Meet you teachers over a coffee or three!

From iTalki to real life: meeting your online teachers

Language lessons via Skype have been an important learning method of mine for some time now. Thanks to sites like iTalki, learners can now connect with teachers across the globe.

But however much experience you have with online classes, there might always remain a certain element of the unreal. It’s understandable; you only see your teachers for around an hour at a time, and under controlled and limited circumstances. It’s sometimes easy to forget that they are actually out there too, in the real world.

Breaking through the invisible wall

Over the last week, I had the chance to remedy that with a couple of my iTalki teachers. It was all lucky circumstance, really. Through regular lesson chat, it transpired that I would cross paths with my Icelandic and Polish tutors. What else to do but arrange coffee and cake (as if any excuse were needed!)?

Now, for a naturally shy language learner, meeting your online tutors can feel like a rather big step. There is something very safe and non-threatening about learning via video chat – the digital platform contains the teacher-pupil relationship quite neatly. On the other hand, out in the wild of real life, we lack those digital boundaries – the nature of greetings, niceties and farewells is quite different.

Performance pressure (with get-out clauses!)

Not only that, but there is also just a little performance pressure! In my case, Polish was a particular source of this, being a fair bit weaker than my Icelandic. Combined with a bit of social anxiety, the stress we put ourselves under to do well can jam up the brain somewhat. I am a perfectionist, after all (but I’m working on that!).

Thankfully, being a fellow polyglot, my Polish tutor chatted quite happily to me in both German and Spanish as well, providing a nice way out of my clumsy polski when needed. And that is one of the perks of meeting teachers who are, in all likelihood, fellow language enthusiasts – it becomes a bit of a meeting of minds, with more than enough common ground to talk about (in the target language or not!).

That said, it’s also important to note that these kinds of meet-up are not lessons in themselves. They should be an informal hello, rather than any test of your ability. In other words, it is all about putting a three-dimensional, human face to the digital presence from my hour once a week or fortnight. That can only help to create greater rapport. And ultimately, that should lead to more lively lessons, with more to talk about.

Chocolate perks

All in all, I had two very positive experiences with two lovely people. Affirming a distance connection face to face also makes the world seem a smaller, friendlier place. If you have the chance to meet your online tutors face to face, go for it! You might even be regaled with chocolate (dziękuję, Jan!)…

Polski torcik from my Polish teacher!

Yum…

Headphones and an internet-connected device - all you need to start chatting on iTalki

Justifying iTalki : bumper bang for your language learning buck

I’ve been spending a fortune on iTalki recently. This very popular website is a kind of language teacher directory service, where students can browse and contact hundreds of experts for one-to-one lessons on Skype. I learnt about the service some time ago from Benny Lewis’ site fluentin3months.com, and have since found out how highly addictive it is for language junkies.

But it can be an expensive business, scheduling countless lessons a month – especially if you learn several languages at once. Ever a good home economist, I’m always trying to justify my spending. So here is my reasoning on why iTalki is still an excellent use of my dosh.

Cheaper than travelling

Countless online articles expound the necessity of immersion for advanced fluency. However, ‘traditional’ immersion – travelling to hear and speak a language – can be costly. As a casual learner of Russian in the UK, I know that only too well. Flights and hotels are not cheap. Add to that the difficulties of getting visas and travel documents in many cases, and immersion abroad is simply off the cards for many.

iTalki offers immersion in short, intense chunks for a much smaller outlay. Russian teachers are available from $5 (about £3.60 at the time of writing) per hour upwards. You could have scores of lessons at that price before you hit the budget for a trip to Russia. Even at $20+, you’ll go a long way before it gets cheaper to travel abroad to learn and practise.

Immersion in an iTalki lesson is also very focussed, intense and directed. That contrasts with a wide variability of experience quality when travelling to learn languages. When travelling, you might go a whole day without managing to strike up much conversation beyond asking directions. On iTalki, you have up to an hour or more, exclusively for you to practise. That’s bumper bang for your buck.

Cheaper than competitors

Generally speaking, iTalki prices compare very favourably with other teacher directory / lesson sites. One of the other ‘biggies’, VerbLing, seems quite expensive by comparison. Likewise, when searching online for independent tutors, prices can be prohibitively high.

For mainstream languages like French and Spanish, the sheer number of tutors, and resulting competition, results in some very favourable prices for lessons. Additionally, most teachers offer a trial lesson for an extremely small sum. Under these conditions, students can more easily try multiple tutors to find a perfect match. Chopping and changing was never so easy!

iTalki’s tiering system of professional / community tutors makes for more affordable lessons, too. Good community tutors can be just as good as professional tutors, but often charge significantly less. Often the distinction is not one of teaching quality, but simply a case of hard qualifications. Some of my best iTalki tutors of all have been community tutors.

Community learning

Being part of iTalki is about more than just lessons. The creators have tried hard to create a dynamic community, as well as a market for teachers. There are many free, peer-to-peer features, which aim to get members helping each other. And there is nothing like helping others to boost your own motivation.

The question and answer forum is particularly busy, and somewhere you can also give a little back by addressing learner questions about your native language. The peer correction service can also be a real godsend, especially in lesser-taught languages.

What’s more, the site regularly hosts events that aim to egg students on. From February this year, for example, the iTalki Challenge will chivvy along the most dedicated amongst us, with leaderboards and prize badges awarded for the number of lessons taken. Some might criticise this as a cynical marketing move to increase lesson turnover, but the promise of public reward is surprisingly effective!

Turning the tables

As a language learner, you have your own unique insight into the learning process. That means that you, too, could help others by giving lessons in your native tongue, either as a community or professional tutor, depending on your background. As such, you can earn back iTalki dollars to keep a steady stream of lessons going. And of course, there’s always a chance that you’ll really enjoy it, and decide to turn it into an extra stream of income.

If you’re not quite ready for that step (and I’m not quite there yet, despite a professional teaching background!), then you can earn back in other ways. The site has a decent referral scheme, awarding you $10 for every friend you sign up for lessons. The friend also gets $10 credit, so it’s win-win. Here’s my link if you want that to start you off – and I’d be very grateful for your click! 😊

Peripheral benefits

As a fairly shy person by nature, another minor benefit of iTalki has occurred to me a lot recently: it is excellent practice at one-to-one conversation with new faces. Practising social niceties and the art of chat is a really useful side-effect of regular lessons on the platform.

Moreover, some of my long-term teachers have become good friends over the years. And if that isn’t a great peripheral plus-note, I don’t know what is.

Make the most of your iTalki dollars

Of course, it is vital to be prepared to make the most of your investment, too. Plan what you want to cover, perhaps using speaking bingo sheets. Make sure you write up your notes from the lesson. Transfer them to digital formats like Anki, where appropriate. And, most importantly, keep going, even when it seems difficult. Be honest with your tutors about the expected level of work, and they can adjust and tweak to suit you best.

iTalki can be a shot in the arm to your language learning, especially if you’ve been used to studying alone with your books. Those prices are deceptively cheap, given the return on your cash. Give it a go today.