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italki: The Human Connection

Creative Careers in Languages, Part 4

By Christine S. Maxwell is an innovative online platform dedicated to connecting teachers and students for authentic and immersive experiences in language learning. Established in 2007 by Kevin Chen and Yongyue Jiang, italki connects more than 5,000 teachers and 3 million students worldwide. Kevin Chen, co-founder of, and Tracy Mehoke, Manager of Teacher Services, discuss the successful platform.

How did you choose the name italki?

Kevin:  While we considered several domains, we liked italki the best because we believe that speaking (talk) is a crucial part of language instruction and one that is lacking in many people’s language study.   We also think that the “i” looks a bit like people and that we were connecting them.  For this reason, we never capitalize the “i”.   Also, italki is easy to remember and to pronounce.   

What inspired you to start italki?

Kevin: I studied French in high school, but after a few years of study, I still couldn’t have a basic conversation.  Many years later, I moved to China, and started studying Chinese.  I made a lot more progress, and I think the difference was the human connection.  I had many opportunities to use the language for real communication, and I also had a personal tutor.

My cofounder, Yongyue Jiang, was interested in building a platform that could help connect China with the world.  We put our ideas together, and tried to create a service to help anyone in the world, learn any language, through human connections.

Can you tell us about your background?

Kevin: I was born and grew up in the United States.  My parents are from Taiwan, but I did not grow up speaking Chinese (or Taiwanese).  I went to Georgetown University and the London School of Economics.  I worked briefly in finance, and then traveled to China to create a tech startup.  My cofounder, Yongyue Jiang, is from Ningbo, China, and graduated from Hainan University.  Before starting italki, he helped to build the technology for an education company focused on teaching Chinese people English.  

Tracy: I learned some Chinese as an undergraduate at Reed College, where I also developed a strong interest in education and education reform. After pursuing some graduate courses, I traveled to Chinese to immerse myself in the language and culture. I traveled throughout China, taught English as a second language, and started working at italki about three years ago. I like the possibilities that italki offers: an immersive and cultural exposure to languages.

How do you learn a language on italki?

Kevin: We often say that italki is a language platform and not a school.  We think that every learner has different needs, so what we try to do at italki is connect you to a teacher that is right for you.  We have two types of instructors: Professional Teachers who have teaching credentials and professional experience, and Community Tutors, who are generally native speakers who can provide additional language practice.

As a student, you’re able to search for a teacher that fits your learning style, budget, and schedule.  As a teacher, you’re able to create your own profile, set your own time schedule, and set your own fees.  

Tracy:  You can access italki through the italki website or a mobile app (Android or iOS).  More and more people are using the mobile app to find teachers, connect to friends, and manage their online lessons.  

How is italki different from other online language offerings?

Kevin: italki can help provide that crucial missing component in language education: the human connection.  We like language learning apps and programs, and we think people should use every channel to learn a language.  However, you need that human interaction to become fluent.  In addition, when you connect with people, you do more than just improve your language skills.  You also learn about life in their countries, and get exposed to a different cultural perspective. We have many users that eventually travel abroad, and find that they already have friends in that country.

Tracy: Absolutely, the human connection piece is fundamental. At some point when you’re learning a language, you will need to talk to someone. Traditional education tends to lack communicative practice, and it can be a shock when you have to communicate for the first time.  italki can help you develop those conversational skills and cultural knowledge from the very beginning.

What unique challenges and opportunities does italki offer to its users?

Tracy: We run a “Language Challenge” several times a year to help motivate our community to make progress in learning a language.  Students earn badges by completing a number of lessons in their chosen language study.

We are running a challenge now, called the Diversity Language Challenge.  We are encouraging people to explore lesser-known languages and to take an hour of instruction in languages such as Basque, Esperanto, Icelandic, and many others from a long list of featured languages.    Part of the funds earned will be donated to Wikitongues, an organization dedicated to the preservation of all the world’s languages.  (See June 2017 blog on

 Go here to learn more about the Diversity Language Challenge (

In addition, italki has recently supported a program to support people displaced by conflict (for example, Syria) earn a livelihood through online teaching.  You can learn more about the program here:

To learn more about italki, please go to

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