Author Archives: Ivan

The Hyperglot and “Hakuna Matata” 

November 19th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in italki Team | tips - (Comments Off on The Hyperglot and “Hakuna Matata” )

There are many movies celebrating very particular hobbies. From surfing to stamp collecting, cinema illustrates the thrill of hobbies that capture our obsessions and imaginations.

What, then, about our favorite obsession: learning languages? Though there are plenty of actors who speak multiple languages, and quite a few movies where they switch fluidly among and between spoken languages, it is hard to identify a film that is about language-learning as a hobby.

Enter “The Hyperglot”, a 2013 short film celebrating the self-directed language learner. The story is simple: a talented, self-directed learner of languages in New York City is looking for connection. Switching fluidly among languages, he actually finds a greater degree of understanding from those UN-like him in speakers of languages from all corners of the world.

All of his interactions are with people who would otherwise be passers-by. Instead of leading separate lives intersecting only in time and space, our hero finds real connection with the people and linguistic worlds around him.

After the screening of this film at the NY Polyglot Conference 2015, the italki team decided to get together on a Thursday night, and watch it with a few friends. After the 25 minutes it took to watch the film, the mood of the room had changed. There is something magical about seeing one’s obsession affirmed in a work of art. The conversation among us became lively, excited. Various hidden language talents of the room burst forth and bloomed among us. We even decided to have a small language challenge of our own, to memorize “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King in a language we have not studied before. The choices ranged from Chinese to Icelandic, and we are sure to see some hilarious renditions of this song by italki staff on our instagram feed soon.

The bigger insight from this italki activity is this: language learning is a fundamentally community-oriented exercise. In the same way that we we build community around our passions in a local context, creation of art and media like “The Hyperglot” film provides additional motivation from inspiration and a feeling of partaking in a larger, more global experience. Learning foreign languages in isolation is self-contradictory, as language is the medium of connection and interaction.

Having our passions affirmed by our own “tribes” and communities helps us stick to the work involved in achieving our language goals, not just because of accountability, but because of the real rewards that come from interacting within and belonging to a group of friends. The presence of media dedicated to our passions helps us feel this on an even greater scale, and inspires us to dream and to succeed.

The trick to staying motivated, then, is surrounding ourselves with those who share our passion, as well as seeking out those inspiring works of art that celebrate and affirm our belief that our passion is worth pursuing.

NYC Polyglot Conference 2015 – A Few Thoughts on #PCNYC15

November 5th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in event | italki Team | Motivation - (Comments Off on NYC Polyglot Conference 2015 – A Few Thoughts on #PCNYC15)

 

“What’s in a name?” – William Shakespeare.

On October 10th and 11th the largest polyglot conference yet took place in New York City. The event saw the coming together of 400+ polyglots, and some of the most influential speakers in the field of foreign language education and linguistics. The speaker line-up was star-studded, with talks delivered by John McWorter, Loraine Obler, Barry Farber, and other celebrity scholars, linguists, and polyglots. The talks covered diverse topics from finding work through your passion for language to historical linguistics.

When discussing this event with others, the question that inevitably arises is, “What, or who, is a polyglot?”

So many languages, so little time

A traditional definition of a polyglot is a “person who speaks, writes, or reads multiple languages”. This definition does not quite capture what those attending the Polyglot Conference seem to mean when referring to “the polyglot community”. In becoming a community, the word itself gains a special, distinct meaning.

There are many reasons why one may speak several languages, including upbringing, education, extended family or friends. We collect languages and bits of languages in environments where multiple languages are present. Growing up in multiple countries will very likely to result in someone who at least “speaks a little bit of X, Y, and Z”. Depending on the particular situation and circumstance, a person can grow up perfectly quadrilingual without much conscious effort or significant notice of the linguistic feat.

Attempts to define “polyglot” begs the answer to yet another question: what does it mean to ”speak” a language?

The range of “speaking”, so often designated as “fluency” can be hard to pin down. Designation through a system of proficiency levels (A1 – C2) can also break down. There are, technically, no Esperanto speakers at a C2 level (as the test for the C2 level does not exist), though there are, of course, plenty of fluent and native speakers of Esperanto.

In addition, language is not a perfectly testable skill, and varies with domain specificity. A native fluent speaker of English, for example, would still have trouble comprehending a lecture on human anatomy. Speaking “doctor” and speaking “English” are different skills. Though both are contained within the umbrella designation of “English”, listening to an intense, specialized conversation between doctors can be as incomprehensible to an average English speaker, as listening to a conversation in Farsi or Afrikaans.

The city of New York is teeming with languages. The language landscape of the city is at a rolling boil. Pockets of language communities are everywhere, and though most people speak English, having a 2nd or a 3rd language is entirely unsurprising. If anything, single-language speakers may be in the minority here. The old joke goes “a person speaking 3 languages is trilingual, two – bilingual, and one – and American. New York defies this stereotype.

There is, however, a difference between the polyglot population of New York (or any other place in the world) and the sort of polyglots that willingly cross states, countries, and oceans in order to attend the conference.The people that came together to spend a weekend celebrating language are actively seeking out exposure, continuously learning and exposing themselves to the fear and vulnerability of making mistakes, being uncomfortable, and saying the wrong thing. While many of those in attendance can be quite shy this tolerance for vulnerability is inspiring.

This attitude, this purposeful vulnerability, is something that seems to tie the community together. Seeking out a new environment, a new perspective, a new door of perception through which to connect with others: that is a polyglot. In this sense, a polyglot is someone who actively seeks perspective and connection through the eyes of a speaker of a different language.

What the Polyglot Conference atmosphere has achieved a sense of community, of curiosity, and of support for learning. italki is extremely proud of sponsoring and participating this event, and hope that the speakers and participants, as well as italki students and teachers, will carry this open-minded, can-do attitude into the world.

Our favorite summary of the experience comes from Siskia Lagomarsino, also known as “The Polyglotist”:

“From what I saw this week, the “polyglot community” has grown beyond the definition of a polyglot being a person who speaks more than two languages: it is now a denomination for anybody who loves languages in general, without foolish distinctions based on ability, work or number of languages. “

We are excited to be part of this community, and truly look forward to meeting again in Thessaloniki 2016.

 

Logic Behind the italki Language Challenge (and how to ensure your success!).

October 16th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in feature | Language Challenge - (Comments Off on Logic Behind the italki Language Challenge (and how to ensure your success!).)

The October Language Challenge is just about to start. This time, we are asking our learners to take 6 hours of language classes in the space of two weeks. As opposed to the longer, higher-commitment challenges we have conducted before. We are terming this a “sprint” to help you jump start your language learning habits.

In the same way that it’s difficult to stay with a gym membership, stick to a diet, or live up to one’s New Year’s commitments, it can be difficult to study a language after that initial excitement of learning wears off, and consistent work needs to be done.

What is the logic behind the challenge? 

The model behind the language challenges for italki is to encourage planning behavior that gives our learners a sense of traction. As an example, we looked at some innovative gyms and work-out oriented apps which charge a user more for skipping a workout (unlike traditional gyms with long-term commitments who are interested in user failure). We adopted a similar model, where the up-front cost of the challenge encourages a student to stick to their commitment. The purchases from the users who do not complete the challenge subsidize the rewards for those that do. (Of course, we would love for everyone to complete the challenge, and in the past few years the completion percentage has been climbing higher with each language challenge event).

What’s m0re, the idea of getting a prize and the sunk cost back for completing the challenge is another good motivator to put in the extra effort. Ultimately, having a reward at the end of the challenge works better to create a perspective shift in a learner: once the going gets tough, the competitive spirit and desire for the reward is a much better motivator than the feeling of “Oh well, I guess I’ve lost my ITC”.

Why is this challenge so short? 

We are always experimenting with a better motivate to improve the language-learning process. In the same way that long-term gym commitments actually work to discourage the user, a longer challenge may seem difficult and daunting.

This “sprint” format is designed to encourage forward planning in the short-term, and get our learners to try the optimal model for using italki (users who schedule on average 3 hours with a teacher per week tend to stick to the learning process longer, and get better faster). 2 hours per week is not quite enough, and 4 can be overwhelming and discouraging in and of itself.

By making this a simple 6 hours/2 weeks challenge, we are hoping to let our challengers see the benefit of the optimal model, and give them the opportunity to feel how quickly they can improve using this format.

What’s the secret to successfully finishing the challenge?

The most important piece of finishing the challenge is following a plan. That means the best way to schedule your sessions is all at once, in one go, to create a roadmap of your classes for yourself.

In this “sprint” format challenge, it is a lot easier to plan out all the classes and make teaching requests ahead of time. If you want to avoid the crunch-time rush or stress of finding teachers, plan all 6 of your lessons distributed evenly over the duration of the challenge.

First of all, you will have a lot more control over when and with whom you will be having your sessions.

Secondly, making a commitment to a teacher will help you prioritize language learning, and give you the best possible chance to derive the greatest learning benefit from the sessions.

 

There are still a few days left to register, and enrollment into the language challenge is open after the start date. Don’t wait, get your language learning momentum rolling here:

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References:

http://mashable.com/2014/01/23/fitmob-startup-gym/

http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2011/01/24/gym_pact_bases_fees_on_members_ability_to_stick_to_their_workout_schedule/

 

“It’s fine”

September 16th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in italki Team | teachers | teachers | Writing - (Comments Off on “It’s fine”)

 

The limits of my language are the limits of my world” “Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt” .- Ludwig Wittgenstein; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (section 5.6)

 

How often do you go through your day encountering something that creates a response of “that’s fine”? By this I mean “oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s fine, there is nothing to be done about it”.

Let’s enter the theater of the mind for a second:

A: “Hey, sorry I forgot to mention yesterday, but I can’t come to your birthday party after all”

B: “Oh, okay, don’t worry about it. It’s fine”

or:

A: “Is that vase supposed to be cracked like that?”

B: “Oh yeah, that’s fine”

 

Think about this for a moment: we routinely encounter situations which we decide to ignore. “It’s fine”, “it doesn’t matter”. All of these statements communicate a mental event – the resolution of potential tension in one’s mind.

Having taken a few classes in Blackfoot as a team, we have stumbled on a particularly poignant example of how the language you speak subtly shapes your attitudes and understanding of the world: “it’s fine”.

This came about from learning the phrase in Blackfoot: “maatohkaiki”. The structure of word formation in Blackfoot is such that elements are added together to produce single words that produce complex ideas. This feature of the language is called “agglutination”, a feature present in Turkish, Japanese, Malay, Tagalog, Finnish, Estonian, and many others. Even English displays some features of this, for example in the word “un-wholesome-ness”.

Maatohkaiki, broken down by element, is roughly equivalent to the phrase “I’m not doing anything about it”.

This, of course, struck us as very indicative of what, as language nerds often do, one can derive from a closer look at the particulars of a language one uses casually.

So, what can we learn from this? The phrase accomplishes the same task in each language, but, buried deep in the deceptively simple expression, there is a window to a fascinatingly diverse worldview.

 

What can we tell from “it’s fine” or “it doesn’t matter” in English?

First of all it is a declarative statement about the outside world. The thing out there possesses a state: mattering or not mattering, being fine or not fine. The phrase declares a state, judged and evaluated by the subject: “it’s fine”.

That evaluation is loaded with meaning – is the state of the world “correct” or “acceptable”, or is it not? The Blackfoot interpretation is subtly, but significantly different: “I am not doing anything about it” – the distinction is not based so much in evaluation, as it is in decision of action. Action, in this case, is the vehicle through which meaning is imparted on the situation or object. Meaning is created and given to the outside world through the action of the subject.

 

Let’s add just one more element of complexity for illustrative purposes: Mandarin Chinese

The equivalent phrase here is “没关系” (méi guān xi) - or “no relationship”, meaning that a certain thing does not matter; has “no relationship” to another thing. The first character means “lack of” and the following two – “relationship”. The emphasis of the world view becomes very apparent here: the world is made of relationships, and the speaker is filtering the world through this model.

“Chinese culture looks primarily at relationships” is a statement that bears repeating in this case.

 

So, what?

It makes sense, then, that a native speaker of any of these languages would internalize their understanding of the simple phrase differently from speakers of other languages. The language of one’s thoughts shape her world in a distinctive way. Of course, a language is filled with these subtle colors, shaping our perception during the language acquisition phase of our childhoods.

The beginning example, seen through this lens, can be now re-interpreted:

 

A: “Hey, sorry I forgot to mention yesterday, but I can’t come to your birthday party after all”

B: “Oh, okay, don’t worry, I’m not doing anything about it”

Or

B: “Oh, okay, don’t worry, it has no relationship to me”

 

A: “Is that vase supposed to be cracked like that?”

B: “Yeah, I’m not doing anything about it”

Or

B: “Sure, it has no relationship to me”

 

These re-interpretations do seem to convey a contrast in attitude and perception of the world. Such subtle differences are almost imperceptible to a monolingual speaker. It is only in the learning of foreign languages do we start seeing these changes in perceptions, the way our own minds shift subtly with every new language. We learn from contrast.

Seeing the world through another’s eyes is a difficult but necessary task. In order to build productive relationships with those around us, the ability to see the the world as they do is a powerful tool. It is a tool of cooperation and understanding. It seems that a great way to do this is to keep learning no languages and vocabularies. With each new word, our world expands and becomes just a shade more flexible, a bit more capable of empathy and understanding.  

 

italki Climbs a Mountain

August 27th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in event | italki Team | Motivation - (Comments Off on italki Climbs a Mountain)

Over the weekend italki got to get away from Shanghai. We wanted to get away, see more of China, and get to know each other a little better. In the last year italki has doubled in the number of staff. The company filled up a bus and embarked on a two-day journey to the 牛头山 (Ox-head mountain) national park, in the heart of Zhejiang. 

The area is a magical place. High, wild peaks are covered in a lush green that is rare to see in the sprawling city of Shanghai. The fog, seemingly present all day, but most poetic close to dawn, rolls down the steep inclines. Apparently shredded by the tops of the mountains, the fog dissipates into eddies and currents. It is a cloud that, much to its confusion, has suddenly discovering something entirely unfamiliar to it – the ground.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.50.23 PM

 

The entire italki collective sleepwalked onto the bus at 6:45 am, and embarked on our journey.

 

As the Chinese countryside rolled by in our windows, still half asleep, we could see the pace of life change, bustle of the city and it’s 21+ million disappeared in our rear window.

A few hours passed and the terrain changed, dramatically. The bus grunted and moaned its way up, fighting against the thin air against a steep grade. Out of the windows we could see the bottoms of the mountains. Seemingly close but sinking deeper and deeper into the earth. The mountain roads took us up and along. The bus huffed away, skirting around the edge of the precipice, giving us long, thoughtful look down.

As far as “corporate togetherness” events go, our trip was far from the usual fare. It was remote, physically challenging, and actually fun. 

Our first stop was the “rafting” (not counting a very traditional Chinese lunch in a speck-on-the-map sort of town). If you have images of going down rapids, 6 – 8 people to a boat, anchoring yourself with your foot while you paddle – this was not it.

We separated into groups of two, picked a boat, picked a wooden paddle which resembled a two-by-four, and got into the water. The course of the river itself seemed to resemble a log flume ride more than river-rafting.

Each set of rapids was built up and secured with concrete, creating a … nozzle of a sort. Each of these choke-points was manned by several guys wearing conical straw hats, and operating a long stick of bamboo with a metal hook on the end. They would corral the hapless rafters towards the drops, regulating the timing to prevent collisions. Once your turn came up, the raft would be sent through the concrete nozzle and ride the vigorous foaming water through to the level a foot or three below, and further downstream.  

italki went wild. Splashing each other and finding the best ways to obstruct the progress of their peers through the rapids.

 

We played in the water and sun, before finally settling into the hot baths with herbs stuffed in industrial-sized tea-bags made of fabric. There we socialized further. Moving between flavors of baths, one could hear the bantering in a dozen languages.

 

The Official Proceedings:

The next morning we had a typical company meeting. Each department presented their work for the month and quarter. We talked about the work we expect to do in the future. Each one of these meetings we get a little bit better, a little closer to new features, capabilities. Its a giddy feeling to see progress.

In a building on top of a mountain, here, in the depths of China, the atmosphere was also perfect for the next activity. We have almost doubled in size in terms of staff within one year. A quickly-growing company often risks its warm, personable atmosphere with rapid expansion. It’s also easy to lose a sense of history, of the team’s historical mission in these circumstances.

That’s why, at this celebration of our work and beautiful nature around us, we learned about the history of the Company. We heard stories from those who have started italki: the struggles, the numerous offices, the small, incremental triumphs that brought us here. We connected to our historical mission again, and took that momentum further – trying to envision our futures.

As always, the future is uncertain, but we see the impact of our work. In all the stories of success we hear from our students, in knowing the amount of struggle that went into creating the meaning behind the little pink speech bubble, we are reminded of what we stand for, and why we work.

 

Climbing the Mountain

This trip was fundamentally not about the usual “go team” exercise one expects from any sort of “corporate togetherness” event. Any “go team” moments came from a genuine enjoyment of the company and the sense of shared mission. More than that, though, it is the insights that we gained about one another that really created a sense of  belonging.  We finished up the meeting to get to the most challenging part of our trip: Climbing the mountain.

As an aside I must tell you that Chinese national parks are designed in an odd way. The slopes of natural mountains and lush greenery are crossed by well-paved concrete sidewalks. These often take the shape of an endless staircase. They are kept at altitude, resting on a series of blocks embedded directly into the the face of the mountain. Park visitors climb. There are no dirt trails marked off by logs. The contact with nature is not direct, and feels a bit like a set piece from Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”. Indeed, at times it feels like one can be looking hundreds years into the past, watching a side of the hill or a rivulet in the rock formation. Swaying to their own thoughts, the branches speak with the wind.

We set off to climb.  Thousands of steps snaked endlessly through lush greenery. Breathtaking drops and sights interspersed with desperate sprints, up. The climb was brutal.

 

Before we got to the summit for our well-deserved rest, we had to brave the rope bridge.  The wind breathed and the tension in the wires of the bridge groaned and strained. It’s hard not to be afraid with only a few wooden planks and steel cable separating you from the long drop down.

Still, the only way to get to the top is to move forward. Some shuffle forward inch-by-inch, some brave the bridge getting mid-jump photos.

 

Regardless of the style or the amount of fear, the only way to the top is forward, even though it’s a long way down.

By the end of the climb most of us were breathless. Not only did the climb pushed us physically, but the raw distances and the landscape that stretched out into the horizon left us breathless.

Climbing to the top is it’s own reward.

Exhausted but happy, we slept through most of the bus ride back. 

 

If there is a metaphor to be drawn between what we do and this outing, it is that building a startup is akin to climbing a mountain: often it is just grueling taking step after step after step. Iterative development and gradual improvement is a grind. Taking those steps can seem endless, daunting.

Once in a while, though, you get to stop and look out, to see something new, from a new height.

Finally, in the end, the satisfaction of being at the top is transformative. Seeing the road taken there, far below, as it snakes in and out of view through the wilderness, gives a feeling of flight, of overcoming self and mountain, in order to attain that deep satisfaction of having accomplished something big.

We are looking ahead, shuffling or jumping, we are moving forward. Step after painful step, we are grinding through our ascent.  Together we are climbing. We are climbing not only as a team or a company. We are climbing as language learners, as teachers, as innovators and curious people. We are climbing with and for  everyone who has ever wanted to learn. For everyone who feels the draw of the wild, of new cultures, of the rare air of a new experience, we are climbing with you.

 

 

See you at the top.