Q&A with Kevin Chen, Co-Founder italki

Q: What is the italki Language Challenge?
A: The italki Language Challenge was an idea we had to help motivate language students to build some good study habits. Many people start the year with new year resolutions, and promises to make progress on learning a language. We think most people know that they will progress more quickly with a teacher — but it’s easy to find excuses to avoid scheduling lessons. We wanted to help give people a push.

Our Language Challenge is take 10 lessons in January, and get 3 months of access to a 3-month subscription to one language on OpenLanguage.

We did our first first language challenge in November 2012. Around 80 people signed up, and over 60 people completed the challenge of taking 8 lessons in 2 weeks. These students were taking around 4 language lessons a week! It really showed us that there are a lot of people who want to intensively study a language, and that we can help motivate them.

Q: What is italki?
A: italki is a language learning social network that connects people together for language learning. You can find online teachers, language partners, a friendly community that can answer your questions or correct your writing. italki is being developed by a small team that is based in Shanghai, China.

Q: Why did you create italki?
A: I always thought I was terrible with foreign languages. I remember my experience learning French for three years in high school, and not being able to speak a sentence of French. When I started studying Chinese in 2004, my progress was much faster because I had the benefit of studying Chinese in China. I was immersed. I was working on another internet startup, and I kept thinking that tools like Skype and Facebook should be able to help a language learner get some of the benefits of living abroad. You just needed a way to connect the people.

I think a lot of people have the experience of studying a foreign language, but never using it to communicate with someone from that country. I’m not sure you can become fluent in a language without doing a lot of this. I also think this is a crucial experience — it can be incredibly awkward, but the first time you have a conversation in another language can show you there is another part of the world that you have access to. Many users tell us they met their first foreigner in their lives through italki.

Q: Why did you choose OpenLanguage as partner for the challenge?
A: We’ve known the founders of OpenLanguage (Hank and Jenny) for many years, and we think their product is great. I am a fan of ChinesePod, and it helped me learn Chinese when I came to Shanghai.

One thing about OpenLanguage is that they support many languages. It’s a great fit for italki’s Language Challenge because our users come from so many different places and are studying different languages.

Q: What are the challenges for today’s busy language learner?
A: There are many issues, but I think motivation and access are two of the bigger ones. I think staying motivated is maybe the biggest one — especially for busy people, it’s too easy to stop studying. Learning a language is a long-term commitment, and it’s important to use every method to keep yourself engaged. This can be through lessons on your mobile with OpenLanguage, conversations with friends and language partners, or scheduled lessons with teachers on italki.

Q: How can italki and OpenLanguage help people to learn a new language?
A: italki is mainly a platform to help people around the world connect. OpenLanguage has great structured learning content. You can certainly use the two together, OpenLanguage content could be a basis for your language lessons on italki. We know there are many types of language students and ways of learning a language, and we think students will find the way that works best for them.

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