I love learning languages. I love learning about language learning. I now teach English to mostly native Cantonese-speaking students in Hong Kong and have a professional as well as personal interest in the most efficient and effective way to learn a language.
I had seen a TED talk that impressed me from an Irish polyglot named Benny Lewis. He has recommended www.italki.com as a tool he used to acquire conversational Arabic while living in Brazil. I thought I would try using this web service to help me learn some basic Mandarin.
Visiting the italki website and looking through the teachers seems a bit like looking at a Craigslist of language learning. There is a section for language exchange partners that don’t charge anything, but this is something that I am yet to explore. Teachers set their own rates. Depending on the language and where your instructor lives the price could
vary quite a bit. I opted for a Mandarin tutor from a university in the US (confident that I’d be safe when I needed to switch back to English), but I could have gone much cheaper with a tutor from somewhere in rural China.
The site gives ratings and feedback that teachers have received from students, and this gives you an idea of who you’re getting. Many teachers also have a short intro video that will give you some idea of their English level as well as their level in your target language (if you’re advanced enough to appraise it).
Last year on GeekDad, Jenny Bristol wrote that she’d found Pimsleur’s German CDs, helpful in learning German. I think any audio CDs or mp3s can be helpful, but I find a scripted bit of dialogue doesn’t give you as much scope to be creative with the language. Getting off-script and creating your own sentences (and communicating your own ideas) can take a foreign language from being interesting aural confetti to usable communicative LEGO.
Even with flawed pronunciation, rough grammar, and very limited vocabulary, my rudimentary conversations with my instructor on italki were a lot closer to authentic interactions than anything I could do with an audio file.
It is possible to go through other channels to find a Skype-based language teacher, but italki does a good job of having many in one place. I also feel like there is a degree of vetting and auditing going on, so I’m confident my teacher is who they say they are. In a few years time I might use italki to find a language tutor for my daughter if she’s enthusiastic about her language class at school.
One thing I found challenging with italki was that, after buying a batch of lessons, when I wanted to book a new lesson I kept getting redirected to buy new batches. This was annoying; I just wanted to book times for the lessons I’d already paid for. Ultimately I was able to navigate my way around this, but I have found the UI for the booking system to be not very intuitive.
My reason for getting a Mandarin tutor was to help me prepare for the HSK Level 2, a beginner level Chinese Proficiency Exam. I think if my focus were purely conversational I could have gotten even more out of these sessions. The HSK Level 2 only assesses reading and listening comprehension, but it was very helpful to have a tutor go through old exam papers with me and help form a strategy for study and revision.
The return on investment of time with italki is great. I can’t imagine any other way of getting as much useful advice and coaching on my Chinese for the seven or eight half-hour sessions I put in.
Before my first lesson I was apprehensive, given that my level of spoken language was/is so low, but after having gone through it would recommend it to other beginners–even complete beginners–for any language. Also, if you don’t hit it off with your first language instructor you can always try another one.
There are now a wealth of tech tools to assist in language learning that never existed when I was a high school kid trying to teach myself Japanese. Foreign language news sites and smartphone apps all have their uses, but italki is the best online resource I’ve found to develop your conversational skills in another language.