Like so many others lately, I've been isolated and staying home, putting all my travels on hold. During this time, I’ve been desperately seeking the things travel typically offers—meeting new people, diving into a different culture, experiencing new sights beyond my own backyard. Fortunately, I’ve found something that brings me community and feeds my wanderlust until I'm able to travel again.
I’ve been learning Arabic to prepare myself for future trips to the Middle East. At first I tried Duolingo, a popular free app that turns learning new vocabulary and phrases into a quiz-like game. However, even after completing the full course, I still couldn’t string together a sentence in Arabic, and I wasn’t getting the human connection I was craving during quarantine. Then, I signed up for Natakallam, an online service that connects language students with tutors over Skype.
Every week, the bleeps and bloops of Skype sound, signaling the start of my call with my teacher, Osama, who is a Syrian refugee in Beirut. I tell him about what’s going on with me, and he tells me about his hometown in Syria (Swaida), his favorite food (tabbouleh, a Levantine salad), or how his quarantine is going—he’s been on strict lockdown and has barely gone outside, not even for walks, but he and his wife are doing fine. The classes have introduced me to a new friend across the world—I'm in the countryside near Toronto—at a time when random encounters are impossible. I've also learned about details of his culture: Osama is Druze, a religious sect primarily concentrated in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, and he tells me his city is known for winemaking.
Throughout our time, I’ve learned a ton of spoken Arabic to prepare me for trips to Lebanon or Jordan, two destinations I'm itching to visit when this is all over. (Here's your first lesson from me: مرحبا, pronounced "marhabaan" means "hello.") I also feel good about supporting a refugee whose life has been uprooted by the war in Syria, an added benefit of the service I'm using.
Virtual Services for Language Learning
Natakallam is just one of many online platforms that allows you to learn a language from the comfort of your couch, though. Apps like Duolingo, Babbel and Memrise are great, but they don’t involve enough speaking, which is critical to actually being able to learn a language. The good news is that finding a language tutor or someone to practice with online has never been easier thanks to a number of useful platforms, and lessons tend to be cheaper than signing up for a course at your local college. Here are some of the best options.
More than 10,000 tutors use this site to deliver hour-long video lessons to students around the world. Choose your teacher based on a detailed profile that lists their credentials, student reviews, teaching styles, and an intro video for a dose of their personality. Classes cost between $8 and $20, and teachers usually offer a one-time trial discount.
Berlitz is an international language school with all kinds of courses both online and in-person, but its online group classes of three to six students are perfect for building a sense of community during social isolation. Programs are done over video twice weekly at specific times, so they’re great for those looking for routine. Courses aren’t cheap, though; group classes will run you $500 per month and last three months.
I’ve been learning through Natakallam, a language service that employs refugees to teach Arabic, French, Persian, and Spanish. Not only are the classes well-done, there’s the added bonus that you’re helping a refugee. The classes are done over video chat and cost $15 per session, $70 for five classes and $130 for 10 classes.
Think social network for language learning. Pop onto Tandem’s app any time and strike up a chat with someone from around the world. You can open a FaceTime-style video call or simply chat over text. This app is great if you don’t want to commit to a scheduled time and it’s free.
You know those language exchanges where you meet someone in a coffee shop or bar and practice learning a language with them? This is the same thing over video, voice chat, text, or with a pen pal. MyLanguageExchange’s interface is seriously outdated, but it does the trick and with more than 3 million users covering 164 languages, you won’t have trouble finding someone to learn with. Plus, it's free to sign up. Classes with professional teachers are available for a fee.
Similar to Italki, this site has more than 10,000 private teachers with detailed profiles to choose from. The added bonus with Verbling is that you get access to an online community of language learners. Prices per hour range widely from about $10 to $50, and trial lessons are free.
This online tutoring service says it has students from 190 countries learning more than 50 languages, and its user base has been growing even more during the pandemic. A unique aspect of this one is that instead of simply choosing a teacher from a list, Preply asks you a few questions before using an algorithm to match you with a suitable teacher. Classes are $15 to $20 and trial lessons are free.
Short on time? Rype offers short 30-minute sessions in 10 languages with professional teachers and you’ll get seven days to see if it’s right for you. After that, 30-minute classes are $14.17 to $15.99 depending on your plan.