The teacher opens the door; the student must walk through it themself.
There are few things as important as the role of the teacher in the path to learning to speak a new language.
Yes, it’s also important for you to have discipline and the right attitude. And beyond teachers, there are books, tools and apps out there to help you learn. These all have a critical part to play. But if you are learning conversation, it will be impossible to get there without a conversation partner – or better yet, a great teacher.
Of all the methods we’ve tried of finding teachers and language partners online, italki is still the best, despite its quirks.
Note: If you want to cut to the chase and try italki out, use this italki coupon and get $10 in credits with your first lesson purchase. Lessons start around $5. We get a small commission if you use this link (and appreciate it as thanks for this write-up!)
Why You Need a Language Teacher
When we ask people what they want to learn a language for, nearly everyone says the same thing: they want to speak. A minority want to read novels, philosophy and poetry.
If 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 fine and a good part of your language learning process, but it shouldn’t be your only port of call. Language partners can be fun, can become a friend of yours that you hang out with (if they’re in-person, or if you ever meet them in person). I’m still in touch with some of my language partners and casual tutors from years ago. However, if you want to learn a language quickly, then you should invest in a teacher.
“Why spend money?” you cry. “Talking is free!” Sure. There are good reasons to pay for education.
Firstly, teaching is hard. Imagine you had to teach your native language to someone else, using only your native language and not their language, and they knew NOTHING. Think for a second how you’d start. You’d say “Hello”. Great. Then what?
Secondly, this is your education. Most of us invest time and money into our education. In the US, education is a huge monetary expense. In other places where education is free (or close to it), it’s still a huge time expense. Time is valuable, and the more efficiently we can use our time to learn a new skill, the more time we have for using that skill, as well as for our loved ones, napping and dogs.
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).
Why you should invest in a professional teacher
There are three general levels of teachers. These are what I call “The Friend”, “The Schoolteacher” and “The Professional”.
I’ll go into more detail into the differences between these at a later stage in an article that will be published on another website. In a nutshell:
- The Friend is a casual teacher who likes meeting people, speaking and teaching, but doesn’t teach in a very structured way. They are great for teaching you banter, slang and understanding modern culture. Think of them as one-way language partners. Many of them often do actually become friends.
- The Schoolteacher may indeed be a retired schoolteacher or a current schoolteacher tutoring on the side. They’ll spend time with you going through textbooks and asking you to read and do exercises in class. They aren’t expensive but may cost slightly more than The Friend.
- The Professional is what you’re looking for, and is something like a personal trainer or coach. The Professional is an experienced private tutor who can create custom materials targeted towards your level, interests, goals and commitment. They optimize their time with you in class, focusing on speaking, and ask you to do homework outside of class, which they’ll correct outside of class. You learn the fastest with The Professional, and likely also pay the most.
The reason I think it’s important to go with The Professional is that while you may pay 1.5-2x as much, you’ll learn 3-5x as quickly. This is because they know how to teach, they understand how you learn and they will be able to keep your momentum up by having an unlimited supply of materials that they can create for you. Worth every cent.
How do you find the professional? Screen them. More on this below.
Why we like italki for finding language teachers
It’s always possible to get tutors in person, whether you’re in your home country or living abroad (or, like Benny Lewis once was, learning Egyptian Arabic via Skype in Brazil). Using an online tutor has several advantages.
Firstly, with italki you can easily see which tutors rank well. When you choose a restaurant, sometimes it’s fun to try something new that nobody else has tried, but often, you want to go with the highest rated restaurants on Yelp or Google with thousands of reviews. Those are a sure bet, right? Same on italki. If there are 500 Korean teachers, but 50 of which are less than $10 an hour, and 5 of which have done 500+ lessons… bam, you’ve significantly narrowed down the pool of tutors really quickly.
I do think that we should give other teachers a chance, but it’s up to them to incentivize us to do so with lower rates or special offers.
Secondly, with italki you can go through a number of tutors easily, finding someone you learn from quickly and that you like. The italki platform lets you do trial lessons of thirty minutes. These are a chance for you to check the teacher out, as well as for them to check you out. You can assess them 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, having a tutor in your computer means 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). This 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. Think of all the wasted time you’re saving, not having to sit in traffic! Not to mention that you’re not in control of lighting outside your house.
How to best use italki
There’s a bit of a knack to getting the most out of it. 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 profile
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 should state that you are learning primarily to speak the language, you want to focus on speaking and that you want to learn exclusively speaking your target language.
This means that from day one, if you’re learning French, you’ll be learning French.
“Argh!” you cry. This freaks you out. You’re not going to understand what’s going on. You’re not going to be able to ask questions. How are you supposed to speak? Simple: just as a one year old child would. Gesture. Use basic words. If necessary, break down and start crying until you fall asleep.
Find a professional teacher
There are two general kinds of teachers you’ll find on italki, the “Community Tutor” and the “Professional Teacher”. Both have value, but the professional teacher has much more value.
Type 1, the Community Tutor: This is essentially a ‘friend’ with structure and experience in teaching their native language. They know how to teach you the language in a way that they’ve either made up or learned from other websites and books, but they’re 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 they shouldn’t be the only way you learn a language.
Type 2, the Professional Teacher: These are the teachers with whom you should be spending your time if you only have one teacher (but maybe you shouldn’t). There is a range of quality in professional teachers, but they’re all at least professionally certified in teaching, and often specifically in teaching a foreign language. Some teach in a very classroom style, teaching from a textbook and expecting you to go along with materials. Some teach in a more personalized style, finding custom materials suited to your interests. You should screen to find the most personalized teacher you can afford.
See below for how to screen the best Professional Teacher.
Don’t automatically pay the most… or the least
Some teachers on italki can get hella expensive! I mean over $50 an hour. Maybe you’re loaded and just assume those teachers are the best. Not so.
Nor should you assume the cheapest teachers are the worst. For example, community tutors are generally cheaper than professional teachers, but they can all be roughly the same price.
Everyone has a budget though. Just like AirBnB, decide how much you think your time and education are worth, see if you can get competent teachers within that budget and off you go.
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.
Screen your teachers to find the best
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 dude 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:
- Are they comfortable teaching you only in the target language? Regardless of your level, they should be able to teach you without speaking English (or whatever language you have in common), except as a last resort e.g. to communicate something of vital importance like scheduling.
- 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.
- 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 (reading is always hard, but you can practise it on your own).
- 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.
- 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 of course 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 a good one. We find one and think “OK, this person will do.” I get it. It’s my hope that italki will at least make good teachers so available to you that it’ll be easier for you to diversify your pool. I generally always have two, so if one bails (or I bail on one), I have one other scheduled.
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. Some teachers are excellent at one but just OK at another topic.
- 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 gender, placing you in unnecessarily awkward social situations, whatever your politics on the matter. (I mean maybe you don’t care about age, social status, gender etc., but at least know the implications of what you’re saying.)
- Accents from different regions: Every language can have many of dialects, which to the foreign, unaccustomed ear can be gibberish. I once met a guy from Liverpool and I didn’t understand a word he was saying other than “Liverpool”, even though I speak English natively. (Did he? Was that English? Still not sure actually.) 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 if they get another job that conflicts. So it’s worth your while always having 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
The main qualm I have with italki is the clunky signup and booking process. You know how Amazon invented and patented 1-click purchasing? I think this is like… 15 click.
I can’t reproduce it exactly because I purchased a bunch of credits already, but it’s something like this:
- Choose language (seems to reset each time to Chinese but I’m learning Korean)
- Choose price range and professional tutor filters (they reset each time you search)
- Click on a teacher
- Click on book trial lesson
- Choose type of trial lesson
- Confirm kind
- Click on ‘checkout’
- Be told you need to add more credits
- Go to add more credits page
- Select credit package value
- Choose payment method
- Get warning there’s a surcharge of about $2 regardless of package value or payment method
- Buy package, go back
- Click teacher schedule and choose schedule time
- Request slot
- Wait and get confirmation
OMG that’s way too hard. 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), re-entering your password.
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.
The second qualm I have is the surcharge for buying credits. If I buy $50, I pay something like $52. If I buy $100, I pay $102. Clearly there’s an incentive to me to buy more credits to minimize this cost, but I think this is a dumb way to go about it. It’s like “Hey if you use our service more, it’ll be less annoying!” It’s in contrast to how teachers price their packages, for example – get an hour lesson and it’s slightly cheaper than two 30-minute lessons; get 5 lessons and you get a small discount – all this makes more sense, it’s more of a loyalty bonus. Charging you more to buy credits is silly. It’s 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.
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’s a number of 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.
A note: 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 then.). 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.
A lot has changed in language learning over the years, but the benefit of a good teacher is the same as it ever was. What italki has done is bring it to our living rooms and made it easy to choose good teachers that we want to work with.
The only thing I regret about italki is not trying it earlier, or booking more lessons. Dive in, and let us know what you think.
Use our $10 italki coupon to try it – you get $10 in credits with your first purchase. A trial lesson starts at around $5. (Note: we get a commission out of this, but you don’t pay any extra, and we’d appreciate it as thanks for writing this up!).