Today, a rare treat. If you’re a self-learner you have probably used or at least heard of italki—an online hub for language tutors. We have taken a virtual trip italki HQ in Shanghai to interview Ivan Batishchev, head of Public Relations, and chat about his experience as a learner, teacher, and language explorer.
Read on for insights into tackling Mandarin Chinese, the story behind Bali’s fascinating sign language, and some tips on how to get the most out of italki tutors!
I know you speak quite a few languages...
I was born in Russia hence the Russian. Then I migrated to the USA, so I had to learn English. Between those two I also learned Ukrainian, because I lived in the country for a portion in my life. In the USA you start learning foreign languages early, in middle school. I had to pick out of three languages they offered as my Ukrainian or Russian didn’t fulfil their requirement. So I learned German just for fun.
By the time I got to college I thought I could also learn Chinese. And I ended up going to China.
You learned most of the languages you speak because of the need. It looks like Mandarin was your first independent choice. What was your motivation? Are you still learning?
Growing up I heard a lot about how difficult Chinese was. It’s the furthest away from any other language I speak. Because of that, while learning it, even the smallest victories feel good.
Language learning is less of a finite idea and more of an ongoing project.
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To me, language learning is less of a finite idea and more of an ongoing project. I like to pick up random words or phrases as I go along. It is more of a process of learning more and more and I have to say I am continuously learning Chinese.
Do you have any learning routines you don’t go without?
The biggest problem has always been to actually sit down and do it. I have Plecko dictionary on my phone, so I can learn passively when I have time on the subway for example. Anki is a great tool to help with words and phrases, Duolingo is fun for languages it exists for.
E-classes are great. You can schedule them weeks ahead of time, which makes them harder to skip.
To me the issue is more about making myself do the work—create a routine or a habit to get yourself in front of the computer or to do the flashcards.
I understand you also teach English in China. What are your main struggles as a tutor?
Yes, I have been teaching English in China when I arrived and even though I joined italki I still held onto a couple of students.
In terms of teaching the biggest problem I have is teaching offline. In online teaching you can have frequent interactions which keeps you in touch with the language and makes the progress more steady. When your classes are rare, students don’t get enough practice between the classes.
Frequent interactions with the language make the progress more steady.
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The way I mitigate this is by creating classes that allow achieving one specific goal within one session, for example, teaching all ways of saying thank you in English. I try to break down the language into small components that can be taught in a single class which transforms each session into a self-contained unit. It leaves the student with a clear skill they have learned and becomes an anchor point for the next class.
Do you do the same when you learn?
A lot of language learning takes place on your own—you have to organise both yourself and the information you’re studying. If you are new to a language, or don’t have self-learning experience, you can’t be sure that you’re organising your time in the right way. This is where I think working with an italki teacher helps a lot. In the end, of course, it’s a mutual responsibility of teachers and students to communicate their goals and needs to each other.
You mentioned italki - it’s a very popular online service for self-learners and one that we often refer LinguaLift users to when they seek more speaking practice. What tips would you give to students working with an italki tutor?
The main tip is to make use of the number and variety of tutors who give classes on the platform. It is also my favourite feature of italki. When I take Chinese classes, I have one teacher who is really good in explaining tones and one who I like to chat with to boost my conversation skills. I could add even more tutors for other specific aspects of the language I want to improve.
So, my tip for students is to try many different teachers and figure out what particular aspect of the language each of them can help you with. That way you can build a whole personalised team of teachers and tutors.
Wouldn’t that be hard to manage or expensive?
The great advantage of italki is that the payment system is flexible. Here, in China, Mandarin tutors for one to one classes are a fairly cheap commodity. There is a huge supply and low demand and the prices are around $8-10 an hour. Now, with italki, I can find teachers with a comparable price, but the scheduling is flexible and I don’t have to commute. I can have a few 30-minute classes throughout the week.
Secondly, in a more traditional institution model, you would have to pay for a bunch of stuff you might not have time for—using the library, evening meetings. It comes as a package. With italki you only pay for the actual learning time, the time you spent with the tutor.
Thirdly, in contrast to many language courses you don’t have to pay in bulk, in advance, but only for each single class. That also gives you an opportunity to test a few teachers before deciding which one to continue with.
What are the most common mistakes people make when using italki? Is there anything that the tutors find particularly annoying? Except of course for the obvious—students not doing their homework ;-)
What’s most annoying is when people don’t make an effort to interact with the teacher. They take an approach that because it’s online, the style of interaction is easy and arbitrary. A new student may not appreciate that there is another person on the other side of the screen, who set aside some time of their day to make time for them.
What do you think are the most common struggles with Mandarin and how did you resolve them for yourself?
Mandarin Chinese is a bit weird, in a sense that it has an inverted difficulty curve. When you start learning you have to memorise everything from the characters, through writing, to pinyin… and that’s a lot. Eventually, however, once you have attained this broad base, it becomes very easy.
The best way to get through this initial part is to try to make memorisation fun. In the beginning, when you know only a few hundred characters you have to look up every other word when you try to read a text. You have to keep learning characters and the only way to do it is by repetition and making memorisation as much as a fun game as possible.
This is of course not including very culturally specific aspects—the kind of Chinese you would encounter in literary works. But that’s also the kind of knowledge you don’t need in order to speak.
The language is also phonetically difficult, because of the tones—it has a limited number of phonemes, but makes up for it with tone variation. Learning this comes with practice, constant listening and continuing to learn. I would sum up by saying that you should not expect yourself to get results too quickly and allow yourself time to revise and practice.
The truth is, you can make language learning more efficient, but it will never be fast or easy.
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Many companies would make false claims promising to teach a language easily or fast. The truth is, you can make language learning more efficient, using the right method and saving time on commuting, but it will never be fast or easy. You’ll always have to put effort into it.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started learning Mandarin?
I think with every language we learn there is always this one thing that gives us a lot of grief. With German, those were the noun genders. I wish I paid more attention to them when I started learning. They seemed redundant at first, but after some time, when they did become essential it was really hard to go back and fill in the knowledge gaps.
For Chinese, I had a similar experience with the tones. I wish I was paying attention to them initially, but I seemed to be doing just fine without them. As with the German noun genders, after a while they became essential, and then I ran into problems.
Do you think learning Mandarin has impacted your other skills?
Probably, but it’s hard to pinpoint it. I think there is always a cross-pollination between learning a language and other skills. If I had to mention one that I definitely saw a change in it would be patience. Learning Mandarin made me more patient and humble.
Many researchers claim that we become different people when we speak different languages. What kind of person are you when you speak Mandarin?
I agree with that, but I can’t describe the specifics of my own character myself. One interesting thing I noticed is that for every language I speak I change the pitch of my voice. In Russian it’s much lower, in English—mid-range, and in Chinese the highest.
I also know that you have been involved in an interesting project regarding endangered languages. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Italki is working with Wikitongues, an organisation dedicated to documenta and preservation of minority languages. We even have teachers here that teach some of these languages. For example, Ryan Heavyhead, who teaches a Native American language, Blackfoot, spoken in the North-West. Having taken a couple of classes with him, I was interested in how new and different the language was.
I thought if I could also contribute to Wikitongues it would be really fun. I decided to travel to Bali on Christmas and before that I did some research regarding languages spoken there. In the end, during my trip, I made a few recordings of Kata Kolok and Bahasa Bali.
The story of Kata Kolok is really interesting. It’s a sign language that developed in a span of a few generations, after genetic mutation caused a large number of children to be born dea. It’s limited to only one village and uses very local references. For example, to sign black, you point at your hair, because in the village everyone’s hair is black.
One interesting part about it is that it’s the only sign language that uses an absolutive frame of reference. Rather than saying that something is on the ‘right,’ ‘left,’ ‘front,’ or ‘back,’ the language always refers to cardinal directions; North, South, East and West. This means that the speakers have to be really aware of their environment.
What do you think is the value in preserving minority languages?
I believe creating a footage and recordings of other languages is useful. Academics do it, but very often they end up keeping it locked up in the ivory tower of academia, which to me seems harmful for the human language.
I think investigating different languages gives an insight into how differently people approach the world.
My favourite way to illustrate it is to look at the structure of the language. For example, in English, we have the expression it’s fine, which if you break it down expresses that you declare your opinion that something is in order. In Chinese, however, the closest equivalent is 没关系, méiguānxi, ‘it doesn’t have a relationship [to me]’, which you can see has a different point of departure. And in Blackfoot the phrase is Maatohkoaiki meaning ‘I am not doing anything about it’. So it doesn’t matter whether objectively it is in order or not, it is fine enough for you not to have to get involved.
Language is a thin membrane between the external world and the visceral feeling. While talking to speakers of different languages we try to transpose our internal frame of reference into another system. Being able to understand languages is being able to understand cultures and this becomes of primary importance in the times where intercultural communication plays such an important role.