One of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about my intensive language projects is how do I find a good teacher?
Today I want to cover this question in as much detail as possible, as part of my Skype language lesson series of posts. The previous post was how to prepare for Skype Language Lessons.
Why a Skype based language teacher?
Note that when I say “Skype”, I mean video/audio calls over the Internet in general. You can work with online language teachers through Google+ and many independent systems, but I’ll say Skype in these posts for simplicity.
There are numerous reasons why I opt-for Skype based lessons over in-person lessons, but the major ones are:
- It doesn’t require living in the country
- It is dramatically cheaper than in-person private lessons, because you can leverage currency differences if your target language country has a currency that’s weaker than your home country’s. It is also amazingly cheaper than in-person group lessons in many cases!
- It requires zero travel time for both the teacher and the student. For instance, when I got private lessons in person in Taipei (in Mandarin), as well as being expensive, it was time consuming since the most affordable teacher I could find was 45 minutes travel by public transport each way.
- You can have audio only or video based calls, as you prefer (connection permitting). This is a little easier for people who feel intimidated by having someone see them stumble through as a beginner learner
- You can utilize all the tools available to you online, such as quick dictionaries or translators in another window while you chat. More on this in another post, but I use these kind of tricks to help me get speaking from day one more easily than I would with a teacher sitting in front of me.
Sometimes I have in-person lessons, but 99% of my spoken practice nowadays in all my foreign languages is via Skype. With that being said, let’s see how to find those teachers!
Start with italki to find online language teachers to choose from
Italki is the website I use to find all my language partners and teachers.
There are many great places to find just the right teacher for you. I’ve used a bunch of different resources, but always come back to italki. Compared to the competition, I find that italki [eye-talk-ee]:
- Has way more teachers who are active, so you are more likely to get responses. Some other sites tend to have unresponsive teachers.
- Have a wider range of languages. There are some OK alternatives for specific languages out there, but if you aren’t learning Spanish or Chinese you run out of options quickly. italki has these and many more.
- Has a time-zone automatically adjusted calendar of availabilities. You don’t need to do any calculations to account for time zones – italki does that for you. Every other site I’ve used has a huge pain-in-the-ass process of figuring out what time it is for who.
- Includes reviews for teachers – like ebay or Amazon, you can see what your teacher is like before spending money on them. We’ll be using that feature below to help us decide who to go with!
- Has social forums and places to write questions and answers built it. Teachers and language learners alike are very active in the forums there, and you can follow certain posters whose questions or answers you like.
Plus, using the site is easy. You just log in and create an account. Play around with the free options, see if a free language exchange works for you, or use the question and answers feature to ask quick things about your target language. If you’re ready for a class, follow these instructions:
Make sure your language-learning profile is filled out completely
As well as trying to find the best teacher for you, the best teachers get enough requests that they themselves can be picky about their students! In this case it helps to have your profile filled out completely – add in a photo, a nice summary about your language learning needs, details of where you are and your language levels.
Deciding to use a Professional or Community teacher
Italki has several different options for teachers, and the two main ways of separating paid teachers are based on pricing and experience.
Professional teachers can only be placed in this category if they demonstrate a background in education to the site. These teachers either have a teaching certificate or they have verifiable experience as a language teacher. They generally have a few years of experience, and have taught off the site in language schools, universities, or privately.
Informal tutoring is everyone else. These people may be native speakers of the language they teach, or even experienced learners. They may have extensive teaching experience online, but don’t have any offline credentials. In some cases they may be new to teaching online.
Because of the professional background, the first category tend to be more expensive, especially for certain languages. But if you have a spoken focus to your approach, I actually find that informal tutoring is absolutely fine for beginner to intermediate levels. It’s your chance to talk to a native speaker, and that practice can be more important than speaking with someone who can explain technical aspects of the language to you. Some informal teachers are really fun and easy to chat to.
But from Intermediate level and up, I’d almost exclusively go for Professional teachers. To really get up to the C-level mastery stages, you need someone who can push you, and you generally need to tweak things like grammar and academic issues at this stage, which become much more important than they would be for beginners. An experienced teacher can explain complicated grammar rules to you, whereas a native speaker with no teaching background may not have any idea how to explain the structure behind their language, or even be aware what the structure is!
In some less common languages though, the selection of teachers may be slimmer and you may have to go to a category that is more expensive, or with teachers with less experience than what would be ideal. If you can’t find any teachers of your target language, then a great option is to search for other learners you can practise with, instead of native speakers. As a beginner, this practice will be a great help! As long as you are practising, you are going to be helping your progress. But how to choose the right teacher?
Selecting your new language teacher from many options
Select your target language in “teaches”. As for the “also speaks” category, I generally ignore it, because I only want to speak my target language with this person – no English! Many professional teachers tend to speak English, but there are plenty of extremely affordable community teachers who may not speak English well. This is great because you have to speak the target language with them.
The From field is useful if you want to focus on particular dialects. For instance, when I wanted to learn Egyptian Arabic (which technically isn’t a dialect), I selected “teaches” as Arabic and “From” as Egypt. To brush up on my Quebec French, I select French and Canada. Spanish from Spain or from Argentina, Portuguese from Portugal or Brazil – it’s great to be able to choose your dialect!
When you search, it’s important to note that the order of teachers in the list is based on who has logged in most recently. It has no bearing whatsoever on ratings or what teacher might be better than the others. This is a great thing to keep in mind because I find that teachers who haven’t logged in for a week or more are way less likely to reply.
As such, I’d open the first 5-10 teachers in new tabs and see who has the most interesting profiles. What I’m looking for is…
- Is their rating 5.0 or very close?
- Have they completed more than just a few sessions?
- Do they attend all their sessions, or have many disputed sessions or terminated packages?
- What wording do people use in the feedback.
The tone of the feedback doesn’t concern me as much as the actual content. For instance, if someone complains “My teacher refused to say anything to me in English, and wasn’t interested in talking about grammar” then this is a good point for me. If a teacher doesn’t let a single mistake go by, this is a plus for me if I’m intermediate, but a big problem if I’m a beginner.
As a beginner, the biggest drawing point for me is the word “patient” in a teacher’s profile. That’s what I need when I’m just starting out and butchering the language. I need a teacher who will sit patiently while I force out every last syllable.
Once I’ve found a few promising profiles, I actually choose several teachers (not just one!) and see if I can book a session with them.
Booking your first online language lesson
I like to book my “first” session with several teachers so I can get a feel for which works best for my approach. In addition to patience, I like a teacher who actively seeks out new conversation topics, so I don’t have to. If I’m a beginner in a language, my mind is processing so many things, and I don’t want the extra work of having to think of what to say next. For me, good teachers keep the conversation flowing, while still making sure that I’m doing lots of talking.
Teachers tend to have several different styles of lessons they offer. Sometimes they follow a particular programme that may involve correcting homework, and charge a little more for this due to the extra demand on their time. Sometimes they segment the classes based on levels or topics, and even on the amount of time per session.
Personally, I prefer 30 minute lessons, but some teachers only offer 1 hour lessons. If it’s my first class with a teacher, I’ll just select a single session, but if the class goes well, I’ll book a package since that ends up being cheaper in the long run.
Pick the session type you are interested in, and try to schedule a session. If you are new to the site, you also get a couple of test sessions that last 30 minutes with some teachers (and these are usually really cheap!)
One of the final criteria that has unfortunately eliminated otherwise perfectly good teachers is do their availabilities work for me? Because you are dealing with different countries, that teacher may only be available while you sleep, or while you work.
As I mentioned before, the site adjusts automatically to your local timezone, which is a huge load off your mind with international time issues. You just need to make sure that you’ve input your own timezone accurately into the settings. Then you simply pick a time slot that is convenient for you (always has to be at least 24 hours from now), and write a personal message to the teacher, stating what you hope to learn with them.
The personal message is important. Tell the teacher what level you’re at and what you want to do during the lesson. This will give him or her that final chance to make sure they’re the right teacher for you.
Submit the request (you should have credit in your account before you do this) and see if they reply! If they do, then get ready for that class (message them if necessary to see if there is something you can study in advance to prepare for your class), and you’ll be speaking before you know it 🙂
How to know if a teacher is “good”
Once you’ve had your first conversation, you should be feeling pretty great. After you’ve had a few sessions, you’ll start to get the feel for the different styles of different teachers, and you’ll notice that some tactics worked well for you, and others didn’t.
What makes a teacher “good” is subjective, but here’s my personal opinion.
When I’m a beginner:
I like a teacher who will patiently wait for me to finish my sentences, no matter how long it takes me!
I like a teacher who keeps up the conversation. For instance, if I say “I’m in India,” they might ask “How is the weather in India?” I don’t to feel like I’m struggling to move the conversation forward.
If a teacher pauses for a while and then says something like “So… what do you want to talk about?” That’s an almost instant indication that this person isn’t for me. Engaging teachers are good at taking every little thing you say and expanding on it to bring the conversation forward.
And I like my teachers to have a good gauge for my level and to adjust accordingly. If a teacher sees I’m a struggling beginner and still talks very fast, uses complicated vocabulary, or corrects my grammar constantly, then I will usually make a mental note that they’d be good to revisit later when I’m more advanced.
When I’m more advanced:
This is when I like my teachers to be a little stricter. At this stage, a good teacher to me is one who doesn’t let my mistakes slide by. At this stage, I like the teachers to speak at a more native speed. And I especially look for Professional teachers who implement good conversational or grammar exercises that push me out of my comfort zone.
At the mastery stage, I like to debate complicated or controversial topics with my teacher – malnutrition, deforestation, gay marriage – and the best teachers come up with these exercises for us to complete together, and rollplay.
There you have it – my guide to finding the best language teacher for you. I’ll make sure to expand on what I do during my sessions in the next post in this Skype-lesson series!
How do you choose your teacher on italki? What is a “good” language teacher to you? Let me know in the comments!