After 100 iTalki Lessons at the Intermediate Level

For the last year or so, I’ve used four primary tools for language study: LingQ, intermediate-level YouTubers’ channels, certain approachable television shows, and iTalki.

Yesterday, I finished my 100th iTalki lesson in French. For reference, English is my native language and Japanese is my second language.

Here are some thoughts I’d like to share.

  1. What makes a great iTalki teacher:

My verbal production isn’t as important as I had thought. (It ain’t about me…)

In healthy communications, it’s MUCH more important to understand others than for you to be understood. In many conversations, for any given moment, generally one person is driving and the other is responding. Being too much in the driving role gives one a false sense of progress. Sure, at the beginning traveler’s level of language, a primary need is “to be understood.” Real progress though doesn’t begin until shifting to the primary emphasis to being about understanding others. With iTalki, or similar, since the other person is being paid to listen to you, it’s too easy to talk too much. This isn’t really how you want to progress in a language. An iTalki teacher or conversation partner is one that can target what they say to comprehensible input where you’re at.

Ask an iTalki teacher what they did for the weekend, for example. If the rattle incomprehensibly, find another teacher. If they seek to be understood by you, where you’re at, you have a gem. Schedule more and more with them.

  1. What makes a great iTalki session:

Reflecting, I think my best iTalki sessions have had a structure that maximizes the time (and expense).

Before the session:

It’s best if you can have planned content–a Youtube video, an article or something. Obviously, the more it’s aligned with an interest of yours (and theirs!), the better.

If the teacher doesn’t suggest something, find something online yourself and message them the link.

Read it. Listen to it slowly. Listen to it at full speed. Analyze it. Identify the grammar structures, vocabulary, and idioms that you don’t have mastery of. Create a list and message that list to the teacher. It’ll give you a tick list of items to go through in the time to have a “semi-structured” conversation. I typically use LingQ to help me do this prep step through importing the content into LingQ.

Between beginners’ rote utterances and advanced levels’ free-form natural flow of conversation, semi-structure is ideal. The focus on a piece of content is key.

In the session:

I suggest four “phases” of the lesson. These phases can be completely natural, even hidden. It’s how healthy human conversations work.

a. Reciprocal small talk.

Talk about the weather. Talk about how busy the day has been. At the intermediate level, this is great human interaction, enabling you to be a real person in the target language. This is how humans ease into a conversation.

b. Reciprocal discussion about the weekend/recent events.

Express interest (not nosiness though) about the teacher’s life. Describe what you did over the weekend. Again, this a very human way of working into a conversation. As you grow, you can inquire in other people’s interests.

c. Converse about the pre-established content.

If a written article, read it aloud. They’ll help correct pronunciation.

Whether an article or video, discuss point-by-point the unfamiliar vocabulary, grammar, and idioms. Also, a bit more free form, discuss the “big ideas” and each others perspectives and experiences on the content of the piece.

d. Close with politeness.

Ask about what they have planned next weekend/soon. Express appreciation and exchange fluently the other social niceties in ending a conversation.

After the session:

What’s great is if the teacher either takes written notes (either in the iTalki platform or such as a shared Google doc) on words you couldn’t bring to mind real-time in the conversation or things you structured or pronounced incorrectly.

After the session, you can use this list to build a few practice sentences. ChatGPT is helpful for this step. I’ll also review the content in LingQ.

Most of the iTalki teachers are not professional teachers. The key skill they either have or don’t is being able to construct comprehensible input for where you’re at. Half of that is simply empathetic patience. If they can do that (which many can incredibly well without professional training), you can use a very natural and human approach like the above to get the most out of the personalized 1-on-1 cost of the session. Fluency grows through the small talk, the discussion of “hey, what’d you do over the weekend?,” and the more specific subject area focus.

I believe this is a good way to take “baby steps” between the formulaic rigid structures of language learning at the beginner level and the rapid spontaneous free-for-all at the advanced level.

If you’re an intermediate iTalki, language partner, or similar learn, would love to hear what you’ve learned too.


Did you notice any noticeable improvements in your spoken fluency? What is the tangible difference now after taking 100-talki conversational lessons? Now, what situations, so to speak, can you talk about fluently?


I can talk about myself, my family, my job, and personal interests such as home projects, pets, travel, snow skiing, hunting, food, wine, the French language, a few things in the news, and self reflection cycle quite comfortably.

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You have made some extremely helpful points about your use of italki.
Treat the session like a sandwich Is my suggestion. Beyond the “free association” of the opening introductory “chit chat” and then the closing courtesies with perhaps a recapitulation of the basic themes of your topic, I think you need a serious “filling“ in this sandwich.
You suggest notes, but I would go further and suggest that this can be best achieved by a serious written essay on your topic, giving you time to consult dictionaries and finesse the grammar. Of the four skills some language learners do not bother much with writing, but preparing an essay can be a very informative discipline. Then in rehearsal you could record this essay for yourself and play it back. You can also then provide this essay to your teacher in advance so that they can read it if they have time, but so that even with a quick skim they have the gist of what you are reading out and could also follow along and assist in a tactful way to correct any serious problems of pronunciation or grammatical construction.
But here is the key point: be prepared to go “off piste” at any moment! This can be either when responding to their questions about your essay or even asking questions yourself about particular words, phrases and collocations you might adjust or perhaps a grammar point
One tip here is to use a word as a ”hook” or “launch pad” for getting into “two way” conversation. For example when referring to a particular politician I wanted to express in German that I thought he was an “idiot”. That word has become German (or at least Denglisch), so I paused to ask what the gradations might be for German equivalents. I very usefully then learned a torrent of German expressions along a range of suitable epithets, from very polite to words that were decidedly impolite!
Language development is enhanced when you can manage a circumlocution, and that often comes with the “ping pong” of “back and forth”, so look for opportunities to achieve this by asking questions on alternatives and euphemisms. When Winston Churchill could not use the word “liar” in the British House of Commons, as that was considered to be unparliamentary, he coined the alternative in 1906 of a politician being at risk of a “terminological inexactitude”. Useful language development…
[Incidentally, the term “idiot” only entered the banned list in 2012 in Erskine May, the guidance for British parliamentarians… So “usage and abusage” most definitely keeps changing!]
Thanks again for your own tips.


I agree on the point that to understand is a higher skill than to be understood, but I disagree with the methodology to obtain that.

Paid conversations are ABSOLUTELY for me to practice speaking. I depend on my tutor to ask me questions, that I have to understand, and I respond to the questions and also ask her questions in return that I enjoy responses to but I’m not looking for a soliloquy from her. The clock is ticking and it’s my dime not hers. I can have longer form conversations where I listen to people and interact for FREE on many platforms, but my dime spent is for ME to speak primarily.

For practicing listening Understanding, the best way to do that is with podcasts or saved LingQ stories that cost no time or money. Tutors cost money to practice speaking and they require time because you have to schedule time with them.

Yes, it takes time to listen to podcasts too, but it doesn’t require scheduling. You connect via Bluetooth in your car when you drive or you put in your earbuds whenever you walk somewhere. Very easy to get an hour of listening with no planification whatsoever.

Podcasts are always reliable for providing me content appropriate for my level, whenever I want it. Paid tutors are hit or miss in providing this.

Yes, finding the right tutor who knows precisely how to communicate with you at a level appropriately challenging to you is a gem you want to keep BUT they are hard to find.

Most of the popular tutors on LingQ know the drill but they have thinned out quite a bit from the old days. There’s a conversation report required and they know that during the conversation you aren’t interested in listening to English or whatever your native tongue is.

This is not always the case outside of LingQ! Some of the most popular teachers are popular because they coddle their students by talking about the language and providing English explanations.

If you sound fairly fluent and/or insist on 100% Japanese, for example, it becomes a mechanical bull ride where they try to throw you and make you sorry for wanting to speak 100% in the L2. They only know full-on or babying mode.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had teachers who ask me, as you suggested, how my weekend was, if I did anything interesting. And if I take even a nanosecond to compose my thoughts, they ask me if I know what 週末 means.

I’ll keep my money, my open schedule, and keep listening to free podcasts to increase my listening comprehension. And here and there, I’ll schedule a conversation with a LingQ tutor to practice MY speaking not their speaking.


Paid conversation definitely has it’s pitfalls. (I’d even argue that it has many of the same pitfalls as behavioral therapy…)

On the coddling pitfall, I haven’t had more than a few sentences of English total across the 100+ iTalki lessons. Here, I think I was affected by the relationship I had with a face-to-face one-on-one tutor in Japan years ago where I never really knew if he spoke any English at all, despite a year’s worth of twice-a-week conversations.

On the over-talking pitfall, it can be tough because of the level issue you identify. It’s too easy for less experienced teachers to either let you rattle away in your L2 (that maybe they are simply nodding and suffering through as their roommate is grinning) or let them rattle away (with instead it being your head nodding without understanding).

To keep in the sweet spot between their over-talking and one’s own over-talking, I’ve found a few things very helpful.

First, I have found that thirty-minute conversations are better than a full hour. It’s easier to have conversational balance between the two parties at two different levels in the language for half an hour.

Second, one good technique is to have a conversation about an article. Usually I suggest rather than the tutor. I read it aloud. The tutor corrects pronunciation as we go along. We pause after a sentence that introduces unknown vocabulary. We discuss for a few minutes the ideas of a given few sentences or a paragraph. This method works pretty well with untrained “teachers” and helps keep the conversation not too one-sided, one way or the other.


Thank you for your interesting thoughts on language learning with iTalki. The idea that not speaking but listening to your teacher is the most important thing in a language lesson is completely new to me. I thought about it for a while and I think that I can at least partially agree with you. Your concept that a good teacher should be able to give you language input on par with your level reminds me of the psychologist Vygotsky and his Theory of the “zone of proximal development”. The idea of this theory is very similar to yours. A teacher should give the learners input and tasks on a level which is a bit too difficult for them to master by themselves, but easy enough to master with the help of a teacher. Instructions are most beneficial for learners when they are just a bit out of their ability range. So according to Vygotsky we can conclude that it is very important for teachers to be capable when adapting his own language to the individual level and needs of his learners. In fact we all know this from another context, because In the area of first language acquisition this described process of adaptive teaching takes place naturally. When adults interact with infants or children they naturally change the way they speak and unconsciously adapt their language to the capabilities of their interlocuters. So overall I agree with your idea that the right input from the teacher is very important. But I shall not go so far as to say, that it is more important than for one to speak in a lesson. I think the input can only improve your comprehension skills. To become an active user of a language one has to train in speaking a lot too. My problem with English for example is that I understand nearly everything when reading or listen to content, but I have a great deal of trouble with expressing myself in English. I think the reason for this is, that I spoke and wrote too little in the past. Furthermore I think there is one more reason for speaking more in a lesson: It is only if we produce language on our own, we can get feedback from the teacher. Good feedback can also help a lot when learning a language. I should like to add this thought to your concept and say that the right input and the opportunity to train ourselves to speak and receive helpful feedback are all important. A good teacher should have the capability of balancing all these aspects in their teaching.

Ten years ago, I helped my wife get her masters degree in education. Vygotsky was a primary influence on the program. I did all her homework for her. Perhaps there are still some influences left on me!

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