Have you tried iTalki to connect with native Japanese teachers?

To master a language, one must work on both input and output. Input is like reading our material and studying kanji. Output is putting that knowledge to use. In other words, actually speaking with native speakers.

I don't usually promote apps or services outside what we are doing, but occasionally, I find something like Anki or the Chrome plugin Yomichan that I personally use and feel can be a powerful tool for most learners. iTalki is one such tool that's great for total beginners and advanced students alike. There are free options (I'll discuss one excellent free option at the bottom), but since teachers are well-vetted, iTalki is the safest way to practice conversation and probably the best way to get tailored lessons just for you. 

I (Clay) started with iTalki about six months ago. I had been wanting to speak to a male Japanese for conversational practice since the small Floridian town we live in has a Japanese population of one (that includes my wife, Yumi).

It's awesome.

Now that I've been a user for a few months with 1-2 lessons a week, I can confidently recommend it as a fun way to improve your Japanese no matter if you are a total beginner (most teachers have at least some English ability) or if you are like me and just want to practice conversation or talk about what's going on in Japan.

What is iTalki?

iTalki is the world's largest marketplace for matching students with language teachers online. The good news for us is, there are tons of Japanese teachers available to choose from. (By "tons" I mean 991 teachers as of today.)

All you need is a computer with a stable internet connection. I'm sure you can use your phone or tablet, but I haven't tested that.

It isn't free, though.

You are booking paid sessions with live tutors. The 991 Japanese teachers and "community tutors" (just means they haven't undergone official training for being a teacher) are available for thirty minute and hourly rates.

There are many free matching services but most of these are plagued by 1) tons of scammers and 2) people who only looking for dates.

This page mainly focuses on using iTalki, but there is one free app I do use and recommend (see the bottom of this page). Still, you get what you pay for. Even it has lots of scammers and people looking for hookups. if you are looking for a totally safe environment for yourself or a family member to practice speaking Japanese, iTalki is what you want.

Over the past six months, I've iTalki-ed with three people.

The first one seemed more interested in getting through the thirty minutes than actually engaging with me. That was until I started talking in detail about his hometown. He perked up and was genuinely interested in my experiences there. We ended up having a nice chat, but I didn't go back to him.

That's the beauty of iTalki. You get to choose your teacher / conversation partner. There are tons (okay, 991) to choose from. You are in control.

The other two people I've tried have been gems. I talk with one every Tuesday night and the other every Thursday morning. It truly has become the highlight of my week.

I basically use iTalki for conversation practice, but there are many qualified teachers who will create a lesson plan for you, work with you toward JLPT goals, or help you go through your textbook like Genki or Minna no Nihongo.

Before we get into the pros and cons, I want to mention, I'm using an referral link. If you sign up and your purchases reach $20 (that's like two sessions), I'll receive $10 credit and you will earn $5 credit back to your account. I don't often use affiliate links, but I am a regular user, and I honestly recommend the service.

All right. Here's a bit more about iTalki.

Pros

  • Makes practicing conversational Japanese easy from anywhere in the world.
  • Super fun to meet and talk with native Japanese speakers -- I look forward to my weekly sessions.
  • Trial lessons - you get three trial lessons that are dirt cheap. These allow you to try out several teachers to find the right match.
  • Instant Lessons - Some teachers are available right now. You don't have wait. Depending on the time of day, there can be one or two to dozens of teachers waiting on you. As I type this at 10:44 AM EST, there are 9 Japanese teachers available for instant lessons.
  • Flexible scheduling - It's easy to see availability and schedule lesson times.
  • Reasonable prices - Some community tutors are very inexpensive--as low as $5 for 30 minutes. Some qualified teachers can be fairly expensive. The ones I've used tend to be about $10 for 30 minutes.
  • Choice of video platforms - The built in iTalki video works very well. I just use that, but you can also use Skype, Facetime, Zoom, or WeChat (depending on the teacher).
  • Teacher stats and reviews - You can see if a teacher tends to be on time or even, gasp, missed a class. Avoid problem teachers before booking a lesson.
  • Slick Platform - the website and video platform works well. It's easy to find teachers, schedule lessons, and hold the lesson onsite (or off)

Cons

  • It isn't free. While I think the prices are reasonable, it can add up over time. If you don't have extra money right now, put iTalki on your future list. There are many free resources out there.
  • Quality of teachers vary - Only one of the three I've talked two was so-so. He wasn't bad, but I greatly enjoy my other two conversation partners.
  • This really isn't a negative since it is a reasonable requirement, but please note you can only cancel or reschedule 24 hours before the lesson.
  • Refunds are only possible if iTalki feels you have a case. For example, if the teacher was rude or late or didn't show up at all. Again, a reasonable requirement, I think.
  • 3 trial lessons - You only have three trial lessons. This is fine except the instant lessons only work with trial lessons. I could see myself suddenly having time on my hands and want to do an instant lesson even though I don't have any trial lessons left.

I can't really think of many cons other than the cost can add up quickly, and it may take a few tries to find that perfect teacher / conversation partner.

If you've used iTalki, what has your experience with it been like? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


The Free Language Conversation Matching App I Recommend

After posting my newsletter a few weeks ago about iTalki, a member mentioned Tandem as a free alternative.

I signed up and after using it to speak with a few people, I can say it is excellent.

But you have to be very careful. There are tons of scammers and people using it as a dating app. So far, I haven't experienced it, but I've seen several reviews and many people's profiles specifically say "Don't contact me if you are a scammer or looking for a date."

They do have a manual review process which does help weed out the obvious bots and scammers. It took about one day for my application to be approved.

There is a pro version, but it seems to add very little to the experience. I think this is mainly as a way for grateful users to help keep the service free for the majority of users.

You don't have to schedule. It's spontaneous and exciting! If you have time to speak to someone, just message someone. If they don't reply quickly, message someone else.

I have to admit the spontaneity is quite fun. (Although I still want the structured weekly conversations I have with my iTalki friends.)

The first morning I had time on my hands, I messaged someone and immediately got a response. We had a great conversation. I did it again and spoke to someone else.

Last night, however, I tried messaging several people, and I wasn't able to find anyone to speak with for over an hour and a half. It was fine, though. I was watching a Japanese drama while I waited, but it just goes to show some times it takes time to find someone willing to talk.

I think the main problem was my night (in Florida) is Japan's morning. It seems most people on Tandem are active at night. So, I believe it would be better for me to find people to talk with in my mornings.

Tandem and other free language match-up apps are based on a give-and-take system. You get to practice your Japanese in exchange for also helping your conversation partner practice his or her English.

It being free means scammers are active too. Tandem does have a manual approval process which weeds out the obvious scammers. That helps, but it isn't nearly as fool-proof as iTalki which has very strict rules for teachers to follow. There are also lots of people using Tandem as a dating service.

In other words, while I've found Tandem to be amazing and I highly recommend it, please be careful.

It's been fun. Be careful and give it a try. Click here to sign up for Tandem for free.

However, if you prefer regular and bespoke lessons just for you (not splitting between English and Japanese) and you have some money to invest in practicing Japanese, here is an affiliate link for iTalki. You'll get $5 back after spending $20.

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