There's only one way to get better in a foreign language: practice. If you're not having regular conversations in your target language, ideally with a native speaker, you will struggle to make progress. Books, apps, games, and all the other hacks and tricks can help, of course, but they're only supplements. To rely on them alone would be like drinking lots of protein shakes without ever stepping foot in a gym.
The best kind of conversation practice is a one-on-one lesson with a qualified teacher – someone who not only speaks the language but understands it, and can explain its subtleties and intricacies in ways that not all native speakers can manage (Can you fully explain the difference between “may” and “might” in English?).
There are only two problems with one-on-one lessons:
a) they can get expensive, and
b) it can be hard to find a good teacher in your area, especially if you're learning a more obscure language.
Luckily, in the age of the Internet, the second problem is no longer relevant, and the first problem isn't what it used to be either.
Enter Verbling. In a nutshell, Verbling is a platform to help language teachers and students find each other. Whatever language you're learning, you can use Verbling to find an affordable tutor and get one-on-one lessons over video chat.
Verbling isn't the only company in this space – one notable competitor is italki, the market leader for online language tutors, which we’ve reviewed here.
How does Verbling compare to italki? To find out, I signed up and booked some Japanese lessons.
Verbling Review: What I Liked
I was impressed from the outset by Verbling's web interface. The design is smooth, modern and gorgeous, and always felt fast and easy to navigate. After filling in your profile with some basic information about yourself – including, crucially, what language(s) you want to learn! – you can search for a teacher:
Teachers write a bio and record a short video so you can decide whom to pick. You can of course also see the reviews and ratings for each teacher that have been left by their previous students. Some, but not all teachers offer a “trial lesson”, giving you the first lesson at a discounted rate while you decide whether this person is the right instructor for you.
Teachers also set their own prices, which should be another factor in your decision. It's possible to buy lessons in bulk, but not every teacher offers a discount for doing so. Annoyingly, the price that you initially see isn't what you end up paying, because it doesn't include Verbling's fees (this is true on italki too). I couldn't figure out exactly how this fee is calculated, but it seems to be anything from 2.5% to 5% of the original cost of the lesson.
Once you've found a teacher that you think you'll like, you can check their calendar to see what times they're available. Verbling automatically adjusts things so that you see teachers’ calendars in your own timezone. One neat little feature I liked is that, as well as booking individual lessons at specific times, you can book a recurring lesson at the same time every week, which saves you the bother of booking a new lesson again every time.
So far, so simple. When designing a “find a teacher and book a lesson” web interface, there's really not much room for innovation. The best a website can do is get out of your way and make the experience as smooth as possible. Verbling pulls this off without a hitch, but it doesn't stand out dramatically from its competitors.
Verbling’s Standout Feature: The Lesson Interface
So what makes Verbling different? Well, you'll see once you start an actual lesson. Verbling does more than let you book and schedule lessons – it provides a platform for actually having those lessons, through Verbling's own video-chat interface (This is in contrast to some other sites which leave it to you and your teacher to find your own communication channel, typically Skype).
Verbling's lesson interface offers more than just video chat. Teachers can upload files, which you can work through together, as in the above screenshot where my teacher and I are viewing a PDF of basic Japanese greetings. You can also write messages to each other, and – coolest of all – create vocabulary flashcards together, which you can then review in your own time between lessons.
The lesson interface works great. Again, this is an area where it's hard to innovate, but the Verbling team have done a good job of packing the interface with whatever useful features might help. By itself this doesn't make for a good lesson – that's up to the individual teacher – but it makes it easier.
Verbling Review: What Could be Better?
One minor criticism I have is that I couldn't find a way to familiarise myself with Verbling's lesson interface before actually starting a lesson. My first lesson was slightly slowed down by the fact that I was still figuring out how everything works. It would be great if I could have loaded up the interface without actually starting a real lesson, just so that I knew what was coming later (Maybe this option does exist, but I couldn't find it – and if you know anything about software design, you know that if your users can't figure out how to use your app, then it's your fault, not theirs).
Still, this wasn't a huge deal. Overall, I liked Verbling's interface a lot, and definitely preferred it to Skype – which I've used extensively for language lessons in the past.
Verdict: There’s a Lot to Like about Verbling
Of course, any Verbling-like platform is only as good as its teachers. A fancy video chat UI can help a good teacher do their job better, but it can't prevent a bad teacher from sucking. I don't have any complaints about the Japanese teachers I tried out, but I obviously can't vouch for every teacher on Verbling. That’s where the teacher reviews come in handy.
Still, Verbling has thousands of teachers on its platform, and more are signing up all the time. With enough patience, you should find the right person. I will always recommend shopping around and trying as many teachers as possible until you find someone you like, and who suits your own particular learning style.
There's a lot to like about Verbling. In a crowded space with little to differentiate the competition, its polished UI and well-thought-out video interface make it stand out. I can't guarantee that you'll find the perfect teacher on Verbling, but it's a good place to start looking.