How do you learn a new language these days?


It has been years since I learnt a new language properly. I’ve dabbled a bit with Arabic over the last few years, but it was learning Polish (in Warsaw) in the mid ‘90s when I last seriously studied a fresh language. My learning French, German and Russian was way back in the 1980s while growing up in England. In 2016, I decided that had to change. I’d spent so much time in Spain and love the culture, so I decided to get a grip on the language.

But how do you learn a new language these days?

Back in the 20th century, it was hard to get hold of foreign language materials outside a native speaking country. When I visited the Continent, I would come back with handfuls of records, magazines, menus and train timetables to fill this gap.

Language exchanges were particularly hard to organize. As president of the German Society at Cambridge University, I arranged an exchange with a local language school. While we could pair up our members’ names with theirs, participants had to connect via dictated phone messages left in each other’s pigeon holes. Exchanges were then held face-to-face; I still remember cycling up a long hill to meet my first Liechtensteiner!

If you didn’t have foreign students in your area, chances were that you had to resort to pen-pals. I had several of these, arranged through an agency on the Isle of Man. Some blossomed into personal friendships, but others faltered at the first letter. One Albanian correspondent forgot to include his address in a letter he sent me; he might still think the English are inconsiderate.

Unless you were in full time education, lessons were also a problem.  You needed to find sessions at a location and time that fit your life as well as possible, which was often times meant that things would not work out. Native speakers were always at a premium and there was always the risk that you would learn something wrong and thus encounter the need to relearn it later.

So how could I bring my Spanish learning into the 21st Century?

I have a young friend from my Toastmasters club who has been learning Spanish and Chinese. After a meeting, I asked him how people are learning languages nowadays. He immediately told me about italki, and it seemed that the other younger members were also familiar with it. It sounded absolutely fantastic and I joined up immediately, albeit with some trepidation that I might be substantially older than most of the users.

What I immediately loved was the choice of teachers. I knew exactly what I wanted – a grammar and pronunciation specialist… with an accent straight out of a Pedro Almodóvar epic! After a search, I found a teacher that seemed to fit my requirements exactly. I set up a lesson just as I set up my Skype account (another novelty).

My first lesson was a revelation. I could hardly believe that my teacher was in Alicante as I sat in London and we connected so well. He uses the text function to send notes that remain after the lesson so I can copy them down and learn them. My homework is sent by file attachment and returned that way.  He even sends me photos of Spanish food and mp3 files with popular songs.

Since then, Daniel has adapted his style to my particular needs and pushed me hard. We cover complex grammar points with funny and enjoyable examples. I leave with piles of notes and material to study at my own pace.  The next lesson is as soon or as long away as I wish.

Beyond the formal lessons is an entire community. I joined to learn Spanish, but have corresponded in Polish and German with people around the world. I have so many language keyboards on my iPad that it now really hurts if I accidentally navigate away from the one I need.

italki really is the future of language learning. I have recommended it to many of my friends who are looking to refresh their language skills or acquire new ones. For those travelling or moving overseas, you are also able to make friends whom you can meet in the real world.


Edward has been a member of italki since January 2016