Did you know that nobody in human history ever learned a language without a “teacher”?
Yep, somebody taught us.
And the thing is, we didn’t learn our first language from books, nursery rhymes, flashcards or from our teacher’s lecturing. (Heck, we were already chatting up a storm before the teacher even entered the classroom!)
We were taught language by the first people around us: our parents, our siblings, the uncle who laughed hardest after teaching us dirty words.
They were our first “teachers.” We learned by imitating and listening to them.
Then came the need to learn a second language. And this time, as adults, we initially ran to books, enrolled in courses and listened to audio. We probably did this because there were no people around us who could teach. Uncle Joe knows only the dirty English words, not their Italian ilk.
Then came the internet, which was a major game changer. It altered our possibilities for learning another language. Now, through Skype, we greatly broadened the scope of “those people around us.” We can now get native speakers, from miles away, to teach us their language.
Next comes the question: How do I choose the right online language teacher?
Which brings us to this post.
The Advantages of Having an Online Language Teacher
With an online language teacher, your own room can become the classroom. You don’t have to wake up early, brace the traffic and sit in a noisy class. You don’t have to compete for attention with 20 or so classmates in order to ask your teacher something that’s been bugging you for the past 30 minutes. And most importantly, you won’t feel the anxiety of your classmates judging you when you finally get to voice your query.
An online language teacher can even one-up Google. You could search Google, open several tabs and spend a few minutes reading up on the different meanings of the Spanish word hecho (made, done, fact, complete or event), or you can ask your online language teacher and get an instant answer. They can even give you the nuances of usage and give plenty of real-life examples.
And another reason why an online language teacher can be an efficient transmitter of knowledge is that they can tailor the lessons just for you. It’s a one-on-one type of learning. They can give you dedicated attention and pace the lessons just for you. That means you don’t get bored out of your skull waiting for somebody to absorb the lesson you understood ages ago, and you don’t feel harassed playing catch up with lessons that disappear like a speeding bullet. FluentU also offers flexible lessons that match you at your level.
With an online teacher, the lessons are just right.
Moreover, an online language teacher is a powerful immersive force. It’s like being in the country of interest, talking with a native speaker, while sitting in the comfort of your room, wearing your most comfortable clothes. And while online language teachers come with fees, they’re still a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost of a plane ticket or university.
Actually, there are even plenty of native speakers who are so proud of their native tongues, you can ask them to give you lessons for free. There are also fellow language learners who will gladly help you learn their native tongue, so long as you also teach them yours.
You can find these like-minded souls on sites like Verbling, where with the click of a button you’ll find professional, hand-picked language teachers who can provide immersion.
Verbling might just be the best choice available to you for finding a teaching online. You’ll be able to explore hundreds upon hundreds of language teachers and find exactly the one who’s right for you. When you search, you’ll get to search based on prices, availability and even the other languages they speak—so if your native language is Chinese or German, you can find a French teacher to teach you in that language. Plus, the technology here makes accessing tutoring sessions extra smooth! You don’t need Skype or another third-party program. It’s all here!
Another good option is WyzAnt. The goal is the same, you can go there to find a nice, professional language teacher, but there’s a twist. This one’s all about finding a teacher in your local area who you can meet up with for in-person, hometown learning.
And here are a few other places you might look for your online language teacher:
- Busuu (Award-winning content and home to 50 million native speakers.)
- italki (Excellent language teachers and an online community that provide you with all the practice that you need.)
- Easy Language Exchange (Learners of Asian languages feel at home here.)
- Conversation Exchange (Where native speakers not only talk, but write as well.)
But remember, you can only have the aforementioned benefits if you land the right online language teacher.
So next, we look into the details and talk about seven ways to choose the right one. Because make no mistake about it, just like students, not all teachers are the same. There are good ones, and there are those that flash great smiles via Skype.
How to Choose the Right Online Language Teacher for You
1. Perform Due Diligence Activities
Choosing a language teacher requires an investigative journalist’s hat. You have to learn as much as you can about them. And since you’re probably living miles apart, having a cup of coffee (that functions also as an interview), is easily out of the question. You have to be creative and resourceful with your information gathering.
So here’s what you do:
Read the teacher profile and reviews
Read each teacher’s profile carefully. Know that this is how the person sees themself. You can find out so much about your potential candidate by reading between the lines. Go beyond the information written. Yes, she has taught the language for over 10 years. But does she have a sense of humor? Can you sense warmth and care between the lines? Does she take herself too seriously? And the like.
Look at the profile picture (and its background). The teacher may probably never look as beautiful or as handsome during the sessions, but do their smile and pose encourage learning? Or does the photo have the countenance of doom? A picture can indeed speak a thousand words.
Read the teacher’s reviews and scores. Again, read between the lines. A teacher might get great scores, but ask the question: Why? Is it because he’s really good at teaching or because he’s very kind? Or funny?
Read the reviews carefully and they’ll give you a sketch of what a teacher is like. These data will be important come decision time.
Ask for teacher recommendations in forums
Next, go to the forums and ask for teacher recommendations from people who have been taking online language courses and lessons for some time. Don’t just ask about who you should get, ask also who to avoid. Even better, if possible, ask for the strengths and weaknesses for the different teachers. People will be glad to recommend a few who are quite good. You’ll also know (through the way they write) how passionate people are in recommending the teacher.
The feedback may not be 100% correct because we each have our own personal biases, but it’s a good place to start.
Message your teacher and ask lots of questions
Finally, as part of due diligence, message the candidate and ask lots of questions. Ask how they conducts their sessions. What activities are in store for you? From the answers, you can glean what type of teacher they are, what their linguistic beliefs are and what the learning session would be like.
If at all possible, ask if you two can Skype. Take note of the interaction and get a feel for your teacher’s personality. Gauge the chemistry between you two. Ask plenty of questions and get to really know the person on the other side of the webcam. Only then can you gain a sense of confidence in the decision that you have to make.
2. Be Open-minded (Some Things Are Not Actually Deal Breakers)
An ideal teacher would be a native speaker whose wall is decorated with different types of language teaching certificates and an assortment of accolades. Even more, that teacher would be easy to get along with, funny, interesting and never run out of stories. Okay, okay maybe they’re one in a million.
But what if the candidate isn’t a native speaker?
What if they don’t have any teaching certificate?
What if they just started teaching language?
What if you could very well be their first student ever?
While having the experience and the education is a good thing, don’t be so fast in disqualifying someone who doesn’t have the traditional credentials. Be open-minded. These things are actually not deal breakers.
There are native speakers who can’t teach their native tongue even if their lives depended on it. There are credentialed educators who belong publishing in academic journals, not in the classroom, much less in a one-on-one situation with a private student. A teacher might have spent a decade teaching, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any good at it.
And then there are those who are just naturally good at teaching, and can make the lessons come alive. They may not be native speakers, but they know every twist and turn of the journey and can warn you of the pitfalls and the sticky areas. This is a better pick than a native speaker who can’t understand why you’re having such a hard time with the language.
With the remaining tips in this post, you’ll be in an even better position to decide which language teacher to have.
3. Find Someone with Energy and Personality
This one is an actual deal breaker. Seriously, what can you learn from a teacher who’s so boring you’d rather be sleeping inside the classroom?
Energy in teaching is very important. It’s not just about being alive and adjusting the mic so that you may be heard on the other end. It’s not just about the transfer of vocabulary or word meanings or translations–a student can get that from any Google search. Teaching isn’t just a transfer of knowledge. It’s a transfer of passion.
A teacher with no energy and passion for what they’re doing will inevitably waste the time of their students. Someone may able to get some lessons across, but it won’t be much different from what a student might get from a cursory web search.
There are many fish in the sea, so don’t spend more than one session with someone without the energy and desire to teach you.
4. Find Someone Who’s Also Fluent in Your Language and Culture
If your teacher isn’t fluent in your first language, then how will they teach you? If a Chinese person (who only speaks Mandarin) wants to start learning German, then they should find someone who can explain German concepts in Mandarin. Otherwise, there’d be no way to effectively transfer knowledge.
At least have one common language with your tutor or teacher. Even if you have the best German native speaker teaching you, they can only do so much without sharing a common language with you. (Sometimes it’s better to have a fellow with the same nationality who can also fluently speak your target language.)
The advantage of a teacher who understands your own culture is that they can play off that knowledge and compare your culture with that of the target language. The knowledge will come in handy, for example, when your teacher explains, “In the US, you greet acquaintances with ‘Hello.’ In Spanish, we say “¡Hola!” followed by a kiss on the cheek.” Or, “In English, adjectives often come before the nouns. But in Spanish, adjectives could easily come after the nouns they modify.”
You can understand the target language better when it’s contrasted with what you know best–your first language.
5. Find a Teacher Who Can Deliver the Language Skill and Learning Level That You Require
What do you want to learn?
Do you want to speak German? Write in German? Understand German?
Speaking and writing German, although about the same language, require different skills. Speaking a language requires that you master the proper pronunciation, pace and cadence. You also need to familiarize yourself with the rise and fall of the tone as you speak.
Writing, on the other hand, is all about spelling and grammar. You need to master the different rules in constructing phrases, sentences and paragraphs. You need to know by heart which rules govern the different parts of speech and what exceptions, if any, exist.
Now, it would be such a shame if you really wanted to learn how to speak and the teacher you have is one who focuses on spelling and grammar. With that kind of teacher, you’ll indeed be great in chatting up someone in an online forum, but not chatting up a native speaker in real life.
So ask yourself: What type of language learning do you want?
Remember also, if you want to learn how to speak Russian, for example, you don’t need the top Russian linguists to teach you. (Maybe if you want to learn, formal, high-brow, academic Russian.) But if you only need to survive the streets of Moscow and enjoy your trip there, you’ll do very well with a loquacious Russian chap who absolutely loves his culture.
6. Find a Teacher Who Challenges Your Assumptions
You might have an idealized version of what your teacher should be. You might have an inkling of how the sessions should go. But if you find somebody who shatters those assumptions, I encourage you to give them a try.
For example, in the initial interview or in the trial session where you’re feeling out each other, you might discover that the teacher holds a different political view from you. You might sense them being a true believer in big government, whereas you want it limited as much as possible. (Yup, it has nothing to do with language, but views like these can surface during the lessons.)
Don’t shut out differences like this, because you might get more than a language lesson from your online teacher. You might understand why big government works in their country and why it’s different from yours.
The point is this: If you discover your language teacher isn’t the idealized version you have in your head, don’t shut them out. You’re in for a wonderful, horizon-expanding learning experience.
And don’t shy away from teachers who are thinking outside the box.
A teacher who faces the webcam holding a guitar and who teaches the language through songs is a rare breed. You’ll learn so much from this creativity and skill. An Italian teacher who looks like the spitting image of Bob Marley might just be what you need to understand just how colorful the Italian language and culture actually is. A mother who teaches Spanish by taking you along on her errands is a breath of fresh air. You’ll not only learn what a parada de autobús (bus stop) is, you’ll actually get to see it on video.
Widen your horizons and get more than a language lesson.
7. Have the Guts to Follow Your Gut
At the end of the day, there’s that small voice that tells you, “This will work.” Or “Nope. Maybe somebody else.”
I want you to listen to that voice closely. Your gut is telling you something. So even if the teacher has all great reviews, looks like the poster of what a Chinese tutor should be, but if you’re not totally at peace with making them your teacher, then don’t.
Picking an online teacher is a little like going on a date–the chemistry has got to be there. A guy may look good on paper, but when there are no sparks during dinner, you’ll be better off as friends.
In the same way, if you’re just not feeling the candidate, move along so you can find that teacher who will be your partner in learning the target language.
I’m not saying that there’s just “the one,” I’m saying that you also need to factor in those things that are hard to explain, and listen to what your gut is telling you.
So there. You’re now ready and well equipped to hunt for your online language teacher.
Someone is out there for you–that’s a guarantee.
As always, I wish you all the success in learning a second, a third, maybe even a fourth language. You have my utmost respect.
And One More Thing...
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