French @ Italki Challenge: halfway there!

February 11th, 2015 | Posted by Jim in feature | Language Challenge | Motivation | tips - (Comments Off on French @ Italki Challenge: halfway there!)

Siskia L. runs a popular language learning blog called The Polyglotist and is taking part in our New Year’s Language Challenge to learn French. We found this great post about her experiences with the language challenge and wanted to share this with other Challengers!  Reprinted with permission. Original post here.

Incredibly, last Thursday I did my 12th hour of French for the italki Language Challenge (out of 20 required to complete it). More incredibly, I also got pretty sick this very week, so I didn’t actually do as many hours as I had expected to. Anyway, here’s…


I think it’s the first time I’ve put such intensity into one language. I don’t mean to say I’m more interested in French than I’ve been in any of my other languages (both serious attemps and light dabbling), but since I started this language I’ve progressed in a very natural way. Putting in one hour of conversation and anywhere between 30 min and 3 hours of self-study into this project just feels right.

This reminds me that as of late, I’ve been more conscious about my study hours than usual. This is not because I suddenly felt I should be more mathematical about my study methods, but rather because I am currently participating in the 6 Week Challenge, which requires its participants to log their study hours through a Twitter bot. In the beginning I thought this wouldn’t really influence me to study any more or any less than I was in the first place, but the effect of participating in what’s in essence a “race” has been quite interesting in the sense that knowing I’m in this with other people stimulates me to try harder. I’m not so interested in knowing in what place I am currently (although it’s fun to race other people learning my language as well, haha) rather than knowing how I’m distributing my study hours, doing what, and how. All these things one can keep track of through the challenge, so it’s good statistical data.

Partly because of participating in this challenge, partly because I’ve realized structure and form lead to better results, I’ve been trying to improve the way in which I administer my time and agenda. (Not that I did a very good job at that this week, what with work and school and more work and feeling pretty damn under the weather, but anyhoo…)


I’m actually talking in French for about 75-80% of my italki sessions, only going back into Spanish or English when I am absolutely at a loss for words: I’ve noticed that this isn’t when I try to use regular words: for the most part, it’s when my mind tries to translate a colloquial expression from English into French. Unless I’ve heard that expression before and know its French equivalent, my brain’s language monitoring center usually goes on full blown red alert and tells me not to use that expression.

Will Robinson

I have got to stop being so cautious and just dive in. I know better than anyone that making these particular mistakes is essential for the learning process, but old habits die hard. The funny part is, this doesn’t happen with regular words, only with expressions where I mean to imply something figuratively or where cultural references come into play.

Speaking of words, I’ve noticed two interesting things about my French: my source for words I haven’t heard before tends to be English (knowing that a good deal of the English lexicon derived from French), while my reference for correct French grammar tends to be Italian. By this I mean that when I speak in French and try a new word I haven’t used before, my first impulse is to look for it in my mental English database, and only when I notice the word doesn’t sound French, do I look for it in a dictionary. While I’m hard pressed to say this always works, several English words have turned to be the same in French, so while I build a better lexicon in this language, this may not be a bad method to keep the conversation in French territory (instead of jumping back into English every so often) .

My theory now is that as a language student, one will use whatever one’s got in the pantry to hold on to the language while at the same time creating a more accurate linguistic base through classes, study, tutoring, etc. Maybe that’s the reason why we tend to translate our thoughts literally?


After some hits and misses, I’ve run into incredibly good teachers that focus on monitoring both my vocabulary and pronunciation. Getting the pronunciation right has been a gruelling task, and I’m incredibly far from having it down pat, but at least I’m being pointed in the right direction all the time.

Probably one of the things I’m enjoying the most about this language project is the HUGE resources gap between French and my last language, Nahuatl. After spending most of 2014 pretty much doing detective work, looking everywhere for hints of where to learn Nahuatl and how, finding self-study resources in French is turning out to be a walk in the park.

Right now I’m enjoying several different listening-comprehension resources. I’m planning to summarize the best and most effective ones in a later post, but here’s just a little bite of what I would recommend to anybody wanting an ear-workout in French:

  • Apprendre le français avec TV5MONDE and 7 jours sur la planète: level-graded videos, with transcripts, exercises and explanations of recent, up-to-date and useful vocabulary. 7 jours has an app (available for both iOS and Android), excellent for taking your comprehension exercises on the road.
  • FluentU: although officially in beta right now, it’s an excellent video-based resource to listen to French (also available for Chinese, Japanese, German, Spanish and English). It’s based on phrase-by-phrase video segments, using a type of “subtitle” technology that stops the video when you hover over a word you don’t know. It also has vocabulary exercises available, and when you use these, the system remembers what words you remember and what you don’t. Since these are saved in your account, your word database applies to all the videos in the system, meaning that the system is able to suggest videos perfect for your vocabulary level!
  • Français Authentique: this is a very complete site and I honestly recommend Johan’s learning materials to ANYONE, but the part that I use the most is his podcasts. In these, he explains complex concepts and ideas in slow, easy-to-understand French, and they’re available completely free of charge in his website and in the Podcast section of Itunes.

Well, that’s it for now. I have several very interesting ideas and projects lined up for The Polyglotist, and I’d love to share them with you… but not yet! ;D

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Advice from Past Winners – How to finish the Language Challenge!

February 10th, 2015 | Posted by Jim in feature | Language Challenge | Motivation - (Comments Off on Advice from Past Winners – How to finish the Language Challenge!)

So we recently received feedback from many of our past Language Challenge winners and wanted to share what we’ve found from everyone’s responses. We were very surprised as all the Language Challenge winners had the exact same advice on how they finished the challenge and we’ve summarized it in the following graphic:


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italki Team Language Challenge – Week 3 Update

February 5th, 2015 | Posted by Aimé in feature | Language Challenge | Motivation - (Comments Off on italki Team Language Challenge – Week 3 Update)

The italki team is taking the 2015 New Year’s Language Challenge

How much Chinese can they learn in 20 hours?

3 members of the team at italki are taking the language challenge to improve their skill in Mandarin. Each of them will have 20 hours of lessons between January and February. Can you do better than them?  Check out their original Public Video Pledges that they made at the beginning of the Challenge here.

Week 3 Updates

aime_circleAimé, Intern

Week 3

Sadly, I did not meet my goals for this week which was to be able to understand the question my teacher asks me. I still have difficulty trying to understand what she is asking me even when it’s stuff that we’ve already went over.   I did get in 3 hours of lessons and I did however improve my pronunciation of the words and sentences I’ve already learned though!

So 3 weeks in, I’m not as confident as I was before the challenge started.  Although I’ve learned a lot, it’s way harder than I thought and my listening skills are still terrible.  Chinese is really a tough language to learn.  I’ve done some self-study but really realize I need to do more.

Next week I’m going to step up my game.  I’m going to do some more self-study and also put in more hours.  I was able to sit down and give a quick update in the video above as well.   Go ahead and watch it above!

Lastly, I just wanted to say my bets for next week are that Karthik will definitely NOT make his weekly goal!


josie_circleJosie, Services

Week 3

This week was tough because I had a bad case of food poisoning and wasn’t at work for two days!  I was barely able to sit up so studying Chinese was out of the question but I was able to get 3 hours of lessons. What was even better was I was I’ve cleaned up my notes and finally written my vocab words on flashcards. Makes it so much easier for me to revise during my lunch break!

For this upcoming week my goal is to practice my vocab everyday and practice using the new words in sentences. My teacher Elena and I are going to review what I have learned so far in the next couple of sessions, so it’s important that I go over all of my cards!

I’m a bit scared about this upcoming week as well because this weekend I go to Hong Kong, so won’t take lessons then. I’m scared that I might fall behind! Honestly, I’m doubting myself at the moment! I still don’t feel 100% after my food poisoning and this weekend I know I won’t take lessons so I need to step up my game!



Karthik, Data Scientist

Week 3

This was a tough week for me as I week I was only able to do 1 hour.  I was hoping to put in some hours this weekend but we had to do server maintenance for most of that day and I really wanted to watch our engineering team in action.  I was able to really put in some time to work on my pronunciation and grammar so it wasn’t a complete waste.

I realize that I need to put in some more time for next week.  I hope to do 5-6 hours to make up for lost time.  Thus far, at this halfway point I’ve only completed 5 hours. That’s pretty good for me, but I got to step up in order to finish. So, I need schedule more lessons.

One thing that I do have going for me is that I still get to practice speaking occasionally with my co-workers and friends. The duration of this practice is typically less than 1 hour/week so that sort of counts, doesn’t it?  I’m going to kick some butt for week 4!

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How NOT to suck at language challenges

February 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Jim in feature | Language Challenge | Motivation - (Comments Off on How NOT to suck at language challenges)

Olly Richards is an polyglot (he speaks 7 languages!) and runs a popular language learning blog called I Will Teach You a Language! This is a great post that he wrote which we hope will help you through the italki 2015 New Year’s Language Challenge. Reposted with permission. Original Post here.

failure“Language challenges”, you may have noticed, are cropping up all over the place!

Typically lasting either 30 or 90 days, you come together with other learners from around the world to set goals, learn from each other and make giant strides forward in your language learning.

That’s the theory at least.

In language challenges, as with anything else, there is the potential to waste your time and even set yourself back.

Get it right, though, and you can genuinely catapult your level in your target language into the stratosphere.

In this post, I’m going to draw on my experience in the first Add 1 Challenge(back in 2013) to show you exactly how to make a language challenge work for YOU.

I know this, because in my first language challenge I made a lot of mistakes…despite being a fairly experienced language learner.

Suddenly finding yourself in a new environment can really throw you, even if it does happen to be online!

I worked too hard, tried to outdo myself, took it all a bit too seriously…

…and ended up burning out!

Luckily I managed to turn it around, and wrote about how I did it in this post about learning Cantonese.

I don’t want this to happen to you, so read on…

9 keys to success in a language challenge

frustrated_with_studying_by_jennyxyoung-d3dywnz1) Don’t aim too high. Small steps forward in the right direction are infinitely better than shooting for an unachievable goal and burning out, or beating yourself up for not reaching it. “Be fluent” is not a good goal. “Have my first 15-minute conversation with a native speaker” is.

Modest goals, by being achievable, create space for you to actually enjoy the learning process, and help you avoid the kind of stress that leads to you becoming demotivated and even giving up.

2) Don’t do things that aren’t sustainable in the long term. Sure, you could study for 3 hours every night during the challenge, but you won’t be able to keep it up for long. Rather than aiming to do as much as possible during the challenge, instead aim to develop habits and routines that you can sustain beyond the end of the challenge.

This means focusing on approaches to studying that can fit around your lifestyle. Don’t try to make your lifestyle fit around your language learning – it won’t last long.

3) Don’t set goals, but do know where you’re headed. I’ve found that traditional goal setting in language learning doesn’t work for most people. Although this is counter-intuitive (goal setting is very powerful for most things) the reality is that you can’t really control what you learn. You can, however, control the kinds of activities that might result in learning.

By focussing on the process, and not worrying about the product, you will get much further along than if you’re constantly obsessing over “Have I learnt my 20 words for today?”

I call this methodology Sprints, and have written a detailed explanation of it here. It has helped a lot of people move forward in their language learning and I highly recommend reading this post if you often find yourself confused about what to do.

4) Aim to experiment as much as possible. It’s by trying new things that you will eventually find what really works for you. I’ve often found that one small discovery can change the way I learn languages altogether.

This is yet another application of the 80/20 principle – most things you do will make no difference whatsoever, so learn to set them aside and keep pursuing those that will.

5) Talk as much as possible with other people also involved in the challenge. We’re social beings and shouldn’t exist in bubbles. You are the average of the 5 people around you. Firstly, there’s the moral support and motivation to carry on that you can get from other people. You can learn so much from what other people are trying, and you should always remember that it only takes one person to give you one idea that can change your direction totally.

6) Take the opportunity to push yourself outside your comfort zone.Try things that you wouldn’t otherwise. Scared of booking that tutoring session on iTalki? It’s now or never, and it certainly won’t get any easier once the challenge is over.

7) Announce what you’re doing to friends and family. Accountability is a big deal. In fact, telling people publicly that I’m learning Arabic has been a huge motivating factor for me in those moments when I’m less than up for it. I know, for example, that when I head to next year’s Polyglot Gathering in Berlin I’ll be quizzed (in a nice way): “So Olly, how’s your Arabic?” If I say that I haven’t got very far with it, I’ll feel rather foolish!

8) Speak with native speakers more than you currently do. A lot more. Speaking is probably the one thing you don’t do enough of, if your aim is ultimately to be fluent in your target language. Let’s be honest, if you did enough speaking you wouldn’t need to join a language challenge. And this means that you need to go into the challenge understanding that the elephant in the room really is speaking – you’re going to have to find ways to speak more, and services such as iTalki really are the best.

If you haven’t started speaking your target language regularly with people yet, it really is much easier and less daunting than you think, and I’ve written a guide to getting started which will help you with this.

9) Don’t ever compare yourself with others. It’s not about how good you get in 90 days. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other people or their level. Everyone is at different stages and will end up in different places. That’s fine. What matters is what you learn for yourself, and, ultimately, what you carry forward to the weeks and months after the challenge is over.

As such, don’t worry one bit about “his Japanese is better than mine” or “her accent is more convincing than mine” – it may well be, but it doesn’t matter, because you should only worry about how far you’ve come and what you’ve learnt.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll be way ahead of the pack.

Image 1: alexkphoto

Image 2: jennyxyoung

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Brazilian Gringo – italki Challenge Update 1

February 1st, 2015 | Posted by Jim in feature | Language Challenge | Motivation - (Comments Off on Brazilian Gringo – italki Challenge Update 1)

Josh is taking the language challenge to learn Spanish.  He posted about his experiences on his website Brazilian Gringo a blog that was born out of a need to share a more realistic perspective about Brazil, and our mission here is to share language and cultural insights to make Brazil more accessible for people to live, work and do business. Reposted with permission. Original post here.

iTalki Challenge Update 1

A few weeks ago I announced that I was participating in the iTalki challenge to improve my Spanish since I am going to be living in Chile for a while. I wanted to give a quick update on what’s been happening since then both in regards to life and language learning.

Shortly after making that announcement I got news that my grandfather was ill, so I flew back to the US to see him before he passed away. Fortunately I was able to go back and see him in the hospital one last time before he died. My father passed away a few years ago while I was in Brazil and the worst part about that experience was not being able to be near my family while they were all grieving. This time I didn’t get to miss any of the fun of crying at the hospital.

I’ve been in the US for about two weeks now, which though unexpected is kind of nice. I’ve been on the record as saying that I don’t like living in the US, but it’s really not that bad since I’m spending 90% of my time with my family. Though I’ll be glad to be out of here again in a few weeks, I’ll also be genuinely sad to leave this time.

Coming back to the US disrupted my plans to learn Chilean Spanish a bit though. I was planning on taking 2-3 hours of classes a week for the 6 weeks of the challenge, and supplement that study time with interactions with Chileans in Santiago. Things were pretty hectic so I have only taken a few hours of classes so far, but now that I’ve got a routine here things will progress more smoothly.

As far as the lessons go, I’m really enjoying my teacher. He is a complete language nerd as well, and speaks something like 7 languages to varying degrees of fluency. He showed me this cool trick where he called his cousin and they spoke a hybrid language of English and Spanish where they would switch languages every few words. Being able to switch between languages like that is a pretty cool skill to have.

Speaking both Spanish and Portuguese presents some challenges because of how similar the two languages are. Being able to go back and forth between the two takes a bit of work, though it is still easier for me to speak Portuguese. I can speak Spanish reasonably well, but I still haven’t attached my identity to the Spanish language like I have with Portuguese.

I’m not sure on the science behind this, but in my head there are two distinct characters: Brazilian Josh and American Josh. They both have unique ways of thinking and speaking as well as their own mannerisms. I can switch between the American Josh and Brazilian Josh without much trouble because they are both strong characters in my mind, whereas Latino Josh still hasn’t been developed. This means that sometimes Latino Josh will borrow parts of his identity from Brazilian or American Josh to fill in the blanks.

I went to a Forró class this week and got to interact with Brazilians in person for the first time in a few weeks. Kind of in the same way how if you locked yourself in a room for a few days and didn’t interact with anybody you’d be kind of slow in reacting to things people say, Brazilian Josh wasn’t as spontaneous as he was when he was living in Brazil. My Portuguese came out ok, but my body language definitely has lost some of it’s Brazilianness since leaving Brazil.

Overall the experience of learning Spanish on iTalki has been very productive and I’ve learned a lot not just about Chilean Spanish but language learning in general. It’s not easy to find a good language teacher, but when you do the results can be magical.

I just wanted to get this quick update out there, but later on I’ll publish some insights as they relate to Spanish and Portuguese.

Hasta luego

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