This is your brain on “Thank You”

November 26th, 2015 | Posted by Ivan in tips | Writing - (0 Comments)

This is not a post about Thanksgiving, it is about Giving Thanks. 

Though the Thanksgiving holiday itself is very U.S.-centric, the concept of the importance of gratitude is universal. Since the mid 90s, the concept of gratitude has captured the attention of researchers in the fields of psychology, especially positive psychology, and neuroscience.


The strongest pattern emerging from the study of gratitude is somewhat surprising: although expressing gratitude often means thanking someone else, the real benefit of feeling and expressing gratitude is gained by the person expressing gratitude. Even when expressed to no one in particular, expression of gratitude has some real and measurable benefits.

Among the benefits described by academic studies of the subject are increased happiness, better connections with others, and general improvement of one’s relationships.

Expressing gratitude routinely trains the brain to find reasons to be grateful, and trains the brain to feel happy about positive experiences. In fact, the field of neuroscience generally sees habitual practice of feeling, acknowledging, and expressing gratitude as a great shortcut to happiness, productivity, and connectedness.

As a company that is based almost entirely on connecting people, we believe strongly that the practice of gratitude, and the benefits of expressing gratitude in everyday life are worth celebrating.

So, we would like to say:

Thank You

To all our wonderful users, students, teachers, and tutors: we want to express the immense amount of gratitude we feel seeing the development of our community. This Thanksgiving, we are deeply grateful for all the people donating their time to others by correcting notebooks, writing articles, sharing their experiences in the community discussions, and dedicating the time and effort for learning foreign language from each other, often from opposite sides of the world. We are grateful to see the meaning our effort can take on for those who want to understand speakers of other languages, and willing to dedicate their time and energy to help the online language-learning ecosystem grow and develop.

We are glad to express this idea, and hope that you will find many ways to express it, and many people to whom you want to show your gratitude.

A common practice recommended by positive psychology is of gratitude journaling. Picking a certain time of the day to do a simple mindful practice of finding reasons to be grateful helps make the habit part of one’s life. This kind of continuous practice is familiar to all language-learners.

Imagine how hard it would be to learn a language if you simply spent one day each year binging on foreign-language material, and lived the rest of the year unconcerned with your practice. As with gratitude, language learning is a continuous practice of small, but intentional steps towards a goal, a better understanding, and better connection to others.

On this Thanksgiving holiday, and in light of this idea of continuous improvement and practice, we would like to share this article about Thanksgiving written by a Lakota columnist for the Guardian.

And, of course, we’d like to encourage you to say “thank you” to someone today, in whatever language you want to pick.


Works Cited:

Harvard Medical School: Harvard Mental Health Letter

Psychology Today: The Grateful Brain

US National Library Of Medicine: Gratitude and Well Being


“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.  


The Interns’ Blog: italki Team Building

August 18th, 2014 | Posted by Reid in feature | Writing - (Comments Off on The Interns’ Blog: italki Team Building)

Our new summer intern Reid from the United States started work at italki on August 4th.  We wanted him to write a quick blog about his first experiences working with the team here in Shanghai.  The below post is written by him.

My First Week at italki

100_0026I (on the far left) attempt to hit a bullseye while playing darts with the other italki staff.

When I walked into the italki offices for my first day on the job, I certainly had that first day at work anxious feeling. But as I met the italki team and figured out my way around the office, my nervousness quickly drifted away. I felt more relaxed as I came to realize that italki is not an overly serious, unorganized startup. It is, rather, a very efficient yet fun work environment. So yes, my first-day outfit of a suit and tie certainly stood out…

As part of my first week the entire italki team visited a Shanghai gun range for a company bonding event. This being my first week in Shanghai, I have to say I was pretty surprised that I would be shooting guns in China of all places. italki is a very international company and as such it is hard for many of the English-speaking staff to really connect with the Chinese-speaking staff. That said, the power of sport once again flexed its ability to transcend cultural differences and bring people together: while the entire italki team was shooting bow and arrows, we were all aligned in a common cause of cheering on our colleagues to do well. And, when we later took to the gun range I didn’t need to use Chinese to joke with one of my Chinese colleagues about my very poor final score… The entire experience consisted of shooting bow and arrows, guns, throwing darts, playing fuzball, and most all 12-year old birthday party activities (minus the guns, of course). Our team bonding event was, to say the least, an enjoyable, enlightening experience that allowed for all of us to connect with each other on a deeper level regardless of where we were from or what language we spoke.

100_0020One of my colleagues, Karthik, shoots a bow and arrow for the first time.

The employees here at italki are genuinely passionate about what they do and it shows in the quality of their work. The entire premise behind this company is to give people the power of a new language and thus a new culture; It is genuinely so amazing to watch as users from around the world go from having zero knowledge about a language to using it consistently in their daily lives. All in all, I remain excited to work at italki and gain further perspective on the world through my relationships with my international colleagues and italki users.

Until next time,


Writing Your Way to Fluency

October 24th, 2013 | Posted by ross in tips | Writing - (Comments Off on Writing Your Way to Fluency)

Guest Post by Allison VanNest,


Even if your goal is just to be conversant in a new language, don’t neglect reading and writing in favor of speaking and listening. These four aspects of language acquisition all work together to forge new pathways in your brain. Incorporate daily writing practice into your routine to learn faster. Here’s how:

Be Social. Find a writing buddy who speaks the language you are learning, and offer to trade writing samples. italki’s notebook feature allows you to post short pieces of writing for correction by a community of native speakers. It’s a social way of learning that helps you develop your language skills at your own pace.