How I Learn Languages 3 : How to Pick a Tutor on Italki

When I shared my tips on learning languages, I received many letters and comments from you with your own experiences, and above all, with questions. I apologize if I wasn’t able to answer every letter or with as much detail as I would have liked, and so I’ve decided to separate all of the questions into  categories and address them in a series of posts. One topic in particular was finding a tutor on Italki, a website that I use to learn languages. Italki is a platform that offers a chance for students to find tutors, conversation partners, and help with grammar or word usage in dozens of different languages. It works on a referral system, so if you want to join and get an automatic $10 discount on your lesson, be sure to get referred by another user (they will also get a referral credit). My Italki profile is here.

Italki has grown tremendously over the years, and today it has so many options that newcomers may feel overwhelmed. Should you choose a professional teacher or a tutor? How do you know that the tutor is trustworthy? How do you plan your study? Finally, how do you select the ideal tutor for you among hundreds of profiles? OK, you won’t have that problem if you want to learn a less common language like Uzbek, since there is only one Uzbek tutor on Italki, but let’s assume that you want to learn Japanese and there are around 400 people offering their language teaching services. Where to start?

I’ve written this article using the example of Italki, since that’s what I rely on, but these tips can be applied to other other language tutoring service.

A professional teacher or a tutor? Italki has professionally certified teachers and so-called community tutors. The former have to provide proof of specialized training and experience in teaching languages, while the latter can be anyone with a decent internet connection. I’ve used Italki for the past 3 years, and I find that the difference between the two groups comes down to the person, rather than their certificate.

Look at the price and consider your budget. When I start studying a new language, I want to have at least 3 classes a week, and I budget accordingly. Some popular teachers, especially those teaching much requested languages, are more expensive, but I’ve found that with Italki price doesn’t always match the quality of teaching. So, I select the price I can afford to pay (Italki has a neat search to match your desired budget to a tutor’s rate) and continue onto the other parameters.

Look for someone with repeat students. If a person has many reviews, but people only took one class, then it’s a sign that the teacher is not charismatic or helpful enough. The more repeat students they have, the better. Also, watch their introductory video to get a sense of their presentation and personality.

But a word of caution here, just because someone is popular and has many repeat students, they may not be the right teacher for you. I try to avoid people whose schedules feature one class after another. It means that they can’t possibly devote enough attention to each person and that they go through their classes on automatic.

Look for someone who has regular availability so that you don’t have too much time in between classes and can schedule easily depending on your schedule.

Beforehand decide for yourself what you want to derive out of your class. Are you learning a new language from scratch? Are you trying to maintain the language and only need a free flowing conversation? Do you need homework and grammar exercises? Do you want to do reading in your spare time? With my Vietnamese tutor, for instance, I had a weekly essay to write and an article to read or a video to watch. We then corrected my essay together and discussed my other assignment. It was very effective, although it did require both of us to put in extra time. With some of my other tutors I simply talk and use that hour as intensive conversation practice.

Send your prospective teacher an email and outline your goals. Ask what they suggest. Some teachers are better at this kind of communication than others, though, and I find that it’s easier just to book a class, a trial 30 min class or a regular one hour class, and talk face to face. For yourself, however, you should decide before that first class what exactly you want to achieve.  Don’t expect that a tutor will do all of the prep. It’s your own preparation that matters the most, even if before that first class it consists of a sheet of paper with a few reasonable short-term goals.

In my early days with Italki, I only relied on female tutors, because it seemed more comfortable. However, using the site more, I’ve grown to trust it, especially since Italki checks their tutors’ credentials thoroughly. My advice is to pick a tutor based on your common interests and their rating, not on their gender. Of course, if you’re studying a language where the way men and women speak differ (Japanese, for instance), it’s good to have at least one tutor of the same gender as you, so that you can learn the typical expressions.

It’s good to have at least a couple of different tutors in the same language. For one thing, it helps to hear a variety of accents and learn different expressions. Plus, people’s schedules change.

There have been very few instances where I didn’t book at least one more lesson after the first introductory session, but those instances have been when 1) a teacher was late (absolutely inexcusable especially for the first time) or 2) when they didn’t listen to my goals. Some people have preconceived notions of what it means to teach a language, and they don’t always coincide with my strategies. For instance, I don’t read children’s books. I didn’t like children’s book as a child, and I’m not going to change my mind now. So, if someone insists that we read children’s books when I’m ready for a challenge, I’ll not take another class with them.

Finally, how well should the tutor know English? I personally don’t care at all. My goal is to use as much of the new language as possible from the first class. I’d rather not understand my tutor in their native language than to understand them fully in English. You need to hear the language to get a sense of its patterns, rhythms, and peculiarities. If a teacher says something in English, ask them to translate it right away into their language. Don’t be afraid not to understand. The first phrase you should learn is “what does it mean?”  A new language is a new world, mysterious, fascinating, wonderful. Just take a plunge.

Sharing my love for languages is one of the biggest thrills for me, so please feel free to ask me any other questions, and of course, if you’ve used Italki or another language tutoring service, please share your experiences. What worked best for you? What would you recommend?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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20 Comments

  • Jeff: I’ve been thinking of studying Italian and Italki came up in google. I was also wondering how to pick a teacher so this post is helpful. June 10, 2019 at 9:07am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it can be overwhelming, especially for a popular language like Italian. Good luck! June 11, 2019 at 11:08am Reply

  • Annie: I love this series. I’ve already started my French classes. June 10, 2019 at 10:44am Reply

    • Victoria: Great! I’m so happy to hear this. June 11, 2019 at 11:08am Reply

  • Tamara: Does it offer something like language exchange? I want to improve my English. I read and write well, but speaking needs practice. June 11, 2019 at 1:25am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, definitely. You can propose to someone to exchange languages. I’m doing right now a Vietnamese-French exchange, and it’s working out well. For half an hour, I tutor in French and for the other half, we speak Vietnamese and my partner corrects my mistakes. June 11, 2019 at 11:06am Reply

      • sara: Did you find your partner doing a search? I’ve only used the regular tutors, but doing a language exchange sounds like a good idea. June 11, 2019 at 2:39pm Reply

        • Victoria: I took regular classes with her at first, but then we started out language exchange. June 12, 2019 at 5:59am Reply

  • sara: I’ve been using Italki for one year and I like the way it’s organized. I wish their interface was more intuitive though. Have you tried the new Italki classroom feature? June 11, 2019 at 7:16am Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t, because none of my teachers use it. Have you tried it? June 11, 2019 at 11:05am Reply

      • sara: I haven’t yet tried it, but I’m going to. I have many issues with Skype. June 11, 2019 at 2:35pm Reply

        • Victoria: Skype can be finicky, it’s true, but if it depends on your connection, I don’t know how the Italki classroom will function. June 12, 2019 at 5:58am Reply

  • Karen A: This is perfect timing as I’m trying to find a Turkish tutor but my schedule is apparently challenging for the places I’ve looked in to. Will investigate and see if this works for me! June 11, 2019 at 3:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Definitely take a look. When it comes to Turkish tutors, there is no shortage of them on Italki. June 12, 2019 at 8:46am Reply

  • Sandra: I just wanted to chime in and say that after I read Victoria’s first post on languages that I started using italki( no affilation) for Italian. Victoria gave me some helpful suggestions (like the ones mentioned in this post) when I reached out and so far so good. June 11, 2019 at 3:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear that it’s working out for you and that you were able to find a good teacher. June 12, 2019 at 8:47am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you very much for continuing the series, Victoria.

    Not learning a new language yet but I’ve started giving French classes at my local library and I had to brush up on grammar.

    It’s a new challenge and I’m enjoying it. June 14, 2019 at 2:44pm Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

    I just wanted to say thank you for this series of posts. I am sure to use all your suggestions the next time I tackle a language.

    Your love of languages mirrors that of my father, who is now aged 90. He hasn’t notched up as many as yourself, but he has learned Latin, Greek, German, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian and Bahasa Indonesia. He puts me to shame; so far I have learned only French and a smattering of German. I would like to learn more German, Russian (I just love the sound), Italian and Spanish. The good news is that I can borrow any of Dad’s language books, including dual texts.

    When some relatives from Germany visited last year, I sorely regretted my tardiness in learning German, and felt a little embarrassed. I have incentive to get moving on this language!

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline June 16, 2019 at 9:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: I remember you mentioning your father before and it was so impressive, all of his skills, his interest in languages and his curiosity. Clearly, you’ve inherited a lot from him, including your creativity. June 24, 2019 at 5:16am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

        Thank you; you are very kind.

        Yes, I recall the series of comments shared by you, a commenter named Annette, and myself, back in 2015. Out of nostalgia, I just re-read them. Annette was comparing my father with the character of Lymond from Dorothy Dunnett’s “The Lymond Chronicles”, and we also discussed
        Dostoyevsky and “Middlemarch” and so on.

        Co-incidently, yesterday I had lunch with an aunt, my father, and one of my father’s old friends – the man with whom he studied Maths for fun when they were both in their mid-sixties. This man is now 98 years old, and still as sharp as a tack! And as you might imagine, my dad still eats cryptic crosswords for breakfast, so to speak! I will do well to live as long as he (with all the chocolate that must be lining my arteries), let alone be as bright at that age.

        (By the way, I often wonder how Annette is getting on. If she still comments, feel free to send her my email address, in case she’d like to correspond with me. I should have asked that of you at the time she and I were “chatting”. I also recall the fun we had posting comments backwards and forwards on the post about perfumes to wear whilst ill. You might recall that we imagined being abducted by aliens. I must confess that I felt as though we were the two naughty kids sitting up at the back of the classroom, chattering away and laughing, but my, we had fun!)

        With kind regards,
        Tourmaline July 4, 2019 at 3:01am Reply

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