How to Pick the Right Language Tutor Online

How to pick the right language tutor online can seem like a daunting experience. In this post I try to make it simple by sharing my philosophy when picking an online tutor for my favourite tutoring platform.

Which Tutoring Platform to Use?

I highly recommend iTalki as the tutoring platform of choice. It's easy to use and has the most amount of teachers and tutors anywhere.

With that being said, most of the advice below is applicable to any tutoring platform.

How to Pick the Right Language Tutor Online

Step 1 – Professional or Informal?

The first decision you will have to make when picking an Italki tutor is whether to hire a professional or not. Professional tutors have qualifications to either teach in the language or a language-based degree. The lessons they offer are also generally of higher quality, often providing extra assignments, home work or other materials outside the lessons.

This obviously costs more than the informal tutors.

Informal tutors are just that. There is no requirement for them to have qualifications and they are not required to provide great preparations or materials for the classes, although many informal teachers might do this anyway.

The line between the two is very interesting because you can find professional tutors who do the minimum and are not worth the extra cost, and on the other hand you might informal tutors who provide everything but at a bargain price.

My opinion is that if you are a very new learner, like I am with my Hungarian, then getting a professional tutor is probably worth the price difference. When I'm so new to a language I need a lot more hand-holding and explanations, than say Russian, where all I need is speaking practice.

In that case an informal tutor might be better.

Step 2 – Native or non-native

Once you've decided whether you want a professional or informal tutor it's time to go look at who is offering the language you're interested in. Simply do a search for your language combination, for example I'm choosing Hungarian in ‘teaching' and English in ‘also speaks' as I prefer to be taught in English.

Besides, somebody with a high enough level in Danish and Hungarian is very rare.

Anyway, once you have a list of tutors you'll in many languages have a choice between native and non-native speakers.

Of course the non-native speakers have an extremely high level in the language, often equivalent to a native speaker but they are not natives themselves.

So what to pick?

The obvious choice seems to be to pick the native speaker, and that's perfectly acceptable.

But allow me to offer a counterargument for picking a non-native speaker.

Unless the native speaker also happens to have a degree in her/his native language it is very rare for them to know on a theoretical level why their language is as it is. They can definitely give you perfect pronunciation and tell you what is wrong and what is right – but they might lack the insight to explain to you why something is wrong.

The non-native speaker has a much better understanding on how the language works in theory, because he or she at one point had to learn it after something else. This gives a comparison the native speaker does not have and very often you'll have more insights this way.

It's like the old example, why are non-native speakers of English often better than natives? Because they ‘studied' it on a much more intense level for many years, whereas the native speakers simply committed everything to memory. They can't explain anything except it's right or wrong.

Either way, I don't have an answer for what is the best option. I'm just saying don't discount non-native speakers immediately, as they might provide a great deal of insight and value not available to native speakers.

Step 3 – Quality indicators

For most languages you'll have a vast selection of tutors for both informal and formal tutoring. Since we can't book lessons with everyone, which would be ideal, we have to sort in them using the data Italki provides.

Mind you, these are just indicators of quality and not hard facts. However I do believe that with so many tutors available, some sorting has to happen.

I find these indicators to be the most important when trying to find out how to pick the right language tutor.

  • Sessions completed. If this number is lower than say, 20, then it indicates a lack of experience in teaching online and could also mean they are not taking it very seriously, which will lead to a worse experience for the student. It probably also means they don't have extra materials that an experienced tutor might have gathered over time.
  • Rating. Anything less than 5 and I'm out. Because I don't pick tutors who have few sessions, this rating should be fairly accurate.
  • Activity Level. When you click the stars in an Italki profile, you'll be shown a table with how many lessons the tutor has had in the last 3 months. Be very careful with picking tutors who have very low numbers in this field, as it might mean they are not very active. This means you might get a lesser interested tutor, or somebody who's not taking it very seriously.
  • Student Feedback. Sometimes hard to find, but for the more experienced tutors be sure to browse through the student feedback to see if anything stands out. Key pointers are things like: Preparations, assistance outside the lessons, materials provided and many more. Any negative feedback should count strongly against the tutor as it's very rare to see.
  • Punctuality. In the table after clicking the stars you'll also see the teacher's attendance rate. I personally think that attendance is very important. If they do not have a perfect record, approach with caution.

Example:

how to pick the right language tutor

The above is from a professional English teacher on iTalki called David Mark Evans. As you can see he has great stats.

  • 5.0 rating over many lessons.
  • Very active recently
  • 100% attendance.

So I would be happy to give David a try, if I were learning English.

Step 4 – Try a variety of tutors

For most languages you'll be able to find many high quality tutors. The key here is to try many of them until you find your favourite. You have to have a good chemistry and feel comfortable in the lessons to get the most out of them. Likewise you also need to find a tutor whose teaching style fits with your learning style.

Sometimes this takes some time to find.

Luckily Italki offers you trial lessons, which are basically cheap 30 minute lessons you can get with tutors to try them out. You get a couple of trial lessons when you sign up, after that you'll have to pay the full price to try out tutors.

There you have it. My favourite ways of finding a competent Italki tutor.

Do you have any other ninja tips on how to pick the right language tutor online?

 

  • This is really thorough! I always like to try out a few teachers before I decide which one I’m going to go with. It can be quite the endeavor, but it’s totally worth it when you find a tutor you match up with well.

    • Totally agree. For some of the bigger languages there are so many tutors that I find I need to sort through them first, before getting to the try-a-few stage.

      • I couldn’t find any Welsh tutors that built up enough trust for me to try them, last time I looked. But then, I know a passionate one through Facebook. What can you do!

  • dandiprat

    I think about it like this, learning from a native speaker is like learning to fly from a bird. You can learn some stuff about the subject if you pay attention to how they do it, but ultimately your methods of learning will almost certainly be different. That being said, for the languages I currently study there are no non-native tutors because they’re not popular languages or countries to immigrate to.

    • I think you are right, and I’m very happy with my decision to have gone with a non-native speaker this time around 🙂 That said many native professional teachers do understand their language better than random informal tutors so it’s always a balancing act.

      • Never thought I’d hear you say this *sheds tear*

  • I enjoyed reading this, especially as a tutor who can see from the learner’s perspective that you know exactly what you’re looking for. One of the most useful and difficult-to-replicate aspects of italki is the excellent rating system that really shows students and teachers what matters most. In a world of Airbnb and uber and blablacar, how can anyone trust me as a teacher if there aren’t independent testimonials telling them to do so? I wish I could get this in place for my online courses, too!

    • Thanks for the comments Kerstin! When I read this comment I realised I could’ve probably branded this article as a teachers-tool of how to build up a good profile, but then again all these factors come from being a good, well-prepared teacher 🙂

      • You could’ve, but then we can’t fake a good testimonial and there’s nothing like it. My most important piece of advice for teachers would be to just ask for feedback and testimonials. When a student wants to take a break, see what they need. When they book you, tell them what to expect etc.

  • Israel Lai

    Again, great and comprehensive guide! I’m taking my final lesson within the october challenge tonight. Due to my Swedish teacher having his own midterms, I almost couldn’t finish the challenge and ended up trying new teachers in my other rusty languages instead – that’s when I had my first lesson that clearly told me this tutor doesn’t work for me. Anyway what’s your thoughts on video VS audio lessons – could the latter be a downside in your opinion?

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