How to Learn Languages If You Can’t Travel – 如果不能旅游还能好好学习外语吗?

(The accompanying Youtube video is in Mandarin with English subtitles. I’ll be posting in other languages partially to keep myself motivated, but also to help you learn!)


I get this question a lot. You’ve probably heard that immersion is the best way to learn a language, and in SOME cases but not all this is true (I’ll get into this more in a later post). But guess what – it is actually really easy to mimic an immersive environment, and to fit it around your own schedule.

You just need to make sure a) you are getting enough input (for comprehension) and b) you are giving enough output (for speaking or signing ability).


These days, there are so many tools out there to help you create your own immersion, tools that can even be more effective than actually visiting the country of your target language, because you can actually maximize your exposure to quality language input at the most convenient time for you.

In this post I’ll focus on my two favorite tools, which complement each other well.




This website is my absolute favorite way to find a language tutor. On this site you can find a tutor from nearly any language, spoken or signed (they even helped me find Venetian!) filtered by experience, other languages they speak, or timezone. The platform is very easy to use and handles timezones, currencies, and accountability so that you can focus on language learning.


How to Use italki

I choose my tutors strategically based on my schedule, my language-learning needs, and their experience.

Generally, when I first start learning a language, I’ll use tutors with extensive experience and training, because that is when I really need my hand held.

Then, I’ll use newer and cheaper tutors when I just need to practice and maintain a language I already know, for which I don’t need a lot of overt instruction (so I’m not giving italki ALL of my money 😊)

I also love that with italki it is easy to leverage timezones – my most productive time to study languages is early in the morning before work starts to distract me too much. Since I’m based in Korea (and let’s just say that many Koreans are NOT early risers, have you met soju?) I found a Korean tutor based in Canada, who teaches in her evenings (my early mornings). I know people who schedule their italki lessons for their lunch breaks. Get yourself a wireless headset and go wild: I have done italki lessons from cafes, co-working spaces, friend’s apartments, and even once while boarding a plane.


Native or Non-Native Tutor?

You do want to be careful about using tutors who are not native speakers of the target language, because if you can’t rely on the quality of their input, it can be confusing and frustrating. Generally even (especially) if you are a beginner learner, you should be choosing a tutor who is a native speaker.

However, I have found that it can be useful to use non-native tutors as language learning coaches. When I was studying Indonesian, I met with a very skilled American college student who was teaching Indonesian on italki. I asked him to walk me through what study techniques led to his biggest breakthroughs, and to give me a heads up for the difficulties I would encounter as a native Englislh speaker. He told me the typical mistakes that we English speakers tend to make with Indonesian, and gave me some useful strategies for understanding certain concepts. It catapulted me ahead in my language learning. Of course, I was simultaneously studying with a native speaker.

If you really want to make fast progress, I also recommend mixing it up: hire 2 or 3 tutors, and meet with each once a week. That way you won’t get too cozy with any one “idiolect” (the specific language used by a single person) and you’ll benefit from three different teaching styles.


Paid vs Unpaid: Lessons Versus Language Exchanges

Everyone will have a different experience with this, but I’m just going to say straight out: unpaid language exchanges just don’t work for me. This is mostly because when things get busy (and things are always busy) my language exchange will be the first list item to be sacrificed. But if I have already paid for a lesson (italki holds my money in escrow) I am much more motivated to show up. And showing up is half the battle when it comes to language learning.


I always say that language learning is like fitness. A huge part of your success will be your motivation. A much smaller percentage will be the actual techniques you use. I’ll discuss motivation and goal-setting in another post.


Get a discount off your first italki lesson if you use this link.





The friend that introduced me to Glossika put it right: “It is incredibly boring but extremely effective.”

Essentially, you’ll be listening to (and repeating) sentences for as long as you can stand it.

You’ll have to think of it like putting in your reps at the gym.

I keep myself motivated to put in my Glossika reps by hiring a cheap italki tutor (sort for “Community” tutors) to sit with me on Skype while I do my reps. This job is pretty boring, so I give them a heads up that they should feel free to do dishes or other chores while they listen in, and just step in if my pronunciation is really off.

Or else I just leave Glossika on while I myself am doing chores, or walking the dog, or doing anything mindless. The most important thing is that you maximize your time listening and speaking.


How does it work?

You pay for a monthly subscription and get access to all their languages (!!!) For each language, after taking a placement test and choosing the subject matters that are most relevant to you, Glossika will present you with curated sentences representing important grammar patterns, which will be presented to you with “spaced repetition” intervals designed to get the patterns into your brain and into your muscle memory.


Why does it work?

Essentially, after you have said “The cat is on the floor” a few hundred times, when you suddenly need to say “My purse is on the floor” you find that all you have to do is plug in the new words: you’ve learned the grammar by muscle memory!


Interested? You can get a discount if you use my link here.


I hope these tools and techniques help you out! If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments And let me know what works best for you!


  1. I’ve heard of italki before and have found that whenever I have a question in my target language, it’s the website that comes up (and with answers to my queries). Glossika, on the other hand, seems very interesting. I’ll have to look into it!

  2. Glossika seems very useful for someone like me with horrible pronunciation. I will have to look into, I work home-based and different languages always present me with a problem.

  3. As someone that hasn’t really traveled anywhere, this helps a lot. I love languages but I always give various excuses for not being serious in my learning. Your post has encouraged me to give it another try. I’ll look into the sites you’ve suggested. Thanks!

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