How to Teach Languages Online: The Conversational Teacher Method

Updated: May 27, 2020
Fact-Check & Editorial Responsibility: Kris Broholm

In this post I'm laying out all the steps of my conversational teacher method, where anyone can make money online by tutoring people over Skype or Zoom.

You don’t need any diplomas, degrees, or certificates to do any of these (although having any of them can be a definite plus.)

You might say, but Kris, I don’t speak any languages to a high enough level!

Nonsense! 

We all have at least one native language – right?

And I think it’s reasonably fair to say that there are people interested in learning your language.

Take Danish for example – my native language.

With only 6 million native speakers, it’s a relatively small language.

Yet, there are still thousands of learners who get involved in Danish in one level or another:

  • Business learners (for Lego, Maersk, Vestas, or any other big Danish company) 
  • Partners of Danish Citizens
  • Heritage learners from abroad
  • Casual hobby learners
  • Scandinaviaphiles (is that even a word?)

If you speak English, Spanish, or French – well, then you’re in luck,

There are literally millions of learners waiting for you out there.

So, without further ado here's a quick overview of the first way to make money with language skills online.

The Conversational Teacher Metod

This is an awesome method for several reasons:

  • You get paid immediately upfront, so you don’t have to wait for a website to grow, or a YouTube channel to gain traction.
  • You just need to speak one language really well (+some English if your first language isn’t English!)
  • There is a lot of growth possible with this method, where you can eventually reduce your hours worked for delivering lessons passively or automated via software.
  • It’s hyper flexible. You set your own hours, and how much you want to do.

By the end of this post I hope to have answered the question: “How do I become an online language tutor?”

Let's dive in!

Table of Contents

Step 1 – The minimum equipment you'll need and where to get it

There are a few things you will need in order to increase your chances of success with this method.

Here's the list:

  1. Laptop or desktop computer
  2. Fast and stable internet connection (preferably wired)
  3. Good webcam and headset
  4. Some free time on a weekly basis with relatively quiet surroundings
  5. Willingness to learn and improve

Let's go a bit deeper into each one of these steps.

Laptop or Desktop Computer

Some people might think that a phone or a tablet would be adequate for this, and it might be able to work in a pinch.

But, I fully recommend a proper computer that you can use to type notes during the lesson with the students. This offers the best experience.

Fast and Stable Internet Connection

Because the lessons are via video, it's crucial that you have a stable and fast internet connection capable of streaming high quality video.

As a rule of thumb I would aim for better than 20 mbps download, and 10mbps upload.

It's also preferable to use a wired connection straight from the router into your computer (if your computer supports this) as this reduces the lag and instability wifi sometimes creates.

Good webcam and headset

The quality of your video and audio will be highly appreciated by students, so you need to have a good webcam and a good headset (or external microphone)

For the webcam I recommend the Logitech C920 series, and for headsets there’s a million options, these for about $30 have great reviews

Or just use your earbuds from your phone, many brands do just fine.

Having great and stable lesson quality will help you stand out from other teachers, and receive great reviews from the students you have.

Some free time on a weekly basis with relatively quiet surroundings

This method is quite flexible, in that you can chose how much you want to work.

The more availability you have, the easier it might be to find students as they have more choices to pick from.

It's also important that you have a quiet location to do the lessons from, without noisy traffic, screaming kids, or any other noises.

You won't get repeat students if that's the case..

Willingness to learn and improve

This is a big one.

Nobody started on italki making $50 an hour right off the bat.

No, it takes time to get better, and perfect your craft.

If you take a lazy approach, show up late for lessons, don't put in any energy or effort to improve then you will not retain students and you are unlikely to ever raise your prices.

So, have an open mind and be willing to improve and develop yourself as a teacher.

Step 2 – Create your online teacher profile on italki

Register on italki as a teacher

Italki is the biggest platform, so I don’t think there’s any reason to look elsewhere when you first start out.

They take a 15% cut from your earnings, as a return for facilitating the many students who are booking classes.

If you have a certificate or a degree in teaching you can apply to be a Professional teacher, which commands higher rates.

BUT, the expectations to your lessons will also be higher, so in many cases I think registering as a casual – community teacher is preferential in the beginning.

Filling out your profile

italki provides a template you can fill in for your profile.

Be honest, and explain how your lessons are going to go.

The most important tips about your profile text are the following:

  1. Write it in English. Most people who are looking for teachers on italki are beginners, and would not understand your profile if you wrote it in the target language.
  2. Keep it short and to the point, nobody wants to read an entire essay in your profile.
  3. Have someone look over your writing, if you're not comfortable writing in English – last thing you want is grammar and spelling mistakes in your profile.

In the profile, make sure you specify that you’re specialising in conversational practice, and that you don’t work with complete beginners.

In my experience teaching complete beginners is not worth it, as they are much better off using a flashcard system or basic training course to get the fundamentals before using a teacher.

Have a professionally-looking profile picture

It's important that you have a professionally looking profile picture, as this is the first time students will ever see you.

Don't use a picture of yourself in bathing shorts, or that time you went out drinking with your friends.

Record a great introduction video with good lighting. 

As with the profile picture, the introduction video is SUPER important, as this is once again the first any new potential student sees of you.

You can use any modern smartphone, or your webcam from step 1 for this – put it on a tripod or get someone to hold it while you introduce yourself.

Don’t read from a script, instead just memorise the talking points and try to sound natural.

Keep recording until you get enough footage to edit into your profile video without any failed takes or bloopers.

I can't state enough, how important it is to put a lot of effort into this video.

Luckily most people just record a terrible video with their webcam in bad lighting, so if you follow this step you'll be miles ahead of the curve.

This is from the teacher listings on iTalki, the red circles indicate the profile picture and introduction video. This is the first any potential student sees, so make sure these two look great!

Set your rates as low as possible.

As a brand new teacher on italki you will need to get some initial students to build up the social proof needed to get more students, who are more serious too.

This is why I recommend competing on price, as you won’t have much else to compete on against the hundreds of teachers for every language.

Take advantage of the trial lesson system italki uses to offer dirt cheap trial lessons.

This is a sacrifice in the beginning, where you might make as little as $3-$5 per hour! 

However, it's all worth it as you can easily double your hourly rate on a monthly basis once you have the flow of students coming in.

Once your profile is set up, and your first bookings are coming in it's time to look at what to actually do in the sessions.

Step 3 – Host amazing lessons and provide tons of value

You've got your first booking, and the lesson is starting soon – what do you do?

Here are some steps you can do to make a better impression, and offer more value to your new students.

Always be on time.

It's extremely important that you don't keep your student waiting. Message him or her a few minutes before you were supposed to start.

Unless you have another lesson booked right after, don't be afraid to run a little over if you're in a good flow.

Don't be taken advantage of either, though, so if you have to end the session just be polite and thank the student for the session.

Overdelivering by running the lessons longer is a great way to get some good early reviews, and really impress your students with the value you're providing for the relatively low price.

The technical side to the lesson

You want to have your webcam showing your face, and encourage the student to do the same.

This teaches mouth movements, and “natural” conversation.

Create a shared google doc that you can screen share in the lesson with the student and use this as a live note taking document.

Here's a template i quickly created so you can see what I mean.

It features a simple two-column system where column 1 is the target language, and column two is the English.

Every time the student asks “How do you say x”? you add it to the document with the translation next to it.

What to actually talk about?

As you're a conversational tutor you're not required to prepare any kind of textbooks, worksheets, exercises, or homework to the student.

You're just expected to talk normally.

But, the problem with that is what do you talk about?

Here is a list of conversational topics you can use if you get stuck. Courtesy of Lemongrad.com

Bonus points: Write down the typical sentences in your target language, and give it to the student as a bonus for being with you.

The key to conversational practice is to talk about normal things that the student might need in the future.

So ask him or her about his hobbies, interest, family, travels, and other activities that he or she might be interested in – this will be super helpful.

As you become more experienced you might want to dabble into creating your own worksheets, or supporting documents – because now you know what the students are actually asking about, but this is an optional step.

The most important conversation to talk about is what the person did today, or this week, as that is something that comes up in authentic conversations too.

  • What did you do today?
  • How was your week?
  • Are you travelling anywhere?
  • Have you seen anything interesting on the news?

When I was doing Danish lessons I would bring articles from the newspapers for the student to read.

Then we'd go through it sentence by sentence and add any interesting vocabulary to the shared document.

There's a million ways to do the lessons, so be creative, and don't be afraid to put in a bit of extra work outside the lessons.

This really increases the value of your lessons.

Step 4 – Increase your prices

Once you have maxed the number of hours you’d like to teach per week you can start to increase your rates. 

By now you should have also received a fair bit of testimonials and reviews, which should ensure a nice steady flow of students. 

Social proof is very important on italki, and the more lessons you complete the easier you'll find getting new students becomes!

If you were booking a lesson on italki, and you saw these Teacher stats – which one would you choose? 1895 lessons with a perfect rating, of course! I'm sure the teacher on the left is absolutely fine, but this is the power of social proof.

There’s a natural churn rate of students as well, as they lose interest, move on, or find another teacher – so it’s important to be available to new students.

The perfect price per hour is where the number of sessions per week stays consistent.

If you’re getting more requests than you have slots, then your prices are too cheap.

If you’re getting less students than you have hours allotted, then your prices might be too expensive.

I estimate that most teachers shouldn’t have any problems hitting $15-$20 per hour after a few months.

A friend of mine hit $40/hr and still had no problem finding students.

As you get more experience and improve as a teacher, you'll discover that the quality of students goes up too.

You might start with people price-shopping, and end up with busy professionals who'd rather pay 10x as much for great service.

Step 5 – Reduce trading money for hours and build passive income

Future potential ideas

You might not enjoy spending your entire week in lessons, doing speaking practice with students, or trading your time for money.

So here are a few ideas for inspiration as to what the next steps could be once you’ve reached this stage.

Start your own platform

I think anyone should have their own platform online. There are 3 main ones to choose from:

  • Blogging
  • Podcasting
  • YouTube

By creating regular contents to these platforms (I'd probably just start with one) you're actually creating a long-term asset that can generate you income and new students for years to come.

And best of all, you don't need to trade hours for dollars anymore at that point. Once a blog post or YouTube video is made, it can be enjoyed for years to come.

Keep it simple, publish regularly, and you'll see results.

This step is a little simplified, but I simply didn't have time or space in this guide to write a huge guide on how to build a blog, podcast, or YouTube channel from scratch.

Is that something you'd like to see? Leave a comment below!

Record and publish edited versions of your teaching lessons within an online course platform that people can buy access to anytime

(Of course, get permission from your students before doing this!)

Alternatively you can just use your webcam to record your own course, featuring just you as the teacher.

This is super easy to set up on Teachable.com

Bonus: Offer your exisiting students a special discount.

“Hey Name, I really like our sessions together and you’re making great process. I just realised a course for (LANGUAGE) that I think you’ll really like. Here’s a 50% off coupon as a thank you for being an active student with me”

Now, how many of your students (who like and trust you at this point) do you think would pull the trigger on such an offer?

Yes – ALL OF THEM! 

That's how you slowly move away from trading your time 1:1 with money. Building long-term assets that can be bought over and over without you doing anything to it.

Host in-person events, or immersion trips

This is what my friend Kerstin from FluentLanguage.co.uk did for German.

Some of her biggest fans paid thousands for a week all-inclusive vacation to Germany, completely immersed and with local activities to boot.'

The participants had a fantastic time, and their German dramatically improved!

Now, that’s obviously quite a task to do – but again, once you have that core group of students you’d be surprised how easy it is to get a handful of them to join you in person at a much higher rate than you would get for the lessons.

Now, I know there’s a fair bit that I’ve left out here, but I hope that these steps above were enough to whet your appetite to get into it.

Further Places to Study

This is just the beginning of your language-related career, if you are serious about taking it to the next level and building an actual business out of it then you can check out Langpreneur podcast, events, and coaching.

Jan and Olly have a lot of cool new projects going on to help anyone make money as a language teacher, educator, or content creator.

Now I'd like to hear from you!

There you have it.

My 5-step process for becoming a conversational tutor on italki in 2020.

Now I'd like to hear from you…

Which of the steps surprised you the most?

Are you going to give it a try?

Either way, leave me a comment below

Kris Broholm

Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.

Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.