A review of HelloTalk

HelloTalk: take the practice with you

I started learning my first foreign language seriously only eight years ago, so in comparative terms, I haven’t been learning languages recreatively for as long as other people have. In spite of that, I have to admit the horizon has changed for language learning, with an amazing number of products and services coming out, aimed at what once was the hardest part of learning a language: live practice. Back in the day, the internet did exist, but there were only so many ways to get in touch with people wanting to exchange languages. Nowadays, there is a plethora of apps through which you can reach out to natives of your target language interested in exchanging their language for yours!

Hello Talk is one such app–probably one of the most complete apps I’ve used for language exchange.

More features than one can shake a stick at

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I’ve come to realize that HelloTalk is quite literally a Swiss knife of an app, with every feature a language learner may need or want for an effective exchange. It has all the obvious features, such as a Search engine to refine what kind of partner you’re looking for. Do you want them to be online right now? Near your location? With a high language level? You can search with one of these criteria and more, or even use the Custom Search to be even more exacting about the kind of person you’re looking for.

One of the nicest features, though, may very well be the defining trait of HelloTalk: tapping once on the text on the screen will automatically open the tool bar, from which you can choose to copy the text, have it spoken out loud, translated, transliterated (a very nice feature, for languages that do not use the Latin alphabet), bookmark it as a favorite, or even correct it if you can! Other options include to delete full parts of the conversation, or share it online.

I find that this toolbox-like feature has been very thoroughly thought out. I particularly like the fact that you can add useful and new phrases to a notebook from which to take notes later on, which means you can practice anywhere (if you have WiFi or a 3G connection) and review new words or vocabulary later on. The spelling out loud function is also a very nice addition and a tool I consider to be incredibly useful for beginner learners. Although it is a robotic voice, I tested it in four languages and even in a mixed sentence that included two languages: it always worked perfectly. A quick view of the Settings in HelloTalk reveals that you can actually change the speed at which the voice reads the sentence.

Speaking of the settings, you will find that HelloTalk is quite customizable. Besides the usual notifications settings, you can also regulate your chat settings and text size, enable and disable backups of your chats so that you don’t lose any valuable chats in case of having to reinstall the app, set exactly who do you want to be able to find you in the search engine (and even hide you from it for any period of time, should you not want to show up in it for any given reason).

In order to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance at learning, the app provides an unique “Language Exchange” environment which allows you and your language partner to switch between languages for 500-1000 characters or 5-10 minutes each. There’s no need to keep track yourself because the app does so on its own, making even ground for both parties.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, you may’ve noticed that on the lower right corner there’s a mic icon. You know what this means! You can send short spoken messages by keeping this button pressed, something that works wonders for speaking practice. Next to it there’s also the translation button, in which you can directly translate your message into your partner’s language and send it. I recommend to use this one tool in moderation: as it is based off an online translation tool, it isn’t perfect and it doesn’t translate nuance or local expressions. Therefore, if you try translating an overly local expression (the likes of “yo, whazzap?”), your language counterpart will only receive an incomprehensible translation.

One more thing that’s a simple, yet very useful detail, is the fact that your counterpart’s local hour is shown beneath their ID. As you can see in the screenshot, I was up quite late on a Saturday while talking with a partner in China who was enjoying her Sunday evening!

A few things to consider

I did not find any major faults in HelloTalk (if anything, I’m pleasantly surprised about how much thought went into producing and polishing this app), but there are a few things that did catch my attention.

I’ve realized a large percentage of the people that use HelloTalk tend to be on the young side, mostly young adults. For me, this meant they’re usually really motivated and energetic at the beginning, but aren’t very good at keeping it up. I must’ve accepted over twenty friend requests and talked to more than half of those people before finding someone who would actually respond after the first contact. Some kind of motivational system (such as points earned for every conversation held with the same person, or something similar) may help fix this.

As with all good things, HelloTalk is not 100% free: as a non-paying user, you have caps on translation, transliteration and transcription features, as well as on the size of your notes and the number of language pairs you get for free (you start with only one pair: one language to learn and one language to teach). In all honesty, I believe its prices to be unbeatable (considering that a whole year as a pro-member will only set you back about $8 USD / €7 ). However, I think it’s a bit unfair to have to pay for each language pair you want to register beyond the first one. It’s not incredibly expensive to do so for only one extra pair, but the cost piles up if you have more than two languages you’d like to keep practicing on.

HelloTalk is available on iOS and Android.