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.


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.

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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.

italki Learns (about) Esperanto

August 23rd, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in event | feature | Motivation | teachers | tips - (Comments Off on italki Learns (about) Esperanto)

Saluton! This week italki is trying out a new language. We decided to focus on esperanto – the constructed language created in 1887. 

Why esperanto, rather than any other conlang?

Well, first of all, we’ve recently sponsored a language meet-up in Germany, based entirely around esperanto: International Youth Congress (IJK). We saw around 300 young people get together in Wiesbaden to practice esperanto, listen to lectures, and get their 100ITC voucher. 

Besides simply showing support to the esperantists of the world, we are involved in the event and are involved in the esperanto community because esperanto learners need support. The fate of the lone esperantist can be difficult.

There are many reasons to learn this language:

… but, it still seems that esperanto is seen as an odd hobby. There are very few native speakers, and this language, though built on a beautiful dream, has not found as much traction as it’s creator probably hoped.

It is, however, a very useful language to learn. We are actively looking for esperanto teachers, and are doing everything we can to support the community. The most important issue that the lone esperantist has is the lack of speakers with whom to practice day-to-day. Though IJK, polyglot gatherings, and other events help to build community, many esperantists get to meet and practice the language in person.

That’s great, but once the language enthusiasts disperse, there is often difficulty in practicing the language in a natural environment. Sure, there is media out there to support esperanto learning.

We feel that practice, one-on-one, is the best way to learn or keep up a language, so we have decided to put some effort behind building the esperanto community online, on italki.

In the spirit of support for the esperanto community, we have decided to take a few esperanto lessons with our teachers.

italki, meet esperanto!

First, esperanto tutor Teddy presented a “Chinese version” for Chinese speakers in the office, and later that week, we gathered again for the “English version” delivered by esperanto teacher Tim.

Teddy Nee, who runs Nee’s Language Blog and the author of two italki Articles on esperanto, described the basics of esperanto grammar, including descriptions of the different parts of speech, plurals, and use of the accusative. 

Tim Morley (mentioned above for his TEDX talk) gave us a fascinating description of worldwide esperanto community events and organizations such as the World Congress, IJK, and Pasporta Servo.

Members of six cultures and speakers of so many languages, tried to get the basics of this cool language while in our office. Sometimes we just like to take a step back and look at how awesome the future is. 

We’re very thankful and glad that we have such cool teachers, and are really proud to support the esperanto community.

What italki Learned From A Lesson In An Endangered Language

August 14th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in event | teachers - (Comments Off on What italki Learned From A Lesson In An Endangered Language)

A couple of weeks ago we have decided to show up to our office 2 hours early. through the streets and public transport of shanghai at 6 am is not the first thing that comes to mind that could be described as “fun” to try out a new language class. We fired up the meeting room projector and started our Skype lesson with one of our newest teachers, Ryan Heavy Head.

If the name strikes you as unusual, it is because Ryan is a teacher of Blackfoot, an Algonquian language (linguistic family containing many North American heritage languages) of the Blackfoot tribe in Northwestern US and Southwestern Canada. His ancestry includes Blackfoot as well.

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This was the first group staff class, bringing italki staff and friends together for a rare glimpse of a language, culture, and worldview that may not exist in only one generation. The lecture served as a great introduction not only to the language itself, but to another worldview embedded in the language.

In discussions and comments about about preservation of language heritage we often see the sentiment of “why bother?”. There is an almost Darwinian argument made here, that assumes that a language is worth learning or saving based somehow on the number of speakers or it’s “usefulness”. It makes sense, too, as many language learners are motivated by practical reasons: passing tests and advancing careers.

Still, we can’t support this argument, not because of a knee-jerk fear of missing out, but because we believe that human experience and knowledge is valuable.

The time we spent speaking with Ryan about Niitsi’powahsin made it very plain to us just how much information can be embedded in conversation about language.The very structure of morphemes (basic units of meaning) in every word is elegantly descriptive in a way that reveals a fascinating amount of cultural context.


The name of the language itself can be broken down into several meaningful parts:

  • Niit – “first” or “original”, referring to the Plains Indians traditional way of life before encountering the Europeans.
  • -powahsin – “language”


Merging the two then creates the name for the “original language” of Blackfoot: Niitsi’powahsin.

By this logic we can produce more words, for example, adding the name for the non-blackfoot Europeans: –naapi, resulting in the word Naapi’powahsin.

Similar logic is applied to other words, with morpheme -itapi meaning “living being” resulting in the following: niitsitapi (first people, the Blackfoot), naa’pitapi (Europeans), matapi (human), maatomaita’pitapiiya(a mature, fully developed being; a respectable, kind person).

The combinatorial nature of the language makes it very descriptive, and also suggests the internal logic and worldview associated with the language.


But, what IS the Beaver Bundle?

We delved further into this worldview by discussing the “bundles” – sacred objects made of multiple animal hides representing the “treaties” between man and nature, which are further narrated in the oral tradition of the Blackfoot. As a people who have lived in a particular territory, the Blackfoot (or Siksikaitsitapi – literally “blackfoot people”) their relationship to the animals, cycles of nature, and social attitudes were reflected in the content of the language and stories, but also in the mechanics and logic of the language.

Exploring a new language is always exciting, but this particular case was especially interesting. The rarity of the language made us feel that we had a unique opportunity to experience language-learning. What’s more, we got to experience an endangered and exotic language in a way that was impossible in a traditional classroom setting.  Any large city will have an abundance of schools and courses for learning English, and any number of speakers and willing tutors of widely-known languages. Finding a professional teacher for a language that has only a few thousand native speakers, on the other hand, is a rare moment. Being able to experience Ryan’s lecture while sitting in our Shanghai office really underscored the advantage of online language learning.

The potential is there, at our fingertips, to dive deeply and personally into a worldview alien from our own. We are able to gain more than just learning vocabulary or grammar. We are able to access the real carriers of culture and knowledge, someone able to explain to us a perspective onto a new world, a human experience impossible to have with a book or a recording of a language.

This is one of the reasons why we are proud of our work, and of our community of teachers and learners. We are able to create a unique, truly human experience and promote understanding and self-reflection. We are creating a way to experience learning inaccessible through more traditional approaches. We hope then, that our community takes up the challenge to learn and explore, and to view language-learning not as a problem to be solved or chore to be done. Instead, we hope that language learning becomes a habit, a way of life, and a lens through which we can understand ourselves and each-other.


Ryan’s Profile can be found here.

Ryan’s youtube channel is also a great resource to learn about blackfoot culture and language, and oddly enough, how snake anti-venom is made.

For more information about Ryan and Blackfoot language and history, please check out this documentary.

If you’d like to see other fascinating initiatives about preserving Blackfoot language and heritage, check out this story about preserving the language through Hip-hop.

italki spotted around the world!

August 12th, 2015 | Posted by Romain in event | feature | Language Challenge - (Comments Off on italki spotted around the world!)

Thank you all for writing great testimonials, participating (and winning!) in the June 2015 Language Challenge and for sending us these great photos.  As a special reward, we sent italki T-shirts to Language Challenge Winners all around the world and many of you posted these on Social Media.   We wanted to share some of these great pics of italki everywhere!

Czech Republic

Alena learning English and German.


Petr is learning Spanish and English





Johannes who is originally from Germany but now lives in Vietnam. He is learning Vietnamese.

Sans titre


Arthur is learning Español

Arthur (more…)