“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”


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”


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”


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 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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 6.07.33 PM


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 presented at the 2014 SouthWest Conference on Language Teaching

May 11th, 2014 | Posted by Jim in feature | teachers - (Comments Off on italki presented at the 2014 SouthWest Conference on Language Teaching)

Erin O’Reilly, one of our Professional Teachers who has been teaching on italki for over a year now recently presented Going Global: Using italki to Connect with Native Speakers at the 2014 SouthWest Conference on Language Teaching in Snowbird, Utah, USA last month. We were honored that she presented on our behalf.  Below she shares her presentation with a guest blog post:

The Changing Language Classroom

April 24-26, 2014



by Erin N. O’Reilly


italki_erin_screenshotLanguage teachers love technology.  Arguably, they probably love technology more than teachers from most of the other traditional subject areas.  This may be because until the advent of the Internet, getting authentic language learning materials meant travelling abroad and schlepping back yellowing newspapers, outdated magazines, and bulky cassette tapes.  Talking with native speakers?  Never a possibility unless you lived in a major metropolitan city.

For the past year, I have used the italki platform as a language teacher, connecting with language learners and enthusiasts around the globe.
While their goals and reasons for learning a language vary widely, their passion and enthusiasm to connect with native speakers is immediately obvious.

Enter italki – the platform that makes it all possible.

This past week I had the opportunity to join with language teachers from around the South Western region of the United States at an annual language teacher conference. I shared with them the research behind live, online language lessons as well as best-practices and creative ideas to get started.

As language teachers, we’ve historically been limited to classroom learning. Creating opportunities for meaningful practice with native speakers has always been limited by geography. Today the tools exist to go beyond the classroom, to connect with a world of learners and teachers. (more…)

Learning Language is more fun with friends! :)

November 19th, 2013 | Posted by Jim in Learning Japanese | teachers - (Comments Off on Learning Language is more fun with friends! :))

Check out the following music video created by our italki member Brian Kwong and his friends from the +1 Challenge (who are all italki members).  This happy little video also features many of our italki Japanese Teachers including Noriko, Mayumi, Hanoko, Hiroshi, and Yuri who are singing, dancing, and doing all sorts of goofy things while signing a fun little Japanese tune.

It just goes to show you that…

Learning Language is more fun with friends! : )

The other great thing about this video is that it shows what can be done when like-minded people are able to connect with one another to make language learning fun!  This is exactly the reason why we built italki – to make human connections between language learners and language teachers.  We wanted to say thanks again to Brian and his friends from the +1 Challenge and our Japanese teachers who helped create this fun little video.

You just need to watch it for yourself.  It will definitely put a smile on your face.