.

If I haven’t lost you so far, I suggest that you now pause, set this transitophile screen delicately to one side and hop onto the find-a-teacher-or-community-tutor page to see what’s available. We pampered users can filter for price, availability, country-of-origin, other factors.

Hourly rates vary widely. Hugely. Community tutors sometimes charge more than credentialed teachers. I will guess that the pricier instructors have raised their rates after gaining loyal student fan bases, or don’t mind facing empty calendars while dabbling in italki unseriously. (As in, Sure, I’ll fire up the webcam if somebody wants to pay me what I get at the community college, but otherwise, forget it.) Supply and demand. italki sets minimum rates for both community tutors and professional teachers, and takes a fifteen percent cut of whatever they charge.

I tweaked the search filters to hunt only for native speakers hailing from Spain, found a likely community tutor, booked a one hour first session. italki deducted the lesson cost from my credit account. I configured webcam, headset and Skype before the appointed hour, crossed fingers, literally or figuratively, waited for his Skype. In it came, at the appointed hour. Success!

I have completed five additional sessions since, two more with the same community tutor and three at higher cost with a professional teacher. Sessions have begun on the dot, or no more than three minutes late. A connectivity glitch briefly interrupted one, but the teacher Skyped me again, and we quickly picked up where we had left off. One teacher surprised me by rejecting my lesson request, although I had picked a time slot listed as available in her schedule. I’ll never know why; I didn’t try to book her again.

I find myself looking for something else to gripe about, if only to distinguish this entry from a blogger-has-a-quote-relationship-unquote-with-the-company post, but would have to invent a complaint. Recommended, but perhaps recommended most heartily for advanced students willing to prep for their own sessions. Please read on.

If I had it to do all over, I still would — or might, or probably would, or think I would — learn the beginning and early intermediate stages of my new language in conventional, 3D, desks-in-front-of-the-whiteboard classrooms. I didn’t need a one-on-one tutor to guide me through present tense conjugations of estar, believe I benefited from give-and-take with other clueless beginners, and think the class-in-a-language-school approach would likelier protect me from the potential idiosyncrasies of one eccentric nutjob teacher encountered online.

But I’m not a beginning Spanish student, and have long believed that advanced students have to take responsibility for their own education. I whiled away my first italki session in casual Spanish chat, but thereafter returned to a strategy that had served me well while working with a tutor in 2016: I do my own prep, craft my own lesson plan, and spend each session querying my instructor about grammar and vocabulary I haven’t figured out on my own.

italki makes this approach easy. I can use the send-a-file feature in italki messaging to forward a .pdf of my lesson plan to the teacher as the session starts. She, in turn, can use Skype chat to correct my work or show me sample text. I can copy these Skype chats to disk at session end. The lesson prep on my end takes time, but I reap tremendous bang-for-the-euro from each session booked.

Related notes:

() I have met Spaniards better prepared than native English speakers to teach beginning and intermediate English to other Spaniards. The Spaniards had to learn the grammar rules that we angloparlantes may follow unconsciously, have surmounted personal struggles with phrasal verbs and other English stumbling blocks, know how to guide their countryfolk around them.  A native English speaker uses phrasal verbs — e.g., get up, get away, get away with, get lost, get back, get back at, get back into — without effort or thought, never had to learn tricks to commit them to memory.

Advanced language study: a different story, unless working with an unusually dedicated teacher. A native speaker may boast a passive vocabulary twice the size of even a C2-holding non-native, will know more idiomatic expressions, can opine confidently on how some terms are used in day-to-day life, even if a dictionary says otherwise. I prefer to work with native Spanish speakers for my italki sessions … and, further, only with native speakers who hail from Spain. Vocabulary and accents here differ from those of Latin America. Spain is where I live; Spain’s Spanish is what I want to improve. If I planned to spend most of my time in Mexico, I’d likely be as particular about filtering for Mexican teachers.

() I manage a Madrid language exchange — or used to, before the quarantine — and am thus lucky enough to know Spaniards willing to chat with me casually on the phone in español. Spanish students in the states may be less fortunate.

If you’re in this category, consider booking ‘conversation practice’ sessions with community tutors. You might pay eight, ten, twelve bucks an hour, could pay as little as six. You’ll get a solid hour of casual chat in the language you want to improve, and may labor mightily to find anything equivalent in your home town.

I added an ‘if I had it to do all over again’ tip to my Linux Tumbleweed distro review, and eleven titles to the .pdf linked with Spanish Film for Spanish Students. These updates have absolutely nothing to do with italki, but I don’t know of any graceful way to squeeze in the news elsewhere.  Please forgive my many sins.

Edit, 4/23/2020:  I wanted to check with them before adding a personal plug: I was much impressed by, and heartily recommend, sessions with:

Professional teacher Dalia Prado:

Community tutor Jesús:

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