You talkin’ to me?
Who knew that one of the most memorable lines in movie history could be relevant to language learning?
Lean in closer, and I’ll tell you why.
Speaking is one of the most challenging areas for language learners, and we can all probably think of a time when we’ve been put on the spot.
As a beginner, I once summoned up the courage to ask for something in a store where my target language was spoken. The owner looked me up and down and said those famous words:
“You talkin’ to me?”
This unexpected reaction somehow threw me off.
I’d dreamt of my conversations being as smooth as the dialogues in my textbooks. What I didn’t include in my dreams were the unexpected detours that would force me to think on my feet.
This is why practicing your English speaking skills is so important. Fortunately, there are a lot of platforms and language learning apps out there that offer assistance in this field, including the one we’ll focus on today: italki.
What Is italki?
italki is a Shanghai-based language learning platform that was created in 2007. Once you create a profile, you can search for the perfect tutor in your target language and filter the results by price, availability, country and more.
There are over 130 languages offered on italki, from Spanish to Tibetan. So even if you’re trying to learn a rare language, italki probably has a tutor for it.
Signing up for italki and getting access to all their features is completely free, without an option to upgrade. The only time you pay is when you book a lesson with a tutor, which is determined by their chosen hourly rate.
How Can italki Help You Learn a Language?
Besides improving your speaking abilities, italki allows you to improve many other skills as well, no matter your level.
Learn from Native Speakers for Cheap
italki has two types of tutors—Professional Teachers and Community Tutors.
Professional teachers usually have college degrees, years of experience teaching their language(s) and developed lesson plans. Community tutors, on the other hand, are just native speakers who enjoy helping people learn their language through fun conversations.
I personally use community tutors way more often than professional teachers. For one, because they’re usually cheaper. And secondly, even if you’re a beginner, most community tutors are good teachers.
If you want to focus on improving your conversational skills, I definitely recommend booking a community tutor. But if you’re preparing for a proficiency test or exam, or you want structured lessons and a curriculum, a professional teacher might better suit your goals.
Improve Your Reading and Writing Skills
You might be thinking, “how can a platform like italki help me with reading and writing?”
The answer: italki’s Community feature.
Once you sign up for an account, you get access to this feature for free (seriously, there’s no upgraded version or additional cost). In this feature, you can browse articles about language learning and write in a “notebook.”
I use the notebook feature all the time. It lets you write in any language you want, publish it and then get feedback from native speakers.
Any time I learn a new grammar structure or verb conjugation, I practice it by writing 10 sentences. After I write my sentences, I type them into italki and ask native speakers to correct me. Native speakers then have the chance to leave me a comment with corrections or affirmation that I did everything right.
And as a native speaker of your own language, you have the ability to help learners of your language, too! I’ve left several comments on English learners’ posts, offering them corrections.
Participate in Fun Challenges
A few times a year, italki offers its italki Language Challenge.
It’s free to register, and you can choose to commit 12, 16, 19 or 20 hours of practicing your target language. When you reach your goal, you get prizes!
To complete your goal, all you have to do is book lessons with a tutor and complete the lessons before the time duration is up. I’m currently registered for the 12-hour goal, and I have 13 days left to complete 9.5 hours of lessons.
These challenges are fun and super motivating. Plus, the only price you pay is your tutor’s hourly rate (or multiple tutors, if you choose to try more than one!).
Use italki in Combination with Listening Resources
italki is a great resource for speaking, writing and even reading if you read notebook entries in your target language from other people. The only skill it seems to lack is listening!
Of course, if you’re advanced enough to have your lessons in your target language instead of your native, then italki can also become a listening resource. But usually, you’ll need to get that boost somewhere else.
For that, I recommend FluentU.
FluentU offers languages like Korean, Spanish, French and more, and lets you learn them to fluency by watching videos.
Just select your level, browse FluentU’s library of thousands of videos and choose one that looks interesting to you.
Each video introduces key vocabulary and grammar before it starts, but if you catch a word you don’t know while watching, just hover over it in the subtitles. FluentU will then show you the word’s meaning, example sentences and related images. At the end of the video, reinforce what you learned with a quiz.
Finally, you won’t ever have to worry about forgetting vocabulary again thanks to FluentU’s spaced repetition flashcards, which store new words in your long-term memory.
To try FluentU for yourself, sign up for a free trial.
What says “fun” more than chatting with native speakers in your dream language and getting to watch movie clips and music videos? I can say with confidence (and experience) that italki and FluentU are a powerful pair.
An italki Review: Connect, Converse and Conquer a New Language
How to Use italki to Become Fluent in a Language
Now that you’re more familiar with what italki is, let’s talk about the process of using it.
Set Up Your Profile
The first thing you need to do is set up your profile. This is a pretty simple and straightforward process since most of it will be taken care of when you make your account.
Your profile will display your name, picture, bio and some basic information about you, like where you’re from and what gender you are.
Next, it’ll also display your language skills—your native language and target languages, along with the level you have in each. If you speak more than one language but you aren’t actively learning them, you can also mark certain languages as “learning languages.”
Search for a Tutor
After your profile is finished, you can start hunting for tutors!
Start by clicking the Find a Teacher tab. Once you do, it’ll take you to a page that displays all the available teachers for your primary learning language. If that’s not the language you want to book right now, you can just click on it to find a dropdown menu and select a different one.
After choosing your language, you can start refining your search as we talked about earlier. Let’s briefly go over the different options italki gives you:
- From. By clicking this tab, you can choose where you want your future tutor to be from. This is especially helpful if you’re learning a particular dialect or accent.
- Also speaks. If you want your tutor to speak a language other than their native one, you can click this tab.
- Price. Choose the price range you want your tutor’s hourly rate to be. The lowest you can go is $4 per hour, and the highest is $80.
- Availability. If you’re only able to do lessons on certain days, you can identify them by clicking Availability. Then, italki will only show you tutors who are available when you are.
- Teacher types. Remember how we talked about Professional Teachers and Community Tutors? If you have a preference, specify it by clicking this tab.
- Category. If you want to focus on a specific skill, tell italki which one you want to work on. By clicking Category, you can choose from General, Business, Test Preparation, Kids and Conversation Practice.
- Native speaker. If you want your tutor to be a native speaker of your target language, click this button.
- Instant booking. Most tutors have to accept your lesson request after you book, but some offer instant booking. If you want a tutor who automatically accepts your request, click this.
Book a Tutor
Now it’s time to find your dream tutor. When you want to learn more about a certain teacher, click on their profile.
Each tutor has an introductory video you can watch, where they’re from, a bio about themselves, their availability calendar, resume or work experience, student reviews, hourly rate, lesson options and more.
Often, tutors will offer different kinds of lessons. For example, this Japanese tutor offers Conversation Practice, Japanese for Beginners and Learning with Textbook, where he teaches from the “Minna no Nihongo” textbook.
After finding a tutor, simply book the lesson you want or a 30-minute trial lesson. After choosing a time, your lesson request will be sent to the tutor for acceptance.
Show Up to the Lesson
When you book the lesson, italki asks which platform you’d like to have it on. You can choose from popular video chat platforms like Skype, WeChat, FaceTime and more. Or, you can keep it simple and choose to use italki Classroom.
If you choose italki Classroom, all you have to do is log in to italki’s website and click “Enter Classroom” when it’s time for your lesson.
Wherever you choose to have the lesson, show up on time and enjoy getting to know and learning with your new tutor for however long you booked them.
Mark the Lesson Complete and Leave Feedback
Once your lesson is over, italki will ask you to confirm that it was complete.
If for some reason you couldn’t make it, the teacher couldn’t make it, someone canceled last minute or one of you no-showed, you can also confirm that it wasn’t completed and either request your credits back or transfer them to the tutor anyway (you’re required to pay the tutor if you cancel within 24 hours before the lesson starts).
After you mark the lesson complete, italki will ask you to leave a rating for the tutor. And if you want, you can leave an optional review.
After you’ve confirmed the lesson’s completion and submitted your review, the tutor will then be able to leave feedback for you, too.
Please note that if you don’t confirm the lesson’s completion after a certain amount of time, italki will confirm it for you so the tutor can get paid.
The Advantages of Using italki to Learn a Language
Learn a Variety of Languages and Dialects
Detailed language learning is the name of the game, and with italki, it’s kind of mind-blowing.
Let’s start with the choice of languages. Many language learning platforms are selective when it comes to the languages they offer, and in this way, italki is probably one of the least restrictive.
First, you’ll find popular languages in the search bar. italki then goes on to provide a directory of languages in alphabetical order, making yours easier to find.
With less common languages such as Assiniboine and Basque available, it’s not only a wonderful way to get introduced to languages you may not have considered learning, but it also gives minority and endangered tongues a chance to shine and thrive.
italki goes one step more and narrows itself down even further into specific dialects.
This kind of detail is so refreshing as a language learner! If you’re trying to learn a specific dialect (like Taiwanese Mandarin), you can most likely find it on italki. And if you can’t search specifically for the dialect, you can find a teacher who comes from that country or region.
I’ve been learning Spanish for several years now, and I’m specializing in the Venezuelan accent (some would call it a dialect) because that’s where my dad is from. So when I look for Spanish tutors on italki, I specify my search by selecting Venezuela in the “From” section.
Learn a Language at Your Own Price
I already mentioned how the only price you pay is your chosen tutor’s hourly rate. But did you know just how low some tutors go?
When browsing tutors for your target language, you can refine your search to only show tutors who fit your budget. And some tutors charge as little as $4 per hour.
I was learning Tagalog in the summer of 2019, and I consistently booked lessons with a community tutor from the Philippines two or three times a week. Her rate was $4 an hour, and I’ve had several Spanish tutors who charge $5-6 an hour.
Tutors are thoroughly vetted by italki so no matter how much the tutor charges, you know you’ll be getting quality.
Get a Language Partner
One of my favorite features of italki is language partners.
After several years of using the site, the most beneficial aspect I’ve discovered is the opportunity to make friends in your target language that (with all precautions taken) can turn into lifelong friendships and travel opportunities.
Native speakers can follow and message you, and vice versa.
The reason why I love this feature is that by increasing the number of connections to your target language, you’ll feel an even stronger motivation to stick with it and practice more.
Learn at Your Own Pace (and Schedule)
When you book a tutor, you don’t feel like you’re signing a contract. In fact, you can first book a 30-minute trial lesson with a tutor at a lower price than their standard rate.
After you’ve found a potential tutor, you can view their availability calendar to see if they have any times available that work with your schedule. If not, you can just look for another tutor.
If you do want that “contract” feel (or just an extra push to make sure you show up and meet your goals), many tutors do offer a package deal. By choosing this route, you can purchase up to 10 lessons at once and schedule them whenever you’re ready, and usually at a discount price.
I did this with the Tagalog tutor I mentioned earlier, and it really helped me stay on track.
Additionally, many tutors offer multiple lesson duration options. This is great because if you really like a certain tutor, but can’t afford their hourly rate, you can choose their 30-minute lesson option at a lower price.
Many tutors offer 30-minute, 45-minute, 60-minute and 90-minute lessons.
The Disadvantages of Using italki to Learn a Language
Lack of Real-world Situations
Is italki a good substitute for real-world situations?
The simple answer is no.
Although conversation practice with native speakers is very helpful in terms of improving speaking, you won’t have the opportunity to live the language since you’re confined to solely digital connections with this platform.
italki is probably the closest thing you can get to a real-world environment online, especially if you use it for finding language partners or having challenging conversations with native speaker tutors.
But you won’t ever experience spontaneous conversations like you would at the grocery store, bank, hospital, restaurant, etc.
Sure, the tutors can teach you a couple of idiomatic expressions or native ways of expressing something during a one-to-one lesson, but it’s still an artificial environment to some extent.
I found that watching real-world videos, like those found on FluentU, and studying how speakers interact in different situations was the secret to knowing how to express myself; not just being able to string grammatically correct sentences together.
If you want your language to be for life, and not just for travel or business, you’ll need to branch out in this area. The music videos, movie trailers, news, inspiring talks and other real-world videos on FluentU are a good resource to check out for authentic language learning. (Plus, your learning is also supported by quizzes, interactive subtitles, multimedia flashcards and more.)
You Can’t Book Lessons 24 Hours Before
One thing I don’t like about italki is the fact that you can’t book a lesson 24 hours before your desired start time.
As a student, this can be frustrating. I work from home, so changes in my schedule happen often and when I get free time, it’s usually sudden. So only being able to book lesson times 25 hours after my current time means I can’t take advantage of unexpected free time.
However, I also understand that this policy is in place for the tutors. If someone expects a high-quality, structured lesson, the tutor will need at least 24 hours to prepare one for them.
But for those of us who just want conversation practice, it can be an issue.
On top of that, you usually have to wait for your tutor to accept your lesson request, which can take a while—especially if you’re in different timezones. But luckily, some tutors offer “instant booking” like we talked about earlier, which means your lesson is automatically approved.
Overall, italki is a great platform for connecting with native speakers, improving your speaking skills and learning new words and phrases that textbooks won’t teach you.
And when paired with a fun resource that improves your language skills in other ways like FluentU, it’s even more powerful. In my opinion, the advantages of italki outweigh the cons.
Brooke Bagley is a Venezuelan-American freelance writer and editor for FluentU, passionate language learner and entrepreneur. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three and Indonesian for one. Not only are languages her hobby, but they’re also her portal to new worlds.
Sophie McDonald is a freelance writer with a burning passion for writing and languages. You can find her Twitter page here, where she’ll most likely be talking about writing and languages.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.