Tips for Using Online Language Tutors

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So far, we’ve together taken thousands of language lessons for many different languages. Over 500 of these lessons alone have online, using italki in recent years.

Over time, we’ve developed a bit of a “system” for using online language tutors. There are lots of ways of getting the most out of online language teachers, and we’re sharing them with you here.

We’ve used these to study and to brush up French, Korean, Arabic (Egyptian), Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Swahili… and maybe some others I’m forgetting. The point is that these hints are universal!

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Girl using online language tutor

Beginners should Choose Experienced Teachers

It’s tempting to choose the cheapest teacher that you can find. Money saved is money spent on treats!

These are often online language tutors with few reviews, who are fairly new on the platform, and who may not have a lot of teaching experience, who go for fairly cheap — as little as $5 or 6 a lesson.

But while you should pursue value for money, it really does often pay to get an experienced teacher if you’re a beginner.

This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to get a professional online language tutor with a masters degree. Qualifications aren’t the be-all and end-all. Nor does it mean they have to have a stellar rating and have thousands of lessons to their name.

But an experience teacher is just good at things like

  • Time management
  • Note taking
  • Adapting style and content to your level
  • Providing you with materials
  • Sending you notes

My very best online language tutors sent me Anki decks with audio recordings for the words and sentences we studied. Now that’s value for money!

It’s totally ok to go with inexperienced teachers of course — when you just want to do conversation practise.

When you’re already at the advanced level and can talk freely, and just want to practise, you can learn from anyone. In this situation, you’re just paying someone to speak with you at a time of your choosing. These are more like a “friend” than anything else.

But for beginners — choose experienced teachers.

Get Online Language Tutors with Long-Term Students

Ratings for online language tutors
Five online language tutors, all rated 4.9-5 stars, but with different lesson counts and student counts. Which would you choose, if price were equal? (It’s not.)

Don’t worry too much about an online language tutor’s “rating”. The ratings are generally between 4 and 5, and low-rated teachers are often removed from a platform.

What matters more is: Do students keep coming back to the same teacher?

Look at how many reviews an online language tutor language teacher has had, and also how many students. You might also be able to see how many lessons a teacher has given to how many students. The number of lessons and reviews can be high, but the number of students comparatively low.

A good online language tutor will keep their students coming back many times!

Don’t be Afraid to Ditch a Teacher

If you don’t like an online language tutor, for whatever reason — don’t book any more lessons.

There’s zero impetus to keep doing something that’s not working for you. I’ve stopped learning with teachers because

  • The classes were awkward
  • I didn’t get along with them personally
  • The connection was often poor
  • The teacher didn’t do some of the things that experienced teachers do

Once you’ve tried a few teachers (or many dozens, as I have), you see just how high the bar is for teachers.

For me, the best online language tutors are not only like friends, they also are extremely knowledgeable and prepare excellent materials for me. I’ve had only a few of that level.

Get Referrals to Teachers

If you know anyone who has studied with an online language tutor before, get a referral!

You can get referrals from friends, from online language communities, or even from us. However, bear in mind that other people (e.g. us) may have different constraints, like time zone or time availability.

Long-term students often refer teachers to others. And every time I’ve done it and the referral has stuck, I feel good.

Tell Online Language Tutors What You Expect

When hiring any contractor you need to tell them what you expect. How often you expect them to come to work, what you want them to work on, how you want them to work and what tools you want to use.

Using an online language tutor is the same thing. Teachers are sometimes students, but just as often, teachers have never been a student online. They don’t know the range of quality of teachers and what people might expect of them. Make it clear.

Tell a teacher what you expect either in your profile, in initial notes, or in the first class. It’s up to you.

  • Whether you want teachers to speak just your target language, or also English or whatever
  • How often you want to study
  • What notes you want (if any)
  • What homework you want (if any)

If you try a teacher out and it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to continue. I’ve never had a teacher follow up with me and ask why I didn’t book another lesson.

The one thing I expect that I don’t say is that I have to like my language tutor. I have to look forward to talking to them. If I don’t, then I cancel the teacher.

You can get a very good feeling from one lesson. Every time you pick up a new teacher, you have to spend a little time re-calibrating and getting the level right, so it’s wise to do it all upfront.

Study with Multiple Teachers (At Least Two)

There are a few reasons you want a portfolio of online language tutor. We suggest having a portfolio of three if you’re in it intensively, or always two at a minimum.

Firstly, you learn something different from each teacher. One might be a friendly young person who teaches you slang and jokes with you. One might be a stern teacher who corrects your pronunciation. Another might be of a different gender, teaching you a different style of language, and maybe forcing you to conjugate differently.

Secondly, online tutors tend to fall off the map. It’s a casual job, with no obligations, and people’s personal lives and other commitments take precedence. Teachers go on vacation, get jobs, move, etc., and may no longer be available.

Finally, you need time to practise. If I speak to someone, I need a few days to practise what I learned with them before I speak with them again. In the meantime, I speak with other people about different stuff.

Chinese language tutor teaching a class
Illustration of Chinese language teacher teaching a class

Use a Study Plan

If you’re working with a single online language tutor, they probably need guidance (unless you’ve lucked out with an excellent teacher). You need to tell them what you’re interested in, and learn from that.

Your language plan might be just a book you’re working from, or a list of topics. But share it with them and let them know what you want to learn.

If you’re using a portfolio of online language teachers, they won’t know each other. You need to work off one learning plan, and plan to go over certain topics with them all.

I suggest creating a document which is week-by-week going over different topics. Otherwise, there is a risk you’ll just devolve into casual conversation on general topics every time.

Beware Fake Professionals, and Seek Great Tutors

This final tip is an unfortunately necessary word of warning. Don’t assume a qualification is always worth the extra cost. And beware scammers.

In many parts of the world, it’s easy to get fake professional qualifications. Someone can get forged certificates, ID cards and other documentation, submit them to an online service and masquerade as a professional teacher (or anything). This would let them charge three times what their peers would charge — for no difference in quality.

Of course, italki is a serious company that does proper due diligence on its teachers and takes fraud allegations very seriously. I’m just saying — don’t assume that a qualified tutor that costs a lot is everything they say they’re going to be.

Compare someone at $30 an hour with other teachers at $10 an hour and make sure there’s a tangible difference. It’s just as possible to find expensive teachers that are terrible as it is to find diamonds in the rough at low hourly rates.

What have you learned?

Hopefully the above guide to getting the most out of online language tutors has been useful.

If there’s anything else you’d like to share, whether as a student or as a teacher, let us know.

Happy learning!

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2 years ago

I like to adapt my lessons. If I am working with a older and mature pupil then I ask about their personal learning style and take it from there. If I am teaching a school child who requires my help I then adapt my lessons in order to fully meet their learning needs and wants. For example if I was tutoring a ten year old I would ensure I was focusing on the Year 6 curriculum objectives for French. I use past papers as a loose guide and also take practice questions from workbooks. My lessons feature a variety of… Read more »