Tuesday, May 18, 2010

When and how to use paid online tutors for language learning

The following is a guest post by Milena Mitic, a native-Serbian speaker who also speaks English and is actively studying Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. In the comments to an earlier post, she noted how she has been making use of various paid online tutors for language learning. As I’ve never used any paid online tutors myself, I was interested in hearing about her experiences, so I asked her if she would write a guest post on the topic, and she kindly agreed.

It took me a while to discover that something very interesting is going on in the world of teaching; although I’ve been a heavy internet user for many years, I found out about online tutoring just six months ago. It is comforting to see that I’m not the only one who was completely oblivious of this revolution in teaching; many people think, when I mention online classes, that I’m talking about recorded sessions and not live interaction with a tutor who just happens to be on the other side of the world. So, just to make it clear, in case anyone still has any doubts, paid online tutoring works just like paid “offline” tutoring; you just use Skype or virtual classrooms instead of going to evening classes or meeting your tutor face to face.

These virtual classrooms are basically platforms offered on various online tutoring websites, like eduFire or WiZiQ, where you and your teacher can have voice and video chat, as well as sharing a “blackboard” and the presentations and documents that you are using during the class. Both of you can make changes to these documents (typing, drawing, highlighting, etc.) and both of you can see what the other person is doing. Some websites, like the Spanish-teaching 121Speech, use Skype + Google Docs for their classes, and this works very well too. You can then save the notes from the classes to go through them later. These virtual classrooms offer a possibility of one-on-one as well as one-on-many classes.

Some of you might be asking why use a paid online tutor when you are already on the internet where, as we all know, variations of everything can be found for free ☺. Well, in my opinion, there are situations where paid tutoring is a better choice.

For example, if you are a native speaker of a language that is not popular and free language exchange websites do not work well for you, then paid tutoring seems like a good solution. If you want an organized and structured course of studying, then paid tutoring again seems to me like a better choice (this is, of course, possible to do in a free language exchange, but it is easier to find among paid tutors). Also (and I know some people might argue against this, but this is my experience), at the end it comes to a somewhat sad truth that, when you pay for something, you get better service. Take, for example my favorite language tool for an intermediate level of language knowledge, LingQ. For a 15-minute paid conversation with the tutor, you get a detailed report of the things you struggled with during the conversation—words you couldn’t remember or things you said wrong. What I’m usually getting from free chats with native speakers is “Hablas muy bien!” or “Очень хорошо!”. That’s encouraging but not as helpful…

Now, someone also might ask what are the advantages of online over the “offline” tutoring. Well, there are quite few:
  • You do not have to go anywhere to have your class. No time lost in transport. Also, you can organize your classes to completely suit your time; if you feel like having a class at 11 p.m. and your tutor’s time zone permits it, you can do it.

  • It is cheaper. It is SO MUCH cheaper than offline tutoring. And it is easy to see why it is so. In my small town, for example, the concentration of, let’s say, native tutors of Mandarin is certainly not very high. But if you go to eduFire, for example, there are many Mandarin teachers there competing for students and, therefore, prices are low. Of course, it usually works out so that “you get what you paid for”, but don’t forget that $10 has a very different value in U.S. than it does in Guatemala or Egypt, so you might end up with really good tutors for a price you would consider very affordable.

  • If your tutor agrees, you can record your Skype conversations and use them later (this is how I’m currently working on my Spanish pronunciation with one of my tutors from LingQ).
Some of these websites (at least this is the case for eduFire and LingQ) have a very strong and supportive community that communicates frequently on their forums, which could be very helpful to your studies.

Finally, let me offer a few tips about choosing an online tutor. This doesn’t differ much from choosing an offline tutor; the basic principle is absolutely the same: you have to see how you feel about your tutor and decide if you are happy to work with them. That said, there are few things that can help you in the selection process:
  • Look at the tutor’s rating. Most websites have some way for students to rate tutors. eduFire has a particularly good and helpful rating system. Pay attention to the number of classes/conversations the tutors has done, the number of students he or she has tutored, testimonials, numerical ratings, etc.

  • Many tutors offer free trial session, so you can see whether you like the tutor through one of these (121Speech allows you to take the first class for free as well). Make use of these.

  • See how you like the notes or the report you are left with after the class. Good tutors will make a lot of notes and you will have good material to study until the next class.

  • On many websites, everyone can be a tutor; you do not need any qualifications to do tutoring (although this is not the case with 121Speech; all of their tutors have teaching experience). However, this doesn’t mean that someone with qualifications is by default better than someone without. In fact, most of the very good tutors I’ve encountered are not professional teachers.

  • Keep in mind that it is easier to change your online tutor than to find another language course in your town. So, if you become unhappy with the course or have any other issues to the point that it starts to affect your learning, if you cannot resolve the issue with your tutor, you can just go and find another one.
Here are a few comments about the the websites I’m actually using myself:
  • eduFire: They have really wide range of tutors (for languages and other subjects). If you want to find a tutor for Bulgarian or Kiswahili, for example, try there. Also, their virtual classroom is very nice but sometimes can have trouble with the sound. This is easily resolved by talking through Skype while using the rest of their classroom functions.

  • 121Speech: Very, very competitive prices and very good teachers. “Unfortunately”, it is only for Spanish ☺. Two things I find a bit annoying are the lack of an automatic time zone converter for bookings (a link to an external time zone calculator is provided) and the lack of PayPal as a payment option.

  • LingQ: I really like the way LingQ is organized and currently this is my main language-learning tool. Unfortunately, it is also the most expensive of these three.
I have covered only those websites that I have used myself. There are other online tutoring websites out there that I haven’t tried and I’d be happy to hear from anyone who has used them.

That would be all from me. I hope it was helpful. ☺

Note: 121Speech offers one free class in exchange for mentions on websites like this, and Milena intends to take advantage of that.


  1. Have you seen Online Spanish Help yet (http://www.onlinespanishhelp.com)? I think it blows all those sites away.

  2. Judging by your name, I couldn't imagine that you'd have a predisposition to prefer Online Spanish Help...

    Rather than bold assertions, how about an explanation of why Online Spanish Help is superior?

  3. I'm doing my first year in degree. I like to learn new languages, so thought to learn Spanish during holidays. I have arranged for online tutoring in http://www.tutorz.com/. I guess things are going on track now. 

  4. Buddyschool.com is my favorite website for learning languages. They have great affordable tutors for large number of languages like French, Arabic, Serbian, Spanish...Here you pay after each class, they prepare PowerPoint presentations and give you homework and tailor the class to suit your needs.

  5. Yeah buddyschool.com is great. You get the invoice for the class payments through the website and with PayPal is so easy. I have been learning Serbian for two years now and my tutor is very creative. She is charging $8. Per hour. Her nickname is SerbianProfessor and check her out in buddyschool

  6. HI Everyone if you want to learn russian
    anguage tutoring by Skype then join us its free join us at