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…)

italki Language Challenges: Here’s the Backstory

May 29th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in event | Language Challenge | Motivation - (Comments Off on italki Language Challenges: Here’s the Backstory)

The original concept behind the Language Challenge was based on two key ideas: a city marathon, and a smart incentive scheme.

Similar to a city marathon, the Language Challenge brings language learners to socially “train” together to achieve a defined goal. The social element turns the challenge into a public event, and helps the participants encourage each other to complete the challenge.

“Having a defined goal, such as taking 12 lessons, is crucial for focus. In language learning, it’s not easy to set a goal because progress is not easy to quantify, and there is always more room to improve.”

– Kevin Chen, co-founder of italki

The other idea was to offer a reward to people who achieve their goals, and to have the reward funded by the people who fail to achieve them. This concept was inspired by experimental gyms that were testing new payment models, such as charging higher membership fees for people who failed to go to the gym regularly.¹

The first Language Challenge was held in 2012, and the June 2015 challenge is the 10th in the series. The number of challengers has increased in almost every challenge, and over a thousand challengers are expected to participate in June. The Language Challenge attracts learners from all around the world, and many celebrity polyglots and language enthusiasts have participated in previous challenges.

How it works:

Participants pay an entry fee of $10 to join the Language Challenge.  If the challenger completes 12 hours of lessons with an italki teacher within the month of June, they will receive a reward of $30 in italki credits. italki credits are used for 1-on-1 online classes with professional native-speaker teachers.

You still have time to sign up!


And if you want some inspiration for your language-learning in June, head over here:



  1. See the theory behind for “Incentives to Exercise”, Gary Charness(UC Santa Barbara), Uri Gneezy (UC San Diego) http://rady.ucsd.edu/faculty/directory/gneezy/pub/docs/incentives-exercise.pdf

Thanks to all the great people at The Polyglot Gathering in Berlin

May 18th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in event - (Comments Off on Thanks to all the great people at The Polyglot Gathering in Berlin)


From April 30th to May 4th, hundreds of language enthusiasts gathered in Berlin to share in their passion for languages, swap tricks of learning new languages quickly and efficiently. 

Kevin Chen, CEO and Co-founder of italki shares his experience:

Being based in Shanghai, we unfortunately don’t get that many opportunities to meet many of our users face-to-face. This is one of the reasons why I was so impressed and inspired by the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin.  Imagine being surrounded by hundreds of people who love learning languages, and who want to make real human connections with people around the world.

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Here are just a few highlights:


  • Speaking with Judith Meyer, the main organizer of the Polyglot Conference.  In addition to managing a great event, she is an amazing polyglot.  I was afraid to test her debate skills in Chinese.
  • Learning more about Benny Lewis and his personal journey.  We’ve known Benny for a long time (he visited us in Shanghai in 2012!), and his message is always so positive.  Being a successful language learner is all about the desire, and an open-minded willingness to try learning in a different way.
  • Meeting Olly Richards and learning more about his personal experiences in learning Arabic in Egypt.  His feedback on Arabic is already helping us at italki.
  • Meeting Richard Simcotts and hearing him speak about what it means to be a polyglot.  He’ll also be co-organizing the Polyglot Conference, which is coming up in October.
  • Getting a taste of the life of an interpreter from Lydia Machová.  For a laugh, ask her about her experiences interpreting for hallucinating shamans and European tourists.
  • Meeting Ulysses Hsiúng-Lúo and getting his unique perspective on the world.
  • Being impressed by Vladimir Skultety, a Slovak whose American accent and amazing Chinese would allow him to pass as a native of either place.

Getting advice from Michael Levi Harris, a polyglot actor who spoke about how actors practice sounding like native speakers.  Check out his hilarious short film (based on his real experiences in New York), The Hyperglot.

I also have to make a special mention of the italki teachers that I met — Alina, Lea, and Shauna!  I know there are others who attended, and I wish I had had more time to meet everyone.


I met so many great people, and this post would go on forever if I tried to list them all.

The whole experience made a strong impression on me, and it fired up my desire to start studying again.  I considered starting Esperanto, partly based on my conversation with Chuck Smith and Katerine Berone-Adesi from the Esperanto community.  However, I want to make one more push at improving my Chinese.  (I’m thinking I will take the pledge in the next italki Challenge in June.)

Once again, if you have never heard of the Polyglot Gathering, I really recommend going.  You’ll meet fascinating people, and be inspired to start or restart learning a language.  At italki, we believe the future of education is moving in this direction — people will be driven by their passions and by a desire to understand the world.  We hope that italki can continue to be an important part of this movement!



It’s Coming! The 2015 italki June Language Challenge

May 7th, 2015 | Posted by Jim in announcement | event | Language Challenge - (Comments Off on It’s Coming! The 2015 italki June Language Challenge)

Psst… Some of you may have heard and the rumors are true! The secret is out….

Our last Language Challenge, the New Year’s Language was a tough Challenge!  It was a 6-weeks and required you to finish 20 hours!  We had a whopping 48% of our Challengers who finished it and many of the winners made huge improvements (hint: these are BEFORE and AFTER videos) in their language learning.

Our next Language Challenge is right around the corner.  If you felt that the last Challenge was a bit too Challenging, this one might be just right for you as we are running this Challenge just for the month of June.  We’re not telling you what the actual Challenge is just yet… but if you feel you can complete a shorter, one-month Challenge, this is the Challenge for you!

Registration begins May. 15th so stay tuned for the:

2015 italki June Language Challenge


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