The strangers helping each other learn a new language - via WhatsApp


Not too long ago, learning a language cost time and money. Now, Australians are teaming up with strangers around the world to teach each other the skills quickly, via their phones.

Italian, English, German, French; Valentina Gosetti has been learning languages her whole life, but never like this.

Every day on her way to work, the French lecturer, who teaches at NSW's University of New England, practises her Russian via WhatsApp with Mykhailo Alandarenko, who lives in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

The pair send voice messages back and forth to each other on WhatsApp, allowing Valentina to attempt to speak like a local and Mykhailo to easily correct her pronunciation.

Mykhailo and Valentina
They might live 15,000 kilometres apart, but that's not stopping Mykhailo help Valentina learn Russian.
SBS News

While she has spent upwards of two decades teaching languages beyond her original northern Italian dialect, it was not until she wanted to improve her Russian that she discovered this technique.

“I went back to Italy to visit my family recently and I asked an old friend of mine who is really good at Russian if he knew someone I could practise with as well,” she told SBS News.

“We started with our weekly classes on Skype and then it became really natural to exchange a lot of little vocal messages via WhatsApp.”

After seeing her Russian improve quickly, Valentina thinks teaming up with language buddies around the world will quickly catch on.

“It was so useful - I can’t tell you how amazing the experience has been, because it’s so immediate, you can do it any time, I do it as I commute to work,” she said.

“I think the future of language learning is personalised, portable, and almost made to measure for the person who is learning, so that’s what I really love about it, and it’s not just talking to an app, there’s a real person there.”

Valentina isn't Mykhailo’s only student - the Russian-Ukrainian journalist also teaches Arabic, Russian, and Ukrainian to students via WhatsApp.

He has also been teaching languages in classrooms for decades, but he says his students have never been as engaged as they are now.

“It started because I hate writing messages, so I started sending voice messages, and it also let me check their pronunciation,” he told SBS News from Ukraine.

“It’s much easier and it doesn’t take any time at all - you just say a couple of words via WhatsApp, some phrases, probably 10 or 20 seconds, and you’re done.”

WhatsApp messages
It might only take 10 or 20 seconds of speaking, but Valentina says it's really improving her Russian.

WhatsApp has 1.5 billion users in 180 countries - making it the most popular messaging app, with 29 million messages sent every minute.

Mykhailo said speaking one-on-one to a human being, who speaks the language natively, is infinitely more effective than learning from automated apps, books, or crowded classrooms.

“Our lessons aren’t just speaking - we always start by talking about Russian history, because it’s very important to know the history of Russia to understand how people think and act and speak,” he said.

Catching on quickly

While Valentina and Mykhailo met through a mutual friend, there are plenty more Australians learning languages with the help of strangers they have connected with via language exchange networks.

Community marketplace Italki has more than five million members who speak more than 130 different languages, giving people the opportunity to team up and teach each other their native tongues.

Among its Australian users, English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and French are by far the most popular languages - accounting for 70 per cent of those being learnt. 

The rest of italki’s Australian users are learning 104 other languages, with a few even choosing rarer languages Sanskrit and Ancient Greek.

Its CEO Kevin Chen told SBS News there is a “huge amount of potential” to learn languages when connected with a native speaker.

“So many people around the world are still trying to learn languages without actual human contact,” he said.

“We believe people can get to real fluency much more quickly with a human teacher – and of course, make the genuine human connections that we also believe are so important.”

Rethinking the way we learn

Umberto Ansaldo heads the School of Literature, Arts and Media at the University of Sydney.

In the decades he has been studying and teaching linguistics and languages, Professor Ansaldo says learning has never been as accessible as it is now.

“What we're talking about are way more affordable, way more flexible online opportunities that are always going to make foreign languages available to people who can only learn from home or from their computer without having the resources to travel or pay for classes,” he told SBS News.

“Matching up with specific individuals is good, because language is a very relational kind of activity, so it’s good not to be afraid of trying things out, it’s good to make errors, and it’s good to just feel confident to speak no matter how bad it sounds.”

While many people around the world are now starting to engage in language exchanges as a hobby, Professor Ansaldo thinks Australians could take it one step further.

It is no secret children learn languages far quicker than adults, so he says it is also time to rethink how we teach languages in our schools.

“From what I can observe at the schools I’ve come into contact with, the schools are not representative of the number of languages spoken out there in any city in the languages they offer,” he said.

Linguistics professor Umberto Ansaldo says it's time to reinvent the way we teach languages from a young age.
Linguistics professor Umberto Ansaldo says it's time to reinvent the way we teach languages from a young age.
Umberto Ansaldo

“Even when they are offered, there are a very limited number of hours, a very limited number of resources, and don’t necessarily have native or very fluent speakers teaching, so I think quite a bit could be done if there was the desire to do so.

“If the new opportunities available now through digital media or online organisations were more readily available in schools, that would certainly be a fun, affordable way to boost the type of language exposure that our kids are having.”

Valentina has already adopted that approach in her university classes, ditching traditional methods to boost engagement.

“I’ve got students from 19 to 90, they’re all joining us via Skype, and we talk about everything - we talk about translation, we talk about literature, and I just think how amazing it is that anywhere in Australia or the world we can all get together to talk about what makes us passionate,” she said.

“I always say to my students, ‘If you’re passionate about classical music or dance, talk about that in your target language’.”

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