An italki Review by Language Obsessives — 200+ Lessons, 10+ languages

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We’re obsessed with languages, and have used italki for hundreds of lessons each, in more than ten languages (I’ve stopped counting).

So this is an italki review by people who’ve spent a really long time using italki for Arabic, Swahili, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Persian, Hebrew, and Turkish — so far!

One of the things we have consistently believed, when learning any language, is that it’s important to find a teacher early. It’s hard at first, but with the right teacher, learning is a lot faster.

But finding a teacher offline (in the old-school way) is hard. You have to look at ads, ask around, post on message boards, then organise visits, do trials, andnegotiate the fee… It’s a real chore.

That’s where online teachers come in. And italki is one of the best sources out there.

If you’re curious about italki or online language tutors generally, you might want to know

  • Why get a teacher? When is the “right” time to get a language teacher?
  • Why get an online teacher vs an offline one? Pros and cons
  • How to find a good teacher on italki
  • How to make the most of your time with an online language teacher
  • Alternatives to italki

OK, here goes.

italki review online language teacher graphic image illustration

Why Use a Language Teacher (Online or Offline)

The teacher opens the door; the student must walk through it themself.

When we ask people what they want to learn a language for, nearly everyone says the same thing: they want to speak. Some other people want to focus on reading or listening.

But you aim to speak, then you need to practise speaking. You would benefit from a tutor in learning to read, too. There are two main options of someone to practise speaking with: either a teacher/tutor, or a language partner.

A language partner is a good part of your language learning toolkit, but it shouldn’t be your only port of call. They can be fun, and they can become friends. But, if you want to learn a language quickly, then you should invest in a teacher.

male online language teacher sitting in front of a planet globe

There are good reasons to pay for a teacher to speak to.

Firstly, good teachers do a lot more work than language partners. A good teacher will structure a curriculum for you, patiently listen to you and correct your every mistake, and even create tailored homework and activities for you.

A language partner may do this — but then they’d expect the same level of commitment from you, teaching your language.

Teachers are patient, methodical and friendly. They work hard to speak all the time, thinking of things to say, and listening quietly while you fumble through sentences. Language partners are rarely like this, especially at the beginner level.

Secondly, your time is valuable. You can spend very little or nothing on education, if you want, but it may take a long time to get anywhere, and you might make mistakes along the way. Teachers really make you make the most of your time.

It’s a bit like exercise at the gym. Some people have the discipline to go every day and follow a program. But some don’t, and a coach or a class helps them along, and also points out ways they can improve. A good teacher is like a coach.

If you want to get a language partner, then I’d suggest you do it after finding a great teacher (which might mean going through one or a few teachers).

Finally, teachers can become friends, too. I find this is even true of online language teachers. I text them months and years after finishing learning formally. Of course, we may switch languages. But the important thing is that I have a new connection.

Italki review conversation with my tutor Philip
Learning Swahili with Philip, one of my italki Swahili tutors, and now friends. See the video here

As for when is the right time to get a teacher — I understand if people don’t want to start with a teacher. I generally like to learn about a hundred words and get a general “feel” for a language before my first lesson. But after that (generally a week or two), it’s time to get started speaking.

Why an Online Language Teacher? Pros and Cons

It’s always possible to get tutors in person, whether you’re in your home country or living abroad.

Using an online tutor has several advantages over in-person teachers.

Firstly, it’s really easy to filter through good teachers online.

Initially, you can use the rating and videos to figure out what teacher suits you best.

On italki (or any platform), you look at not just their rating, but the number of lessons they’ve done, and also their intro video. The video helps a lot with figuring out whether you might get along.

Teacher rankings - choose the best italki teacher (for persian here) by checking ratings
Check teacher rankings on italki

If there are fifty teachers in your price range, and five of them have done a large number of lessons, you can narrow down your search significantly.

This is quite different to the in-person search, where you have to meet teachers face-to-face before you can figure out if they suit you.

Thereafter, you can easily “screen” teachers. Do a lesson at the lowest cost. See if you like them. If you don’t, don’t schedule more. No stress.

You can assess italki tutors on the criteria we talk about below as well as just thinking: Do you want to talk to this person? Are you going to learn something? (More on screening below.)

Thirdly, you don’t have to waste time commuting. You can take a 30-minute lesson over your lunch break in the middle of the day, or schedule it early in the morning or late at night (something totally realistic with time zone differences, and the teachers for any language tend to live all over the world and be available at different times).

The convenience of italki has been life-changing. Getting ready for my lesson involves looking over the notes from my last lesson and sitting down in a place in my living room with flattering lighting.

I even find it super convenient to do lesson scheduling via online platforms. In-person teachers could use some scheduling software, but they rarely do.

Finally, pricing is transparent. With in-person teachers, sometimes they negotiate on price at the end. With italki teachers, it’s right up there, so I can make a decision easily.

There are two downsides to online language teachers, though.

Firstly, there’s a lack of commitment or schedule. When you sign up to a school or get a teacher, you generally agree to a schedule (like classes every day or every week). There’s materials that you go through.

With online teachers, it’s basically at-will employment — you can end it at any moment. So I find it hard to have a feeling of continuity over a long term, unless I really force it myself.

Secondly, it’s harder to form a bond when you don’t meet face to face. But it’s still possible. I’ve formed bonds with some of my favourite teachers, like Philip, in the pic above.

How to Choose a Good Teacher on italki

In the past, I used to pay attention to the “type” of teacher on italki — casual teachers vs professionals.

But as time has gone on, I’ve learned that what I get out of them mostly depends on expectations I set and screening I do.

Early on, I make it clear that I’m after certain things in a teacher. I want to have fun, but I also want structured notes, and words and sentences to review. And I don’t want to work out of a book.

I do a few lessons with a teacher and figure out if they meet those criteria. If the lessons flow naturally and it meets my needs, we continue.

You might be different from me, and like working from textbooks, and prefer exercises to chit chat. That’s fine. As long as a teacher suits how you want to learn, it’s one that’s worth continuing with.

Don’t feel compelled to get “the professional” teachers with qualifications. They are more expensive, and they’re usually good, but they’re not always what you might need.

Sometimes the professional teachers on italki aren’t any better than community tutors, or are much more expensive, or much less available (like in less-spoken languages).

Read our detailed guide on how to get more out of your language tutors here.

How do you find the good teachers? Screen them. More on this below.

Great chinese language learning resources and italki review - an excellent teacher, Feng Laoshi
My favourite Chinese teacher ever who set the standard — Feng Laoshi. He’s the ultimate professional teacher.

How to Use italki Effectively

There’s a bit of a knack to getting the most out of italki, and I wanted to include it in this italki review. The process for signing up for italki is a little complex (see below for room for improvement).

But here’s what we’ve learned are a few best practices to get the most out of this very rich platform.

Fill out Your italki Profile (It’s important)

Your profile is really helpful for teachers to get an idea of who you are. Also, since teachers have to accept every lesson schedule request, it helps to look like someone they’re going to want to speak to, particularly if it’s at an odd time or they’re really busy. (That said, I’ve never been turned down, so I’m not sure if it happens.)

Specify the languages you speak, put in a photo, and give a brief introduction to yourself – e.g. what language(s) you’re learning, how far along you’ve come and what your goals are.

There’s one more thing you can specify in your profile though: Your learning preferences and style. Here’s where you can state things like

  • How much speaking you want to do
  • Whether you want to work from books or free-style
  • Whether you want to be given homework, and if so, what kind

Find a Good teacher

There are two kinds of teachers on italki, the “Community Tutor” and the “Professional Teacher”.

My core tip in this italki review: Don’t pay too much attention to this labelling. Sometimes, the community tutor may be a better teacher.

italki review - choosing between a professional teacher and a community tutor

Type 1, the Community Tutor: These can range from people who have studied a language at university all the way to people who have studied the science of teaching a language.

They may be very experienced, but they’re often not professionally trained as teachers. These teachers are good for speaking with, learning slang and colloquialisms and discussing everyday topics like music and television.

But here’s the catch: Sometimes, the community tutor may be a fully qualified teacher but without the paperwork to prove it to italki. They might have decades of experience.

Type 2, the Professional Teacher: Professionals have qualifications. Sometimes, this means they can be well-trained teachers. This is particularly true of huge established languages like Arabic, Chinese, and English.

But “Professional” teachers can sometimes just not be very good teachers. They might not have a style that works with you. They might not be very friendly, or very easy to speak with.

Some teach in a very classroom style, teaching from a textbook and expecting you to go along with materials. Some teach in a more personalised style, finding custom materials suited to your interests. You should screen to find the most personalised teacher you can afford.

See below for how to screen the best Professional Teacher.

Don’t Automatically Pay the Most… Or Ignore the Cheap Teachers

Some teachers on italki can get really expensive! I mean over US$50 an hour. Don’t assume they’re the best.

Nor should you assume the cheapest teachers on italki are the worst. For example, community tutors are generally cheaper than professional teachers, but they can all be roughly the same price.

Teachers are based all over the world. Your German teacher might be living in New York City, Phuket or, of course, Berlin. Their prices will to a degree reflect where they’re living, as well as their experience, of course.

Some teachers are new, and are setting up introductory pricing to build reviews.

Personally, we use mostly community tutors for Egyptian Arabic (here are our favourites), but I preferred to use one of each kind when learning Korean. 

Screen Your Teachers

Here’s where you get a lot of value out of italki. If you’re meeting face to face with teachers, it’s a little awkward to say “Actually I don’t really want to see you again.” Aww. On italki the onus is on you to schedule future lessons, so it’s entirely up to you to decide with whom you want to continue.

When you sign up to italki, you have the opportunity to do trial lessons with three teachers, so take this opportunity! Schedule thirty minutes with three different teachers and evaluate them.

Rather than just go in and have a rough feel for it, we suggest you check them out according to this list of what makes for a great teacher.

The below is all aside from basic hygiene, e.g. punctuality and being prepared. I’ve never had a problem with the basics, so don’t think that’s worth evaluating on that basis (especially for very well-reviewed teachers).

Here’s what to assess:

  1. Are they comfortable teaching you only in your style? Regardless of your level, they should be able to adapt to the amount of English (or your base language) that you need, minimising it.
  2. Do they spend time getting to know your goals and preferences in learning? Figure out if they’ll be able to adapt to what you need, rather than just working off a list, or teaching you out of a textbook they use for everyone.
  3. Do they spend their time with you talking, rather than reading, listening or doing exercises? Great teachers should optimize their time with you and focus on the things you’re the least good at — other than reading (you can practise it on your own).
  4. Do they understand teaching and learning? A great teacher knows that all students make mistakes. Junior teachers have this impetus to correct all mistakes, but this is fruitless. They should just correct the main ones to set you on the right course, knowing what kinds of errors to correct at what level.
  5. Are they engaging and enthusiastic? A teacher needs to be able to make you feel encouraged, without molly-coddling you by giving you things they know you’re good at. They’ll push you, but also encourage you.

The final acid test is to assess: Do you like them? If they’re stifling, weird or creepy, then axe them. You don’t have any of the awkwardness that comes with doing this in real life.

Diversify Your Pool of Teachers

There’s no reason to have just one teacher. Do you have just one friend? Watch one TV show? Listen to one band? I hope not!

The main reason people do have just one teacher is the difficulty in finding one good one.

But there are a number of important ways you can learn different things from different teachers. Let’s look at a few combos:

  • Two professional teachers with different focus areas: One could teach you grammar, one could teach you business conversation, for example.
  • A professional teacher and a community tutor: The professional teacher could take you through structured lessons, and the community tutor could teach you how to understand pop music lyrics or the jokes on a local TV show.
  • A male and a female, or a young and an old teacher: It’s always great to have different demographics to speak with. You might accidentally learn expressions that are more typical of one age range or gender, placing you in awkward social situations.
  • Accents / slang from different regions: Every language can have many dialects and regional words. Having two teachers from different regions who both speak fluently will be extremely helpful.

Then there are practical reasons why you might want to diversify anyway: One might go on vacation, or not be available at certain hours, or stop using italki altogether. So it’s worth your while to have at least two.

Go through at least four teachers before settling on one

I use this principle of four because I’m tempted to say “go through around ten”, but according to Algorithms to Live By, going through about four is likely to give me as much information as I need to make a decision. Evaluate each one of them by the criteria you’ve mentioned above.

Nonetheless, there is very little to lose by going through four teachers. Every time you do, there’s a bit of time wasted in adjusting style and content to your level, but consider this an investment. And don’t overdo it – four is a good start.

Where italki has room for improvement

In the spirit of transparency, here’s where italki can improve. They are fully aware of this list and wrote to me and said they’re working on all of it!

The main qualm I have with italki is the clunky signup, booking, and purchase process. You know how Amazon invented and patented 1-click purchasing? I think this is like… 15 click.

The process is something like: 1. choose language, 2. choose price range, 3. click on a teacher, 4. click on book trial lesson, 5. choose type of lesson, 6. confirm kind, 7. click on ‘checkout’, 8. be told you need to add credits, 9. Go to ‘add more credits page 10. Select credit package value, 11. choose payment method, 12. get warning there’s a surcharge of ~$5 regardless of package value or payment method, 13. buy package, go back, 14. click teacher schedule and choose a time, 15. request a slot and 16. wait for email confirmation.

In the years I’ve used italki (since 2018), this hasn’t improved significantly.

It’s even more laborious the first time, of course, because you haven’t signed up or filled out your profile.

After each lesson is complete you still have to confirm it actually happened (because it happened off-platform), often re-entering your password, for a reason I don’t understand.

The way I got around most of this was to buy a small package of 5 lessons and pre-schedule all of them. That way, I wouldn’t have to think about it again, or click anywhere.

Note: The process is simplified quite a bit if you use your phone. For example, there are far fewer requests for me to enter my password. However, I find it difficult to manage a whole calendar of lessons on the phone, so it’s not perfect.

The second qualm I have is the surcharge for buying credits. If I buy $50, I pay something like $54. If I buy $100, I pay $104. Clearly there’s an incentive to me to buy more credits to amortise this cost, but I don’t like it. Other apps just include transaction fees in the pricing.

The transaction fee is a business expense (that I think comes about because italki is based in China and doesn’t have the low-cost financial services that US-based companies do) and they should wear it just like any other website.

The Competition for italki — Not Much

Despite the flaws with the interface, the low cost of italki and the huge availability of tutors in many languages makes it pretty difficult to compete with.

Although I hadn’t heard of the others until I went looking, there are several alternatives (i.e. indirect competition) as well as competitors to italki out there. This isn’t a full review of those but just wanted to point out that they exist.

Most alternatives (not competitors) are focused on partnering you with another person to do a language exchange. While these can be fun, they’re often an inefficient use of time and descend quickly into meaningless banter, flirting and attempts at online dating (e.g. Hellotalk and Tandem). There is also an emerging group of alternatives (like Lingoda) that offer online classes in a group setting using their own materials.

There are a few true competitors that actually work as platforms to find teachers, and they’re below.

  • Rype: Pairs you with professional tutors. A more slick-looking website. However, only has a limited range of languages — doesn’t include Korean, Bahasa Indonesia or Swahili (but does include Arabic, so we might re-visit it). However, there is this worrying thread that claims it’s not legit. I’ve seen various complaints around the internet that people were charged for a service that was never provided.
  • Verbling: Similar to italki, with a broad range of languages and with a cleaner interface, but with fewer teachers that all cost about 50% more, so not likely to be an option for us.

That’s it! If there’s something more, I’d be happy to hear about it.

Final thoughts

A lot has changed in language learning over the years, and AI keeps threatening to upend things, but the benefit of a good teacher is the same as it ever was.

What italki has done is bring language tuition to our living rooms and made it easy to choose good teachers that we want to work with.

The only thing I regret about getting an online language teacher is not doing it earlier, or booking more lessons.

Dive in, and let us know what you think.

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