Why italki?

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I originally found out about italki about a year ago. I’d been living in Sevastopol, Ukraine and I was more or less the only foreigner in the town. I searched through several language learning forums and blogs and came across italki, as well as some other sites.

My first learning experience on the site was rather mixed. I began taking advantage of the language exchange features offered by italki. Although I did meet some nice people and get some good language use, it was such a hassle finding times to meet up. Chat partners would often be reluctant to agree to a certain time and I found people often had the attitude that they were always on skype, so we could meet at any time. Although this might be fine for some people, I have a busy schedule to maintain and like the certainty of knowing when I’ll be having lessons this week. Because of this, I decided to start paying for lessons, which I was much happier doing because of the security and added bit of professionalism it brings.

The payment system is extremely convenient and fair to use. Money only changes hands once the teacher and the student both agree that the lesson has finished to a satisfactory standard. In the event that something went wrong (one of the parties didn’t turn up, the quality was substandard) and that everyone agrees, then no money changes hands. If there’s a dispute then it goes to italki for arbitration. Personally, I’ve found that people’s honesty and personal agreement is more than enough to ensure that everything happens fairly.

I originally set out to actively maintain and practice the language skills which I had, and clearly communicated this in my correspondences with the different teachers: I pay for an hour of conversation and I want my mistakes corrected and maintained, as well as possible alternative forms offered. From doing this I’ve gone on to take up other languages with the help of italki and been successful at it. The key to avoiding disappointment here is being realistic and not expecting to much – if you want instant fluency, it’s not going to happen. You’ve got to be patient and decide what your personal language learning aims are.

As far as I’m concerned, the benefits offered to me by italki are unfathomable. Italki provides me with access to a plethora of native speakers from all over the world. In the international world we’re living in, teachers live far from their native country. I’ve had conversation classes with a German guy living in China, meaning the times for German can be more flexible for me (not just according to Central European time). What’s more, communicating over the internet means that there’s no travel time involved between lessons, except from your bed to your desk, perhaps! I don’t meet people like that in everyday life like I would if I lived in London, Paris or New York, for example. Even then, the added comfort of being able to have a few lessons a day from home in different languages is definitely much better than most possibilities available in “the real world”.

I was originally somewhat scepticle about coming across bad teachers. There’re so many teachers available how do you know who’s good and who’s wasting your time? I’ve always looked at this pragmatically and the fact of the matter is you can’t know if someone’s good or awful until you try them. I’ve had lots of good teachers, some mediocre teachers and a couple of awful teachers. In the event of having an awful teacher I just don’t see them again. I’ve decided it’s worth taking the risk and getting a good teacher 9/10 times and ending up with a bad teacher the other time. You’ve lost $6, so what? Don’t go back, it’s not the end of the world.

There are lots of people out there who want to learn a new language and always come up wih excuses like such as time, money, finding a good teacher. Italki helps to eliminate all of these problems: you learn at home, with a qualified native speaker at a price you’re happy with. I’d definitely recommend, and do recommend it to people regularly just for these very reasons. As an English teacher I also regularly recommend it to my students. Do I want them to learn somewhere else? Not at all! (although it is up to them) The fact is that native speakers can be so hard to come across in some parts of the world chatting online is time (and money) well spent. What’s more it’s considerably easier to find a new teacher in the event that you’re not satisfied (as mentioned above).

In conclusion, I’d definitely recommend italki to everyone. It is the opportunity for language learners and teachers from around the world to meet each other easily and allows everyone to find the teacher that is suitable for them, according to whatever personal criteria there may be. This, coupled with the easy to use payment system, makes italki the community ever language learner should be involved in to compliment their learning experience.

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A weekend in Lvov – Further Ukrainian

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As opposed to my previous trip, on which I surrounded myself exclusively with Ukrainian, the situation this time round was a little different. I went to Lvov with a fellow native English speaker, who’s for all intents and purposes mono-lingual. This would undoubtedly impact the quantity and quality of interaction, yet at the same time since I’d still be the one going up to people and, what’s more, translating, I thought I could give it a go.

At the beginning of the journey I was a bit disappointed, thinking that Lvov wasn’t the utopia of Ukrainian language and culture that it had been made out to be. When we got to the hostel and I spoke to staff working there, I got answered in Russian. Of course, I was shaken to the very core of my being by this fact. Nevertheless, as time went by, I found that this was an exception to the overwhelming local habits. Everyone, who’s obviously from Lvov, speaks Ukrainian. Others who’ve travelled here from other parts of Ukraine spoke Russian, as I would have expected. What’s more, I regularly had people reassuring me that they could speak Polish, which I found somewhat confusing. When I asked why they that was relevant I was told it’s because I have a Polish accent when I speak Ukrainian! Personally, I find it somewhat hard to believe and I’d put it down to the fact at Poles are the largest group of people to frequent Lviv and that some of them can speak Ukrainian. Therefore, any foreigner speaking Ukrainian is Polish. As a native English speaker I’m used to all kinds of people having a different accent since everyone learns it, but with lesser leant languages people have no exposure to foreign accents.

I was very amused by the fact that I wasn’t the only person here learning Ukrainian. Sitting out one evening on the main square, the people at the next table started speaking to us, overhearing that we’d been speaking English and were delighted to find other English speakers. They were from the Ukrainian diaspora, natives of Canada who’d come over to Ukraine to get in touch with the language of their forebears. I can quite happily say that their Ukrainian was rather good, and I’m impressed to no longer be in the minority.

Another highlight of the trip was visiting the “Jewish” restaurant on staroevreiska. Build on the site of the city’s former synagogue, which was destroyed during the German occupation of the city in 1941, Under The Golden Rose likes to embrace its Jewish heritage. Interestingly, the menu has no prices at all next to the food and drinks on offer. As the waitress helpfully pointed out “Since we are a Jewish restaurant you have to haggle for the price”. I understood two things from thus experience. First of all, it’s clear that my impression and theirs of Jewish people is rather different, and second of all having a business plan passed on a negative racial stereotype, bordering on antisemitism is clearly much more acceptable in some places than others. The highlight was nevertheless the trout which we ordered. Using only the finest natural products, the waitress went to what can only be described as an adjoining piece of wasteland, to get the finest herbs and spices to add to the flavour.

A pleasant way to finish of the final day was in Kriyivka, a bar on the main square. Despite it no being signposted, everyone knows where it is. When you enter the building, you walk down a long, dark corridor, with an soldier in World War Two attire guarding a bookcase, who only lets you in when you reveal the password “Slava Ukrainie, Heroyam slava”. Where does in let you in? The bookcase of course? Behind it there’s a long staircase which opens up into a large, cavernous bar with several rooms and hoards of people! The apparent secretness of the place only seems to enhance its popularity. We were welcomed by a man with an impressive beer belly whose sole role seems to be asking people if they’re Russian or not and regularly firing with an old pistol to scare the newly arrived customers. Of course, everything was in Ukrainian and I was very happy to have the waiter correct my pronunciation so it sounded less Russian, although when. I started chatting to him I don’t think he realised what he’d let himself in for.

It’ll be a while before I had out back West again, so I’ll have to content myself language exchanges, informal lessons and chats over skype until then.

To have a look at my development, a couple of videos of me summarising my trip will be up soon.

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Posted in Language experiences, Learning, Travelling, Ukraine living

Go West!

No, this is not a homage to the Pet Shop Boys (although I do like their song). This in fact relates to this week’s language adventures, which have taken me to Western Ukraine.

As anyone who’s been following me on Facebook will have seen, I’ve uploaded a large collection of photos showing beautiful, majestic scenery, rolling fields and castles a plenty. This is a happy side product of my travels of course, but not the goal in itself.

As I’ve written before I’ve been working hard on speaking Ukrainian now that I’ve relocated to Kiev. During this time I’ve been attending Couchsurfing events, having language exchanges and, thanks to the generosity of my employer getting free, weekly lessons – all with the aim of learning Ukrainian with native Ukrainian speakers. Armed with the language skills obtained since arriving in Kiev, I decided to head of to Western Ukraine, the linguistic and cultural heartland of the nation, and let myself loose upon the local population.

My journeys took me to three cities which I took regular trips from – Kameniets-Podolski, Chernovtsy and Uzhgorod. I Couchsurfed with people chosen precisely for the fact that they list themselves as being Ukrainian speakers, in other words I filtered them for language before I decided to stay with them, clearly stating my intentions beforehand (that I was visiting them to learn more about Ukrainian language and culture and speak to the, in Ukrainian). What’s more, in my (at least initial) interactions with everyone I met, I only used Ukrainian.

I’ve been able to speak a lot more Ukrainian than Russian, thanks to the generosity, openness and hospitality of my hosts. Lots of people I’ve met have been regular Ukrainian speakers, and casual Russian speakers. Others have been regular Russian speakers and casual, albeit competent Ukrainian speakers. Others, haven’t been able to speak either language well and communicate in Surzhyk, a hybrid mishmash of the two.

Where I’ve been able to maintain a conversation in Ukrainian, I have done, whereas in other cases when it’s clear that the people I’m speaking to aren’t Ukrainian speakers (for whatever reason) I’ve given my poor head a rest and just spoken Russian, which requires no thinking. Of course, those times when I’m in a group of people where some are speaking Russia and others Ukrainian really makes my head hurt!

There could be of course other reasons why I wasn’t successful. I am of course not Ukrainian and who speaks Ukrainian other than the Ukrainians? Russian is a language of inter-ethnic communication and I wouldn’t be surprised if people just spoke to me in Russian when they noticed me having difficulties expressing myself.

On the whole, I’ve found that my expectations about Western Ukraine being the linguistic and cultural heartland of the nation overly ambitious. While I don’t doubt that the cultural part of this claim is true, as far as the language is concerned, in the places I’ve been (both urban and rural) Russian has been dominant. Even the lovely Ukrainian people that I’ve been with have in many cases spoken to me in Ukrainian, as an exception to what they normally do, purely to help me learn!

As an interesting end to the irony of a strangely surreal situation, I’ll never forget asking a habitual Russian speaker, in Ukrainian, if he thought Russian was the language of the enemy. He replied “No James, I know it is”.

Here are clips of me summarising in English, Russian and Ukrainian.

Any comments, criticism or praise (as usual in any language)- let me know. I value your honest feedback and will use it for my next investigative trip. The 9th of May is victory day (A three day week end) and I will be going to Lvov then to see if I can get a better overview.

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