One-to-one sessions with an online tutor play a large role in my language learning. I’ve clocked up over seven hundred live sessions on Skype or Zoom in a range of languages. In this post you’ll discover the questions that I ask when I’ve pulled up a teacher’s profile and am looking for a good teacher fit. Italki.com is the platform on which I’ve found my teachers, booked and paid for all those lessons. These tips will help you just as much if you want to use one of the alternative platforms out there or if you’re looking for a language teacher for private lessons in person.
On italki teachers of the same language can set their own prices and there’s quite a bit of variation. On that platform, teachers with a qualification are called “professional”, while those without are “community tutors”. The latter tend to be cheaper, but it doesn’t always follow.
Check whether the teachers offer a free, shorter taster session. These days not so many do, but you may have the option to get to know the person a little before committing your cash.
Some teachers may offer different prices for different types of lessons (such as informal conversation, work with a textbook, exam preparation).
Sometimes an online language tutor will offer a package of five or ten lessons, which brings the overall price down slightly. Don’t commit to a package until you’ve had a few “one off” lessons.
On most platforms, you’ll be able to see a teacher’s calendar for upcoming weeks. Are there slots throughout the day and across the week or does the teacher just work, say, in the mornings or three days a week?
We’re talking online language teachers, remember! Don’t assume your French teacher is going to be sitting in France. He or she could be in Vietnam. Make sure you’ve set your local timezone correctly in your student profile otherwise that apparent mid-afternoon lesson could turn out to be in the middle of the night.
Check the range of lesson lengths that a teacher offers. When I’m a beginner or lower-intermediate, I find thirty minutes enough. Many teachers, though, only offer 45 minute or one hour slots. For hardcore learners, some do offer 90 minutes.
What is your platform’s general cancellation policy?
On italki, if you cancel within the last 24 hours with any teacher, you’ll lose your money. If you do have to cancel at short notice, it’s good manners to let your teacher know and some may override the system to let you reschedule (more likely if you’re a long standing student who’s usually reliable).
Before the twenty-four hour cut-off, italki lets you cancel without penalty, again, regardless of teacher. You can also find another open slot on the teacher’s calendar and ask the teacher to approve it.
What if you’re late for the lesson? Here, italki tutors can set their own policies. Some teachers will only wait ten minutes. If you are held up, it’s only good manners to message the teacher and let him or her know.
I have a 100% attendance rate on italki but I have had flakey online language teachers who fail to show. If that happens, you are given the option to reschedule or get a refund.
And what about reliability over the upcoming weeks and months? Everybody needs a holiday and, during the summer in particular, some teachers disappear for several weeks. That’s a good reason to work with more than one teacher. After all, even if you find a teacher who never takes holidays, they could fall ill or simply give up teaching on the platform.
Technical setup and know-how
You don’t want to spending half of a thirty minute lesson redialling due to a frozen screen or dropped connection. Most teachers don’t include information on their wifi and microphone in their profile but some do. Book a trial lesson and you’ll soon be able to judge for yourself.
You’ll soon get a feel for how tech savvy your online language tutor is. Can they use screen share, take notes for you or read your written work on Google Docs and so on? Message the teacher before you book if you have questions.
Teaching qualifications and experience
Teachers will be keen to mention their qualifications. The best platforms, such as italki, will verify their certificates.
Yes, a qualification is a good sign of basic competence and of commitment to teaching as a craft. But don’t fixate on this. There are qualified teachers who just aren’t very good and people without stamped pieces of paper who are just great.
Enthusiasm and experience can take a teacher a long way, especially if you’re just looking for some conversational practice rather than, say, help with a particular exam.
On italki you can see how many lessons a teacher has taught over the last three months and their “all time” total of lessons.
Specialism and interests
Some teachers specialise in a particular area, for example pronunciation, informal conversation, exam preparation or business language. Are they a good fit for you? On italki, the teacher search filter setting helps you narrow down the field here.
You may also be able to find somebody with wider shared interests.
One of my German teachers was a former nurse, for example. She was a great teacher, but if you’re learning German for nursing, she would have had even more to offer.
Preferred method and materials?
Most teachers use a pretty eclectic mix of methods but some prefer to use just one. I had a French teacher who used the so-called “silent method”. This involves the teacher taking a passive back seat to allow the student to speak as much as possible.
Some may have a preferred course book that they will encourage you to work from. Will this suit you and will the teacher be flexible enough to work creatively with the materials that you want to use?
Of course, with lesser-learned languages you may have struggled to find materials. In that case, has the teacher developed their own that aren’t available elsewhere?
If you’re impressed with a teacher’s profile but are worried they will be too wedded to one approach or one set of materials, or you need materials and are unsure whether they’ll be able to provide them, check their reviews and then, if you’re still unsure, message them and ask!
Native speaker or fellow learner?
This is another filter category you can set in your italki teacher search.
In the earlier stages, when you’re a beginner and lower intermediate, some learners find it useful to have a teacher who’s actually had to learn the language just like you and understands the challenges first hand.
When you’re at the upper intermediate level and the advanced level, you may prefer the absolute “native” accuracy you’ll get from a native speaker, though some non-natives have reached incredible “near native” heights and do a brilliant job for you even when you’re an advanced learner.
Variety of the language?
It makes sense to choose a teacher who speaks the variety of the language that you want to speak yourself.
This is particularly important with languages such as Portuguese, Spanish or Vietnamese with several major varieties. Don’t worry, a German teacher won’t try and speak the Bavarian or Swabish dialects at you but there are some differences in accent and vocabulary between the standard German of the Federal Republic and Austria, for example.
In some languages, like Japanese, there are differences in usage according to age or gender, so it might make sense to choose a teacher who resembles you in those ways.
Italki teachers have to post a short presentation video which is your best chance to get the measure of their personality in advance. Cut them some slack, though as the vids don’t always show them off at their best. You may need to a couple of lessons to find out whether or not you’re going to click.
There’s nothing worse than an online language tutor who appears to be bored, gazing out of the window or checking their phone as you speak. I want a teacher who is easy to take to but also lets me do most of the talking. First impressions can be misleading, though. It’s sometimes worth sticking with a teacher for a few lessons as first impressions can be misleading. You may warm to each other, for example if you discover that you have shared common interests in a certain type of film, sport or music.
Just as you wouldn’t take every review you read on Amazon or on TripAdvisor at face value, be careful to look at student reviews in the round. There are always going to be times when a teacher just had a bad day or there’s a personality clash. On italki, reviews tend to be very positive but they are worth skimming for useful intel (and check for any red flags around poor internet connections, for example).
So, those are my tips for how pick the right language tutor online. You can check out italki.com (that’s my recommendation link and if you book through that we’ll both get bonus credit when you book your first USD20. Good luck in your search, enjoy your lessons and don’t forget to let us all know how it went in the comments below!