Ever heard of a farmer who learned the trade online?
Online tutoring isn’t the best way to learn everything.
But I can make a pretty good argument that it’s the best way to learn Spanish.
Here’s a quick rundown of the main reasons to get an online Spanish tutor:
- You don’t need to waste time (an hour? more?) in transport getting to and from a class
- It’s one-on-one, so you’re not going to listen to a lot of other students mangling the language
- It’s usually cheaper than language schools
- It’s quite easy to find a native speaker who tutors
- Classes can be individualized for your goals and learning style
The main con: Some people actually like going and sitting in a physical classroom, where there are other students that they can make friends with and/or commiserate with as they go through the process together.
This post will cover the top resources for finding online Spanish tutors, how to choose the best ones, how to organize your lessons yourself (yes, you should do this, not the tutor!) and other tips for optimizing the experience of online learning.
My advice on this comes out of my years serving as a classroom teacher and, later, two years as an online tutor of English and Spanish. I’ve also spent hundreds of hours in online classes myself as a language learner, and pored over both academic literature on language learning and the advice from other polyglot language hackers on blogs and podcasts.
This is an obsession for me, but you’re probably not interested in a manifesto. So I’ve narrowed down my very best tips for getting online Spanish tutors and optimizing the experience into a single post.
How to Find the Perfect Online Spanish Tutor and Milk Lessons for All They’re Worth
Resources for Finding Online Spanish Tutors
Here are the top places to go for online Spanish tutors:
I tried this one out for the purpose of writing this article. The search results appear smoother than on most others; teachers’ availability and YouTube introductions pop up as you hover over them, which is neat. The classes themselves take place within the site and through a version of Google Hangouts, which presents the advantages and disadvantages of that software (see the next section).
The whiteboards and chats can’t be saved, and the software blocks you from sharing email addresses (which I wanted to do so that my teacher could email me the history from our lesson). So, you might want another option if any of that is important to you.
WyzAnt is an incredible resource for locating stellar Spanish teachers near you. This site is professional and polished, and it features well-educated and well-qualified tutors in your local area. Follow this link to see who's available close to home.
It’s cool since the website also asks you what grade and skill level you are as a student. Slots are available for everything from elementary to adult, and you’ll be matched with someone who’s trained to cater your specific needs.
Each tutor reveals how much they charge per hour, and you can take a look at some of the ratings that other people have given them. It seems like most of the tutors are available for in-person sessions, but some of them offer online training.
This is my hands-down favorite. There are hundreds of tutors available on italki for Spanish, and the search feature allows you to quickly narrow them down to someone who has the accent you want (from Cuba? Chile? etc.) and is available at a time and price that is good for you.
You can choose between accredited teachers (“Professional Lessons”) and regular native speakers willing to patiently practice with you (“Informal Tutoring”). You pay for and schedule the lessons on the site, but actually hold the classes through Skype or Google Hangouts.
There is also a search function for finding completely free language exchanges with other learners (“language partners,” which is tucked under the menu “Community”), so you could use this site just for that and never spend a dime.
My editor suggests fiverr.com, which offers a very cheap way to get short online practice sessions with native speakers, but it lacks the language-specific search functionalities of the sites above that are specifically built for language learners.
Chegg.com could be an option if you’re looking for a tutor to help you prepare for a specific test like AP Spanish.
Free language exchange
If you’re looking for a free language exchange, I’d first recommend italki.com as mentioned above. Then, try polyglotclub.com, loquo.com (for European Spanish) and putting up a notice in your target country’s discussion group on bewelcome.com (or its more popular but patently evil twin couchsurfing.com). Free online language exchanges can be fun, although I often have problems with language partners flaking out. But hey, free!
Online Resources to Use with Your Spanish Tutors
Here are some handy resources I recommend using during lessons with your Spanish tutors.
- Skype vs. Google Hangouts. These are the two major video chat systems that people currently use for online language classes. Google Hangouts tends to have slightly better video quality, in my experience, but also—perhaps this is related—to experience more technical glitches and slowdowns, especially if you or your teacher has a slow connection. Note that Google Hangouts chats disappear when you’re done with the session, so remember to save them! For the slowest connections, using Skype with no video is a good option.
- Google Docs. When I’m working on on my written skills, I share a document that I have written with my teacher on Google Docs and we can look at it and edit it together, live, as we discuss it. It’s a beautiful thing—the secondary major piece of technology that makes these online classes possible.
- A Web Whiteboard. There are tons of great, instant online whiteboards, this is just one of them.
- Google Translate and WordReference.com. These tend to be the fastest ways to look up a word and expression if you or your teacher get stuck in the middle of a class.
- Google Image. When a tutor uses a word you don’t know, however, encourage him or her to send you a link to a picture when possible, instead of translating the word to English. Isn’t this a more memorable way to learn the word pulpo?
Choosing Online Spanish Tutors
Yes, you’ll notice I’ve been using “tutors,” as in, you should have more than one! It’s great to have various perspectives and speaking styles to learn from. I usually work with two or three different tutors for each target language.
This also keeps things more interesting for me, and even for the tutors. I can repeat the same lesson with several tutors if I need to, without boring anyone to death! The sites mentioned above all let you try out a first lesson with different teachers at a reduced rate to see who you click with.
Here’s what I look for:
- Native speaker. Get a native speaker, of course! Rates for Spanish teachers living in Latin America and Spain can be lower, thanks to the lower costs of living in those places. Having a native speaker is one of the biggest advantages of online learning to begin with.
- Experience level. Do you want an experienced or inexperienced teacher? As Judith Meyer points out on David Mansaray’s fabulous podcast (and do check out that episode for all kinds of other great online tutoring tips), you may sometimes want an inexperienced tutor. They are less likely to have firm and antiquated ideas about language learning (this is particularly a problem with teachers who have done a lot of formal training in some Spanish-speaking countries), and they are more likely to be flexible about letting you plan your own lesson (see the next section) and adapting to your learning style. That said, experienced (especially older!) teachers can be life-savers for explaining grammar rules, as they will have done the same explanations hundreds of times before, and perfected them. I prefer to use a mix of both experienced and inexperienced teachers; I check in with the experienced (and usually more expensive) teacher once or twice a month for help with the more vexing grammar issues.
- Good vibe. It’s so important to have a rapport with the teacher. Being patient, funny and interesting is much more important than having any degrees. You want a teacher who is a joy to talk to, so that you’ll be motivated to continue the classes, as well as prepare for and remember them.
- Target accent. Consider your target accent(s) and choose a teacher who speaks the type of Spanish that you want to speak. There are big differences between Spain and Latin America!
- Teaching style. We all have different learning styles, and as the excellent “How Languages Are Learned” points out, the best style for learners tends to be the one that they believe is best. So feel free to ignore my and all other advice if you find something that works for you, and find a teacher who matches that style.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to dismiss tutors who insist on speaking English with you when you don’t understand something, rather than finding a more creative or easier way to show you what they mean in simple Spanish or with pictures. Similarly, you should stop using tutors who speak too fast or with complex verbiage, have bad connections or whom for whatever reason you just don’t click with.
How to Plan Your Spanish Lessons with an Online Tutor
Note that I’m suggesting that you plan your Spanish lessons! Lessons that you plan yourself are going to be the most perfectly suited to your interests, language level and particular grammar issues.
I talk a lot about dancing, lost love and modernist cooking techniques in my language lessons, because those things keep lessons exciting for me—and if my life remains at all worthwhile, I’ll need that vocabulary in my target language too.
Based on a Spanish textbook
You can start your preparations with a traditional Spanish language learning book and work through the lessons one by one. For each unit, think of ways you would practice using that material in your own life, and then write a very short dialogue in Google Docs that you can correct with your tutor online.
Once you’ve corrected it, try to have variations of that conversation with your tutor, and make notes together of the difficult phrases or constructions that you can study later.
You can also prepare by listening to music, watching videos on FluentU and reading short stories. Plan a lesson in which you describe what you’ve read, heard or seen with your teacher, and then play out situations in which you would use the same vocabulary or constructions in your own life.
As for grammar, written Spanish grammar exercises from books and websites are great for tackling a new grammar subject, but then you need to check whether you can actually spit out the correct grammatical construction in conversation. What can you discuss with your tutor—again, relevant to your own life—that will force you to use that new grammar concept?
Also, what doesn’t make sense about the grammar rules you’re learning in your book? If you have an experienced teacher, you can jot down these questions and ask for an explanation of the rules in your class (you may want to email your questions ahead of time too so that the teacher can prepare).
If you have an inexperienced tutor, he or she will probably not know how to explain grammar rules in a way that’s appropriate for a non-native speaker, so you might not even want to waste time asking—but do look at examples together.
For instance, if you’re having trouble with ser vs. estar, you can ask your tutor about situations where one would say “es guapo”(he’s handsome) and “está guapo” (he looks handsome). Even if your tutor doesn’t know how to put the difference into words, looking at situations and real examples will help you to extrapolate the rules in a very concrete way. You can then come up with more examples and situations from your own life.
Focus your lessons
One of the most important things to keep in mind for lessons is to keep them focused on a very limited and manageable set of vocabulary, or on a single grammar issue.
If you spend time discovering all of the ways you can use one important word or construction, you’re much more likely to remember it and employ it correctly in the future than if you learn 10 new words.
Similarly for grammar; don’t let the lesson wander off into the past subjunctive if you’re just learning the present subjunctive.
Ideas for Your Very First Spanish Lessons with an Online Tutor
There is a huge myth out there that you have to wait to do online classes until you at least know some basics. Or maybe that’s just an excuse for delay.
In any case, even if you have little to no Spanish knowledge, you can plan your own lessons in the ways mentioned above, and by copping a few bits of vocabulary from your introductory Spanish book.
Here are a few ideas for first lessons:
- Greetings. Practice saying hello and pleasantries in different situations. Look at pictures of people meeting each other, and role-play as the people in the pictures. What formal and informal differences do you find? What are slang greetings in your teacher’s country? How do people kiss each other hello, and when do they shake hands?
- Describing people. Look at pictures of people from around the world and employ basic adjectives to describe them. You’ll use the construction es + [adjective]: es alto, es lindo, es rubio (he’s tall, he’s beautiful, he’s blond). How do these words change if you’re talking about a woman? Who can you describe from your own life? You can then show your tutor pictures from your Facebook page, Instagram or even a physical photo album, and talk about them.
- Your interests. What do you like/dislike? Use the basic expression me gusta(n)… (I like…) and no me gusta(n)… (I don’t like…) followed by the thing in question. If nothing else, you already know a few Tex-Mex dishes, rock stars and international brand names that you can talk about in Spanish! Then turn the tables and ask your tutor: ¿Te gusta(n)… (Do you like…?) Then, what other phrases does your tutor use to describe extreme liking and disliking?
Studying More Advanced Spanish Concepts with Your Tutor
Here are a few ways you might plan more advanced Spanish classes with an online tutor.
- Subjunctive. Maybe you understand the concept of the Spanish subjunctive; it’s used to talk about wishes, doubts, desires and uncertainty. But actually remembering to employ it and conjugating it correctly is its own special horror for most learners. One way to practice the subjunctive in an online class would be plan a big catty gossip session. Write a list of the things that you doubt about others or hope that they do/say/are. Dudo que él baile bien. (I doubt that he dances well.) Or: Quiero que ella me quiera. (I want her to love me.)
- Real-world videos. One way to practice your vocabulary is to watch a video through FluentU, like this fabulous song from Tita Merello. God, people can just be so catty, can’t they? After you’ve used the FluentU app to learn the new vocabulary from the song, see if you can describe the video to your teacher without referring to any notes. Then use those words to complain about your own life: What do you think people say about you behind your back? Do you have anything in common with Tita Merello?
Note on unstructured “conversation” lessons
Once you get to the point with your Spanish where you can hold a basic conversation, it can be relaxing, fun and useful to have a “conversation” lesson from time to time.
To get the most out of this, though, be sure to at the very least write down the new vocabulary from the lesson in your Skype chat box so that you can come back to it and review it later.
After Your Online Spanish Lessons
It’s frustrating and all too common for the things you’ve learned in tutoring sessions to sink into unreachable folds of your unconscious. Keep everything fresh by scheduling time the day after the lesson to review any new vocabulary from the Skype chat box with paper flashcards or with flashcard apps.
Then see if you can use the vocabulary correctly in written Spanish by writing a short text and submitting it for correction on on lang-8.com, a lovely website where native speakers correct each others’ texts.
And then, of course, you’ll need to start preparing for your next lesson!
Mose Hayward blogs regularly about his adventures in language learning, nomadic drinking, and Brazilian dancing.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.