My absolute favorite site for achieving fluency

Article by Darren Kenny

Learning Fast

As I touched down in Colombia, I felt a sense of excitement... tinged with nervousness. You see, I was happy to propel myself fully into Colombia - it’s culture, it’s food, and the customs. But there was a palpable anxiety that once I passed through the gates from the sanctuary that was the airport and onto the other side, I was on my own. No one to help. Just me and my Spanish.

I queued for a taxi. Each driver praying for a passenger fare that would warrant the long airport wait. A driver waved towards me, beckoning to the taxi. This was it. This is what I had been studying for.

As he spoke to me, in rapid-machine-gun-blue-collar Spanish, to my amazement I understood. I understood (almost) everything. He asked where I wanted to go, I told him and showed him the address on paper. He nodded knowingly.

We departed down into the valley, a 40-minute journey to Medellin - me riding shotgun and no escape from the onslaught of questions to come. They were the usual suspects -

  • Where are you from?
  • Have you been to Colombia before?
  • Which football (soccer) team do you support?
  • Why are you here in Colombia?

The conversation was almost effortless, it felt natural and I was not my usual shy self. It wasn't perfect, but that's OK, it was good enough for me. I felt a great sense of accomplishment - "if only my friends could have seen this", I thought to myself.

But rewind this story by 3 months. I had no Spanish under my belt. None. I was living in Brazil at the time. I had just booked my flight to Colombia as I had decided to learn Spanish. But I had one major problem. I could not find a Spanish teacher locally for love nor money.

It was at this time that I discovered italki, via a recommendation on Reddit, in the /r/languagelearning subreddit.

I was skeptical of italki at first. So I did some research.

As it turns out, it has an excellent trust rating on TrustPilot.

italki trustpilot

But I was more interested in other people's experiences. So using the /r/languagelearning subreddit, which is the biggest language group on reddit (320k+ people), I saw that people were having great success with it.

italki - mandarin

italki recommendation

italki - russian recommendation

Having seen many other comments like these, I was convinced to give it a try.

There were plenty of Spanish teachers - and I was amazed to find really affordable rates from $5 per hour! Great, I said, this means I can have at least 3 sessions per week, if not more.

I found a suitable teacher. A number of doubts ran through my mind though before clicking book.

- Won’t it be awkward?

- I don’t speak any Spanish! What the hell will we talk about?

There’ll be long awkward silences, as I cringed just at the thought of it. But I pushed through regardless, as I was determined to learn.

It turns out that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. The sessions were fun and light-hearted. Daniel (my Colombian teacher) guided me through everything, he always saved a dying conversation when I reached a mental dead-end.

I had frequent lessons with Daniel using italki and my efforts paid off. My study for learning new vocabulary and grammar rules meant that I could implement them in my next lesson, thereby engraving it in my memory.

This is why italki is my number 1 go-to site for learning a language. Make it yours, too!

It is easy to book a trial lesson for a few dollars to test the waters. Take your first step to fluency today!

Book a lesson today!

The most effective way to learn

What part of learning a language do you find easiest and most enjoyable?

If I had to guess your response, I think you would probably say reading or listening

But why is this?

Reading and listening are passive activities. On the difficulty scale, they rank much easier than writing and speaking.

They use the recognition aspect of memory, which is far easier than recollection. Recollection - to recall words from memory, rather than seeing it written down and suddenly remembering what it means.

These passive activities are easier to do - it makes you feel like you’re actively learning and making progress. But when it comes to learning a language, that’s simply not the case.

I am sure you can probably relate to learning Spanish/French/German in high school and feeling like you learned nothing. It’s because passive learning activities are ineffective.

Reading and listening are enjoyable activities though. I personally enjoy reading in a foreign language. I’m introverted, so I find it hard to put myself out there and speak, even though I know the benefits of speaking are huge.

But reading and listening give you the worst returns for your time spent studying. They simply don’t challenge your brain enough, unfortunately.

You are only really learning effectively when you feel mentally drained - like trying to remember how to write a correct sentence or spending time with your language partner/teacher speaking only in a foreign language.

Edgar Dale, an American educator, created the cone of learning diagram. This pyramid diagram represents the effectiveness of different study techniques and has been adapted for language learning.

dale cone - fsi language learning

As you can see, the do and say aspect (i.e. speak, listen, and respond) is the most effective form of study.

Why speaking is superior to everything else

Memory is formed via stimulus. The more and varied that stimulus, the stronger the memory becomes.

It's the same process when certain smells trigger old memories.

Once in a while, a certain smell will throw me back into my childhood, into the school playground surrounded by oak trees. It's fascinating how the brain works - I am sure you have experienced something similar to this too.

benefits of speaking

When speaking with a native or a teacher, stimuli are at work:

  • The lighting of the room
  • The smell of the room
  • Reading the lips
  • Reading body language cues
  • The awkwardness felt on mispronunciation
  • The mental effect forming a correct sentence in a timely manner
  • The mild panic felt when not understanding everything that is spoken

All this stimulus burns the experience into your mind. It forms a really strong memory that you just can't get with passive learning (watching TV, reading a newspaper etc).

Trying to imitate the sounds/accents and get the cadence of the language also forms muscle memory and requires much practice.

What is italki and how can it help?

Speaking is essential for learning a language. You simply cannot learn via books and videos alone. This is why you need to start speaking the language with another human being! This is where italki comes in.

italki is a language site that connects students and teachers for private online language lessons.

italki homepage

I have used italki a lot for online lessons with several teachers over the years - some teachers are great, others good and a few not so much.

Here is my profile with a list of my previous teachers.

italki profile screen

Community tutor vs professional teacher

For the more experienced language learners out there, you know how to guide your own study. But beginners will often need more guidance.

italki offers two types of teachers - professional teachers and community tutors.

italki teacher vs tutor

Professional teachers - these are generally better paid and have more experience (some with formal qualifications to match). Some use a rigid course/book to teach, but the better teachers will listen to your language goals and customize the lessons to your needs.

If you're just starting out, I would recommend starting with a professional teacher at first, if only to guide you through the fundamentals. 

Once you become familiar with the language (after 1 month), keep using your teacher but mix up the lessons with a community tutor to get constant exposure to the language.

Community tutors - are native/fluent speakers who generally have no formal qualifications to teach.

These community tutors are the best thing about italki in my opinion.


Teachers, on the whole, cannot teach you a language. They can only act to guide your language learning journey. Sure, they may explain grammar to you, teach you an expression and introduce you to new words.

But ultimately it is you and only you who is responsible for your own learning.

You will need to rack up many hours of practice speaking a foreign language. Remember, speaking is the fastest way to learn.

With that said, community tutors are far more affordable than professional teachers - they provide great value.

If you're learning Spanish in particular, the hourly rates of Latin American tutors are quite astounding.

$4 per hour of tutoring


$1 for 30 min trial lesson

This means you can afford many more lessons per week than with a local tutor, propelling you to fluency that much faster.

Book your lessons today

But why not just use a tandem partner for free?

A tandem partner is a great idea for those who cannot afford any lessons.

In fact, I used this method while living in Colombia and Germany (alongside attending a Stammtisch - language meetups over beers).

So if you want a free tandem partner, check Tandem Exchange which I highly recommend.

tandem exchange profile screen

But there are a few downsides to tandems.

1. Consistency and convenience - unlike a paid language tutor, you're unlikely to be able to pin down your tandem partner for a consistent weekly schedule. Tandem partners often have conflicting schedules, as life gets in the way. This can be very frustrating as consistency is key.

2. Speaking English - as a tandem is a language exchange, you'll be expected to spend half the time speaking English to your tandem partner. 

When learning a language, breaking out of the target language and speaking English really stops the flow and it can become confusing mixing both languages. You should avoid speaking English as much as possible, it will only hinder your progress.

How to use italki - finding a teacher

Let me show you quickly how to use italki.

You can sign-up to italki with only your name and email to check it out.

Finding a teacher

Once you have signed up for an account, you'll see a list of teachers that you can then filter. You'll want to narrow down teachers that suits your language goals.

So for example, let's say you want a Spanish teacher that:

  • Also speaks English
  • Is from Mexico
  • Costs less than $15 per hour
  • Is available every Tuesday evening

Also speaks

This feature I used when learning Colombian Spanish, my Spanish teacher spoke Portuguese too. Because I was living in Brazil at the time and preparing to move to Colombia, it was really useful to compare Portuguese-Spanish cognates and identify false friends.

Non-native English speakers may prefer being taught in their native tongue over English, especially when it’s between language families (e.g. French learning Italian, Dutch learning German).

But for this demo, we'll set it to English.

italki filter by spoken languagesitalki filter by spoken languages


Filter the teacher by the country you want. In this example, we want to target the Mexican accent and pick up Mexican slang - ¡Qué pedo!.

italki filter by country


Probably the most important consideration for most people when choosing a teacher. The more affordable the lessons, the more lessons you can have = faster path to fluency. We'll set this to $15 per hour maximum.

italki filter by price


If you only have a small window of opportunity to study each day, it helps quickly filter out teachers who are not available, saving you time looking for a suitable teacher.

We want to set this to 8pm - 12pm on a Tuesday).

italki filter by availability


So, we can see that searching for Mexican Spanish teachers, who speak English, are available Tuesday late evening and are $15ph or under returns 93 results! This is a very specific search and as you can see we've got many teachers to choose from. This is why italki is so great.

italki mexican-spanish teacher filter

How to use italki - evaluate a teacher

Now that you have a list of teachers, you will want to evaluate which teacher best suits you.

Teacher listings

Watch their intro video, make sure they have a good rating, and that their trial price is reasonable. You won’t get a lower trial price than $1 and $4 per hour lessons. 

Here is Allison, she’s a fairly new teacher and has affordable rates.

italki allison profile


You want to make sure that the teacher has a good rating, so any rating below 4.5 will often be a poor teacher. Ratings on italki are probably not the best reflection of a teacher's ability, as most people default to rating 5 star out of politeness.

Lesson count

Lesson count is a good indicator of a good teacher. People naturally flock to the best teachers, either that or they are super affordable. Teachers will often lower their rates when first joining italki in order to gain students, feedback and ratings.

Teacher type

This is the professional teacher vs community tutor that we covered earlier.

Hourly rate and cost of a trial lesson

Naturally, the lower the hourly rate, the better because you will be able to afford more lessons for the same amount of money. Trial lessons should be much cheaper as this allows you to evaluate a teacher without wasting much money.

Intro video

It's worth watching the intro video to better understand the teacher, their style and what they can offer you.

Teacher Profiles and Lesson Packages

Here is Allison's full profile. She talks a little bit about herself. You can see how many students she has.

But more importantly, you can see what lesson packages she offers. Allison is a community tutor, and not a professional teacher so she only offers conversational practice.

italki allison full profile

Allison offers:

  • Trial lesson - $2.00
  • ¡Practica tu español conmigo! (Practice your spanish with me) - $4.00 per hour
  • ¡Vamos a leer! (Let's read) - $4.00 per hour

Let me show you another profile. Omar, he is a professional Spanish teacher on italki.

italki omar full profile

Here you can see the difference in what he offers.

  • Trial lesson - $8.00
  • Spanish fundamentals (A1, A2) - $12.00 per hour
  • Spanish lessons - $12.00 per hour
  • Spanish conversation - $10.00+ per hour

Omar's lessons are more formal, covering A1 and A2 grades specifically. His lessons are more expensive. He offers Spanish conversation at a reduced rate. He has given many lessons to over 200 students, so he clearly has a good track record with his students.

So depending on your goals and where you are in your journey, you may want a more formal approach with someone like Omar, or, if you're a veteran self-study, you may want the conversational practice with someone like Allison.

How to use italki - booking a trial lesson

So, we've filtered our list of teachers and we've reviewed their profiles. Now it is time to book a trial lesson!

This is an easy 4 step process.

  • 1. Select Lesson
  • 2. Select Webcam Preference
  • 3. Schedule Lesson
  • 4. Pay for Lesson

italki - book a lesson

1. Select a lesson

We want to have a trial lesson with our teacher before we block book a bunch of lessons. Therefore simply select the trial lesson at the discounted price.

italki select trial lesson

2. Select Webcam Preference

italki offers 4 options for your lessons. italki classroom (which is an in-browser webcam app), skype, Google Hangouts and Apple Facetime. Most teachers have Skype as the norm.

italki select communication tool

3. Schedule Lesson

Once a webcam preference is set, you'll move on to schedule the lesson. The Green fields are available timeslots. Simply choose your preferred date and time and click next.

italki schedule lesson

4. Pay for Lesson

The final screen is the payment page. Here you can see the total to pay. In this screenshot, I am booking a trial lesson with David Narvaez for only $1. However, there are processing fees for all payment types.

Paying by Debit / Credit card and Paypal results in the least expensive fees. Bank transfers are very expensive.

italki pay for lesson

Once you have paid for your lesson, you will have to wait for the teacher to confirm. Once they confirm the lesson, it's booked in.

You can cancel/reschedule if you do so 24 hours before the start of the lesson if not, you will have to compensate the teacher with the lesson payment.

Book an italki trial lesson

italki - is it worth it?

In the end, you cannot gain fluency via books or courses. You must speak. italki simply opens up the doors to many tutors and teachers, it's not unique in this area - but it offers the most affordable teachers around.

If you are a beginner, then getting an italki professional teacher to guide you through the start of your language journey is a great idea. You can use a teacher to compliment your own study with the FSI materials, get your teacher involved in helping you understand the FSI course. Remember, a teacher should only be a guiding hand, you have to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to learning a language.

If you are an experienced language learner, then you already know the value of having a conversation partner on-hand to help you progress. italki is by far the most affordable means of accessing a dedicated language tutor. You most likely already know it's just a case of getting as much exposure and experience with the language possible. This is why I love italki.

If you don't have the luxury of spending money on a teacher or tutor, then as previously mentioned, a tandem partner will be able to provide you with free tutoring in exchange for your own native language.

Personally, I highly recommend italki because I've used it extensively and it's the most convenient and cost-effective way to learn a language without moving abroad.