One of my favorite parts of traveling is getting to meet locals and learn about new cultures. And, if I can, I like to communicate as much as possible in the native language of where I’m going. I took Spanish in high school and I’ve been able to get by a little when I’ve traveled to Spanish-speaking countries, but except for those trips, I never practice and my Spanish is pretty rusty. And when I travel to places that primarily speak other languages, I usually get a phrasebook or buy an app and wing it. But now that there are easily accessible web-based language lessons, I decided to try out one of them, italki.com, to see if I could really improve my language skills.
Italki helps you find language teachers for one-on-one lessons, tutoring and conversational practice via Skype. You can search through hundreds of profiles of professional teachers and community tutors in countries all over the world. Professional teachers must be credentialed, while the community tutors are native speakers, not necessarily experienced teachers. There are also forums and a language exchange, where you can find other students to practice with.
The site uses a currency of “italki credits” with a rate of 10 credits per US Dollar. The price of sessions varies greatly, some as low as 50 italki credits ($5) per hour to more than 200 credits (still, that’s only $20.) It seems that teachers set their own rates, so price doesn’t necessarily reflect quality.
Many of the tutors offer a shorter trial session at a reduced rate, starting at about 10 italki credits($1) to about 100 ($10.) If you have the time to shop around and the teacher you find offers a trial session, I recommend going this route, as it might take a few tries to get someone that works for you.
The interface is quite easy to use – once you search by language, you can browse though any available teachers or filter by their schedule and rates, as well as other languages they speak and where they live. Once you have chosen your teacher, their available sessions are conveniently converted to your time zone (super helpful since they can be anywhere in the world.) It can take a day for them to accept your session, but if you are in a hurry, there is an instant tutoring option which shows you teachers that are available now.
I tried out a couple different teachers and my experience varied greatly. I admit that I was a little overwhelmed by all the options. The profiles include a short bio, but how can you really know how good they’ll be? I decided to just dive in and choose teachers who were available when I was. The first one I tried was not a good fit. Using video chat makes it that much more difficult to understand someone and when I had trouble following her, she didn’t slow her speech or try to explain or translate when I missed things. Although she was able to teach me some key phrases that I didn’t know, I knew I wouldn’t be going back to her. The next teacher I found was great. He was much easier to understand and gave me really good feedback. I will definitely continue my lessons with him. Again, that’s why the trial sessions are a great option – they are shorter and mostly cheaper, so you don’t have to spend too much time or money while trying to find the right teacher.
I’m not sure that italki.com can really replace live language classes or other established programs, but it’s a great and relatively inexpensive way to learn a few basics before traveling or to practice or brush up a language you already know.