italki is a website I used rather extensively near the beginning of my Spanish journey (post-July 2012 Spain trip). Before you read on, just remember: italki is FREE.
italki is a website for finding language partners, connecting complementary language learners and native speakers. When you make your profile you add the usual age, gender, location but then you specify your languages – which you speak natively, which you are currently learning, and your proficiency in them.
This makes it easy to find language partners. You can search users based on languages spoken/learned, or you can simply let italki recommend them to you in your dashboard. You can then send each other messages, exchange Skype details, learn about each other’s cultures. With any luck, you’ll hit it off and, who knows, you might meet each other in real life one day!
I suppose that hope is a little fanciful. Making friends on italki, in my experience, can take a certain degree of luck. Obviously with the language barrier and different time zones, it can be hard to build rapport and consistency (it can be hard enough getting a hold of someone in your own city on a regular basis!). Another factor is cultural differences. I’ve found it a lot easier to make friends with people who have travelled outside of their country or are otherwise quite knowledgeable about the world. It just gives you a lot more to talk about when this is the case.
A really effective aspect of the website is the “Notebook”. Here, you write compositions in your target language which then appear in the dashboards of native speakers who correct your writing and give you tips! From my experiences writing in German and Spanish, I’ve never had to wait long for corrections, and I often got more than one for each piece of writing.
Similar to the Notebook is the “Questions & Answers” function (I’m sure you can guess what this is). You write questions about your target language for native speakers to answer. I found this incredibly useful for questions you can’t ask a dictionary. For example, I asked: “How do you say ‘add/befriend me on Facebook’?”, and “What is the best word for ‘driver license’?” (there are many words for this in Spanish, each with supposed regional differences in usage). This type of question might seem quite finicky to you, but I definitely value the input. It gives me an extra bit of confidence knowing that I’m not using old-fashioned or uncommon words.
As I’m sure you’ve deduced, you can also correct and answer the notebook entries and questions of people learning your native language. I do this from time to time to give back to the italki community but I also think the website has some sort of points system. I’m not too sure as I’ve never had to worry about it.
Finally, italki also offers the opportunity to get in touch with language teachers. I haven’t actually used this function personally, but Benny Lewis from FluentIn3Months has, and reviewed it extensively and rather positively here. If you’re interested, you can even become a teacher and earn money on italki.
Takeaway: italki is great for connecting you with native speakers of your target language. Being connected to real people is a real motivation-booster as it makes the language seem more real.
Bonus tip: In italki, access your own Notebook or your own Q&A by clicking on the tabs “Notebook” and “Answers” respectively.