I’ve talked about (here) how I think language exchanges are probably the single most valuable thing you can do to learn a language because that’s where you’re actually talking to – and being corrected by – a native speaker, that’s where the rubber meets the road. They’re considered an absolutely integral part of The Telenovela Method of Learning Spanish since I place such emphasis on using the Spanish you’ve just learned and I think the best possible way to do that is by trying to use it to communicate with a native speaker (because you’ll learn immediately whether you’re applying it correctly or not).
Also, I know I’ve recommended iTalki before several times, usually stating that it was what I believed to be the best online language exchange site available (and that’s including even the language exchange sites that cost money, iTalki does not) and I still believe that. I’ve been meaning to write up a review of it for a long time now (couple years actually) but haven’t because I’ve dealing entirely with my book the last two years or so (either writing it or launching it or marketing it or…blah, something), so here it is. Not only am I going to cover the language exchange portion of the site (which is entirely free) but I’m also going to cover the tutor-student marketplace, so to speak, that’s the other part of the site (and where iTalki makes its money, if you were wondering). I’ve been using the language exchange system on iTalki for years now but only just today did I try out one of their tutors for the very first time.
The Language Exchange System
I should note beforehand that pretty much all language exchanges online now are conducted via Skype – if you don’t have it you need to get it. Not only does it allow you to speak to the person in real time like a phone call but, if both users have webcams (which I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of my language partners do, as do I), then you can actually see the person via a live video feed as they’re talking to you, thereby making it, in my opinion, just as good as an in-person meeting since you have all the same benefits: real-time speech as well as being able to see their facial expressions and body language as they’re speaking.
iTalki has a system to help you find language exchange partners that’s essentially a social network combined with a really good search engine, located at iTalki.com/partners. Accounts with iTalki are, of course, free, and once you have one set up simply go to the above link (or hover over the “Community” tab on the far right in the top menu then select “Language Partners”) and you’ll be taken to the search page. Now, choose the language that you want your partner to speak (that you’re learning), the language you speak, any particular country you want them to be from (useful if you’re interested in learning a particular dialect), gender if you prefer, and even the specific city you want them to be from if you like (sometimes a large city has its own dialect and accent, e.g. Madrid and Bogotá).
Once you find someone you’re interested in talking to you “Follow” them (by clicking the orange “Follow” button in the middle-right of their profile page) and include a brief introductory message letting them know you want to talk to them. Here’s the one I use in both Spanish and English for you (if they’re a native Spanish speaker I recommend sending them the Spanish version since you don’t know how good their English is) that I include in my book along with several more pages of scripts and topics you can use during your language exchange:
“Hola [their name], Acabo de darme cuenta de que usted habla español y aprende inglés, y yo aprendo español y mi idioma nativo es el inglés. Así que pensé, si usted quisiera, que podríamos ayudarnos mutuamente por hablar alguna vez.
Which translates to:
“Hi [Their Name], I just noticed that you speak Spanish and are learning English. I’m learning Spanish and my native language is English. So I thought, if you’d like, that we could help each other out by talking sometime.
Now, once they respond you’ll just need to get them added as a contact in Skype and set up a time and date to talk. For you to add each other as contacts so you can talk one of you will need to send a request to the other to be added as a contact and then that person will need to accept it, so you can either send them your Skype username and wait for them to send you the contact addition request or they can send you their Skype username and then you can send them the contact addition request.
The other half of iTalki’s site, the one that costs money to use, is the tutor-student marketplace system they have in place. This is just like the language exchange system except instead of finding just any old native speaker of the language you want to learn and talking with them, you pay for a professional language tutor to teach you the language in whatever way you want (most offer formal lessons and informal conversation sessions where they just talk to you and help correct your speech). Now, they break this down into two different areas: “Professional Lessons” and “Informal Tutoring” – I noticed that a lot of the people listed in one are also in the other, so the difference really isn’t so much who (who’s teaching) as how (how they’re teaching). Do you want formal, structured lessons or just some informal tutoring and help with whatever you feel like talking about that day?
To find a tutor, just search for whatever language you want to learn, specifying whether you want them to be a native speaker or not (I don’t think this is necessary, especially not for beginning students), what other languages you require them to speak (e.g. English), where you want them to be from (useful if you’re interested in a particular dialect), and any price constraints. Note that you have to pay using their own proprietary currency, iTalki Credits aka “ITC”, which you have to buy. 10 ITC equals $1US, and you have to purchase them in units of 100 ITC at a time with a minimum purchase of 100 ITC ($10US).
Then you can go through the results, look at their feedback (how many students they have and how many sessions they’ve done combined with their number-of-stars rating is what I mean), check their schedule and available courses to see if they suit you, then simply schedule a class. It will ask you to provide your Skype ID which, although not absolutely necessary, is something I’d highly recommend you get if you don’t have one already (this is how 98% of these online lessons and language exchanges are conducted: via Skype).
My Experience with a Tutor…
Was very good. My tutor was Vero and I highly recommend her (very reasonable rates, too!). I just wanted an informal session where we talked about whatever, in Spanish, and she helped me out and corrected me. This is precisely what I got and I thought she did an excellent job. She would tell me what the correct word to describe something was when I was looking for such a word and couldn’t think of it, she corrected my grammar and syntax, and she taught me a couple of interesting cultural bits of information about various Spanish-speaking countries that I didn’t know.
She also had a good deal of material prepared ahead of time including a short film in Spanish she wanted me to watch and then recount to her in order to gauge my abilities, which are not as good as they were two years ago because I’ve been spending all this time working on that blasted book and not my Spanish (it’s been probably a year and a half since I’ve even talked to anyone in Spanish and yes, if you don’t use it you lose it). My problem, which I’ve known about for quite a while and this simply confirmed it, is not that I don’t know enough Spanish (words and how to use them, i.e. the correct grammar and syntax) but that I’m just too slow, I can’t understand native speakers speaking quickly even if I know all the Spanish that they’re using and would be able to understand it perfectly if it were written down in front of me and I had time to read it. This is what’s known as a listening comprehension problem and is simply the result of not having spoken or listened to much Spanish in a while, that’s all.
I’ll be correcting this in the future as I’m able to devote more time to it and returning to writing on this blog, and I’ll be doing it with Vero’s help most likely, and here’s why…
Here’s who should use a language tutor: anyone for whom the time saved is worth the money spent.
That’s who. It’s simple, it really is, it’s just like any other language-learning product and I’ve said as much before: if you’ve got the money to spend on it and you think the time and effort it will save you is worth the price, then you should buy it and give it a shot. I have always made it very, very clear that you can learn Spanish (and most other fairly common languages) online, for free, and quite effectively in a reasonable amount of time. In fact, there’s never been a better time to do that than now due to the state of technology, especially the internet and what’s available for free on it. However, when you’re doing that – learning Spanish on your own using free resources – then the use of those resources, the system you put together with them in order to teach yourself Spanish, is entirely of your own design, you’re on your own. If you don’t know how to use all those resources, if you don’t know how to learn a language (you don’t if you’ve never done it before), believe me when I tell you that you’re going to have a heck of a time cobbling all these resources (free ones at least) together into a system that’s at least somewhat effective and efficient. Having a proper guide, in the form of either a competent person or a book (ahem) will save you enormous amounts of time and energy (and even money if you’re thinking about buying language-learning products and don’t know where to start in that regard).
It might sound strange that I, someone who’s learned a language to a fairly high level of proficiency before, is going to get a tutor in that language! Well, here’s the thing: it’s not that I can’t do it myself, it’s the combination of my time becoming more and more valuable (because it’s becoming more constrained) coupled with the fact that I’ve got a bit more disposable income to work with. So if I let someone else do a good deal of the heavy lifting such as determining topics of conversation, picking material to work on, etc., plus the convenience of scheduling it whenever I want as well as not having to spend half my time helping them with their English, then it really makes it much easier on me and saves me a lot of time, time that’s worth what I paid to save it by hiring the tutor.
It’s not that you can’t learn Spanish, or any other language, on your own: it’s that having a competent teacher, who’s learned several languages themselves and taught other people those languages, can save you significant amounts of time and effort, that’s all. It’s up to you to determine if it’s worth it.