Over the years, I’ve struggled to learn languages in bits and pieces without ever being able to become conversational in anything other than English. I like to blame part of that on expense, and the other part on the inconvenience. (Never can it be said that it might be a problem with my own motivation.) Language lessons are expensive, and one-on-one lessons – which I find the most effective – are pretty much unaffordable, at least in the US. And even if I could pay for them, I’d still have to do them on someone else’s schedule, probably in someone else’s office or home or school. Few Internet services have been able to solve the problems of me not wanting to pay too much or move too far to make myself multilingual. But one Shanghai-based startup is taking a solid crack at it.
Italki, which has just closed an angel round and launched a new version of its website, is an online platform that allows people to connect via Skype and teach other languages. Through the service, you can find the right language learning partner for you, hook into a community of fellow lingua-heads, and set yourself up as a professional language teacher.
The site, which has been in operation for six years (does that qualify it for the world’s slowest angel round?), claims more than 900,000 users from 200 counties, and it has a partnership with Oxford University Press, which offers the American English edition of its online placement tests via italki. The site’s users can take the test and display their scores as a badge on their profiles. Update: Italki founder Kevin Chen has says this is actually the second round of angel funding the company has taken, in addition to a round he started raising before the 2008 financial crisis hit.
The new version of the italki website focuses on matching teachers with students according to particular needs, and differentiates between professional teachers, informal community tutors, and free language exchange partners. Teachers on the site can build personal reputations, handle international transactions, and earn money from students in other countries.
Co-founder Kevin Chen, an American who has been calling Shanghai home since 2004, says the startups new financing will help the company expand internationally. Italki will also soon offer a mobile messaging app that allows users to practice their languages with friends from the community.
So it looks like now I’ve got no excuses. It might just be the time that, finally, I learn how to habla Chinese.