HelloTalk and the Future of Language Learning


At high school from the ages of 11-16, I learned two languages; German and Spanish. Though the classes remain a distant memory to me now, I can still recall the non-existent motivation of learning both languages.

Not because I disliked Germany or Spain, but naturally as a naive teenager there were far more important matters to take care such as playing video games, climbing trees and eating biscuits.

The source of this lack of motivation was derived from one fatal flaw of learning languages in school. 

We never ever actually got to use the languages.

I didn’t know anyone who spoke Spanish or German that I could talk to for the entirety of my time of learning both languages in school and there existed only two opportunities to go on exchange trips. However, by the time they arose my ability so poor, there was no way I could justify l spending 5 years of pocket money and flying off to Frankfurt or Barcelona to make an idiot of myself.

I have no doubt that if I’d had good German or Spanish friends at the age of 14 that I could chat to, I would actually have put the effort in; I would have experienced the huge rewards that come from learning a language as I have the past 3 years in learning Japanese.

Fortunately, we now live in a time where a piece of metal in our pocket has a billion people on speed dial and it seems the problem of finding conversation partners from around the world, will soon be resigned to the past.

Over the past few years many apps and websites have tried taken advantage of the internet, offering compelling ways of connecting people with the prospect of language exchange on tap.

Unfortunately from personal experience I’d found most to be utterly useless. Half too difficult to use, the other half were ghost towns.

So when a friend recommend the app HelloTalk as a way of finding conversation partners to practice Japanese, I told them to get out of my kitchen.

But one winters eve when I was snowed in my apartment, curiosity finally got the better of me and after I noticed it was a free download I decided to give it a shot.

I told the app I was looking to practice Japanese and Spanish and set my abilities to intermediate and beginner respectively. I even uploaded a picture cleverly taken from a high angle to give the illusion of looking slim (hiding months of fried chicken consumption in the process), before hitting confirm and waiting for nothing to actually happen.

Yet, within the next hour I’d spoken to 6 Japanese people (four girls, two guys) looking to practice English and teach Japanese, a guy from Mexico wanting to help with my Spanish and a girl from Italy looking to practice her English before an upcoming exam.

It was utterly surreal.

By the time I’d gone to bed I’d spoken non-stop for 3 hours with half a dozen strangers in 3 different languages, exchanging life stories, discussing everything from the architecture of Florence and horrific romantic experiences gone wrong, to even offering to help someone cheat in an upcoming exam.

And I’d done it all from my sofa in an apartment in rural Japan.

You'll have spoken with half of the people in Japan before dinner.
You’ll have spoken with half of Japan before dinner.

Considering the app was free I was fairly impressed. Especially as the app had some key things bundled in which took it from being just a simple messaging app, to a genuinely useful language learning tool.

Firstly it has a translation tool, where you can just tap what someone had said and quickly translate it. In particular it came in handy when chatting with the Italian girl and she was struggling with a few English phrases and opted to use Italian instead. (It also reminded me translators have come along way when it comes to European languages – they still suck for Japanese-English).

Secondly there’s a correction tool, so you can tap on people’s mistakes and quickly re-write them  and show the corrections.

And finally you can do voice recording so you can practice pronunciation. You can even go one step further and use VoIP (free phone calling with a fancy acronym), so you could just chat normally over the phone.

Having used the app for about 6 months now, I have to say its one of the best language learning tools I’ve come across. As well as this, HelloTalk is a really great way for making friends from around the world, brought together with the mutual interest of language learning.

In my opinion if schools got their students to actually use it alongside classroom study, it’d solve the lack of motivation most students have overnight.

But to anyone learning Japanese or any language, looking to practice the language in conversation with a stranger and experience the thrill of meeting strangers from around the world without having to shell out millions of dollars on airfares, I highly recommend the HelloTalk app.

Check it out – you never know where it may lead.

HelloTalk is available on iOS and Android and can be found at www.hellotalk.com 

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