Why I love online language learning platforms

Photo by Joel Naren on Unsplash

What is the best way to study a language? I’ve been studying Mandarin since January of 2016. I recently won a Taiwan Fellowship, which means that I’ll be working at the National University in Taipei this fall. Since my Chinese is still just lower intermediate, I have two Chinese lessons a week to try to prepare. I also have one Portuguese lesson a week, so that I can maintain my speaking skills. Once COVID-19 permits, I’ll be traveling to Lisbon and Macao to do archival research on the 1918 influenza pandemic. For this reason, I spend a lot of time each week on language study. And I’ve fallen in love with online learning platforms, particularly italki, although I know there are other excellent ones such as Verbling. To be clear- I have no financial stake in any of these platforms, and I don’t get any funding whatsoever from them.

You certainly don’t need to use these platforms to find excellent instructors. I had two kind and patient Chinese teachers before I moved to italki. I think that the friendship that I developed with them partly explains why I have stuck with learning Chinese over the years. But when my last teacher left the United States, I needed to find someone else. And it was in the midst of the pandemic, so the sessions couldn’t be face to face. I tried italki, and fell in love with the platform for a number of reasons:

  1. On italki you can search for a teacher from a specific region, using a pull-down menu in the upper left of your screen. Since I knew that I would be traveling to Taipei, I wanted to find someone from Taiwan. That way I could begin to learn traditional characters, and become familiar with the Taiwanese accent. The freedom to decide that you want to find a Chinese teacher in Malaysia -if for some reason that location is important to you- is really helpful. You can also find someone to teach almost any language that you can imagine, and from any world region.
  2. Every teacher has a brief video talking about their teaching style, as well as a bit about themselves. It is intimidating to find a teacher. You want someone who you feel that you will be comfortable with, and who matches your best approach to learning. It’s interesting how much you can get a sense of someone based on a short video.
  3. You can have different teachers for different needs. Currently, I have lessons with someone completing a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her classes focus on grammar. She’s an outstanding teacher, and I really enjoy the structure of her classes. She sends me a worksheet with vocab and grammar points in Google Docs each week, so I have material to study between tutoring sessions. At the same time, I also wanted someone who could be a conversational partner. So I have a second teacher with whom I meet once a week just to talk. Since speaking and listening are the two skills that I most want to develop, this session is not only fun but also a good way to test my progress. I also find that during a pandemic it’s a welcome time for social interaction.
  4. The prices are reasonable. You can see what each tutor charges per hour when you decide to schedule class. Most will let you have a first class at a reduced rate so that you can decide first if you’re comfortable studying with them. You can also choose the length of your classes. My grammar class is 45 minutes, but my conversation class is just a half hour. Personally, I prefer shorter classes because I start to lose focus after a half hour. With these platforms you can find classes at an inexpensive price, and set the length of your classes based on your needs and budget. Of courses classes with conversational partners are cheaper than classes with someone with graduate level training to teach a language.
  5. Freedom. I really like the flexibility of scheduling as many classes as I want, and at times that I want. When you want to book a time with a tutor you just go to their calendar, and find a time that they have available on their schedule. If it’s a quieter week, I can book two grammar classes. I’ve loved learning with both my online tutors. But it’s not awkward if you want to switch tutors; you just stop scheduling classes, since you sign up for them individually.

All that said, I also feel that I have a deeper relationship with my first Chinese teachers, whom I didn’t meet on italki. That may just be because I’ve known them for much longer, or perhaps I was just lucky to meet people with whom I formed a bond. Still, for all the practical reasons above, if you are a language learner, I’d really recommend trying an online learning platform.

As an aside for any Chinese language learners out there, I’ve learned that many common words from the HSK vocabulary list (HSK refers to the Chinese language levels recognized by the Chinese government) aren’t in regular usage in Taiwan, which I didn’t expect. My Taiwanese tutors usually kind of know what they mean, but wouldn’t typically use them in day to day conversation. So a restaurant is “can1ting1 餐廳” not fan4guan3. I keep coming across words like that when I try to use a HSK 2 vocab word, and one of my italki tutors gives me a confused look back. There really are advantages to having language teachers from more than one location.

However you choose to study another language, just don’t stop. There are no shortcuts. It’s all about the time.

Shawn Smallman, 2021