Getting there! (Photo taken by Animom)
Live languages exchanges via sites such as italki are often a big topic in the language learning community. For the longest time, I’d focused exclusively on input, since things like native media have always been my main interest. To see the vast majority of language learners have speaking as their main goal (in other words, output), made me feel like I should finally give it a try. Although I eventually came to spend some time on the text-based exchange site Lang-8, I had yet to have an actual live conversation with a real native Japanese speaker. As an introvert, being put on the spot like this can be absolutely terrifying afterall! And that is exactly my purpose in writing this post: To encourage my fellow introverted language learners to give this method a try.
I have to admit that my reason for taking the plunge into italki wasn’t entirely just based on wanting to step out of my comfort zone (but that is some of it!) Truth be told, what really gave me enough push to give it a shot was starting to plan a trip to Japan. After finally paying off both a credit card and line of credit, our family was now able to start saving funds for a future trip. With a projected time of summer 2017, this idea was now starting to become a reality. No longer could I ignore learning how to speak Japanese, since I’d be needing to use it in the future in a very practical way!
For those not familiar with italki, it’s a site that asks as an intermediary between students and teachers to arrange a live video or audio tutoring session via an application such as Skype or Hangouts. As a student, it means you can view ratings and comments about teachers, keep track of your sessions, and also ensures that you won’t have to pay anything if your teacher doesn’t show up on Skype for the session. For teachers, of course the reverse is true too. They can manage all their sessions, and will still get paid if a student bails out on them without 24 hours prior notice. Thanks to this system, I think teachers and students alike can feel safe using the site.
The first challenge was selecting 3 tutors for the allotted trial sessions that new users get (these are basically just discounted rates to be used up to 3 times, and only once per teacher.) I contacted a few tutors by inbox message, and while the replies were all very positive, I eventually had to choose just 3 of them. Shortly after doing that, the time had quickly come for my first live Skype call with a real live tutor!
I’d looked up various tips on how to prepare, such as memorizing certain expressions or vocabulary that are likely to come up, or spending extra time listening to the language on the day of your session. I did all of these things, and I think they helped, but ultimately it came down to just jumping right and and doing it. Keep in mind this piece of advice is coming from a fellow-introvert! I am not the type of person to do something like going up to random native speakers social skydiving-syle, but with italki it’s quite different.
The frame of mind to get into, is that these wonderful people are tutors, and are there to help you with your language learning. Many of them are also currently learning another language other than English, and will understand your situation first-hand. Their approach is to make it a comfortable learning environment. Just about every tutor I’d contacted suggested writing a little something out in text form first, so I wrote a self-introduction to act as a starting point for tutoring. I find this preparation perhaps helped most of all, since discussing the errors in my text or talking about hobbies and the like gave instant topics to cover.
Now for the actual session… I signed into Skype and added the tutor to my contacts. With a text message in Japanese, I said I was a little nervous, but ready. Within seconds, the request for video chat came in. Here we go! The session started off with basic introductions, followed by questions about where I live and things like that. I found that things flowed fairly naturally, with no awkward moments at all. If it makes sense to say this, I was nervous but comfortable during the whole session.
The tutor spoke slowly and clearly, almost entirely in Japanese. On my end, I was 50/50 at best. I would sometimes try to say something in Japanese, make my best attempt, and then say it in English as confirmation. Thankfully the tutor wrote a lot of notes in the text chat, which I can now enter into Anki to improve for the next session. Even after just one session, I feel that I’ve had some grammatical rules clarified for me, and already have a good idea about which areas to improve on to enable smoother conversation.
Until now, I’d mostly been an input-only kinda guy when it came to language learning. While this still makes up the most of my study time, I can see some benefits to also speaking practice with a tutor. First and foremost, the fact that you have an upcoming session at a specific date and time, that is a service you’re paying for, really makes things get real very fast! You really spring into action, and focus only on things that will be practical for your upcoming session. Fast forwarding now to 6 sessions and 5 tutors later… I can say that it continues to be a positive experience. Sticking with the theme of the post, here are a few tips and personal thoughts for any fellow introverts (or anyone at all really!) who want to give italki a try:
I have to admit, that before just about every session, I’d be tempted to chicken out and cancel at the last minute (again, keep in mind you don’t get a refund for if it’s less than 24 hours notice! Another motivator to stick with it!) I was worried that I wouldn’t know what to say, and that it would be awkward because of it, or that I would have so much trouble saying anything that I would look like a fool. Yet after every session, although I felt a little drained, I also felt motivated and inspired. It’s about talking with someone who is helping you practice, not about trying to be the most interesting person in the world. Tutors on italki are there because they’re passionate about language learning, and are learners themselves and understand the problems you may face. They’re there to help you, and are sympathetic to the various challenges of language learning.
As mentioned earlier, I would absolutely recommend trying a few different tutors to start. I think I actually lucked out and had 100% good tutors, which made it hard to only pick a couple to stick with now that I’ve been through the process, but it really goes a long way to have a tutor that’s in line with your personality, learning style, goals, interests, and even time zone! Oh yes, while I’m on that topic…
If there was only one difficulty I had, it was the massive time difference between eastern Canada and Japan. For my particular time zone, we’re essentially totally reversed with AM and PM. If I was scheduling an early session for 8AM, it was late evening at 8PM for them. It’s perfectly understandable, but it did make it harder to schedule session times that worked for both parties. The plus side is that italki will adjust all times to be displayed in your local time zone. This is also true for the teachers when they list their availability, so as long as you see a free slot, you’re good to go and book the session!
Another preparation not to overlook is the technical side of things. No matter what device you’re using to access Skype, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a backup, because let’s face it… technology fails sometimes! For example, if you’re using Skype on your laptop, it may not hurt if you have a smartphone on standby just in case. Or to use a real life example, during one session my Bluetooth earpiece ran out of battery, and I had to switch to the very quiet built in speakers and had trouble hearing the rest of the session because of it. (Not to mention that losing the noise cancelling feature of the Bluetooth piece likely made it harder for my tutor to hear as well.) Testing your audio/video settings ahead of time (especially on the PC-based Skype) won’t hurt either, as sometimes the program gets confused about which component to use for input/output on more multi-faceted devices such as a laptop.
Although my tutors were great for coming up with topics and questions to keep the conversation flowing, it can be a good idea to try and do your part as well. I’m certainly no conversational master, but something as simple as asking the same question back to the tutor can go a long way, not to mention it will get you used to both the question and answer sides of a conversation.
I think it’s the spontaneity of an italki session that makes it appealing as an additional learning method. Not only that, but since it’s a one-on-one session, it’s extremely personal in the sense that this session is for you and only for you, and no one else will have that exact same lesson. For this reason, I find that certain newly learned words, expressions, grammar, etc stick with me more than say just seeing it on a vocabulary list.
Speaking of which, most tutors that I’ve had were kind enough to write out many things in text form in the Skype chat. This is very useful not only for clarity’s sake, but you can also take these notes for further study, such as finding additional example sentences, creating cloze cards to remember expressions, and so on. This is one of the ways that you can take your learning beyond just the 30+ minute session on italki.
I hope that sharing my experiences so far on italki will give you a better idea what to expect, and that you can see that even us introverted language learners can benefit from and enjoy sessions on there. I really think it’s something that I will be sticking with in the long term, by aiming to have two sessions a month. I know I still have a long way to go, but even looking back at the handful of sessions I’ve had so far, I’m definitely very conscious of the improvements I’ve made. If you’ve tried out italki or similar platforms, please leave a comment below and tell me what your experience was like. Thanks for reading, and best of luck in your language learning journey!