The go to place for most people wanting to learn a new language is, drumroll please… A group language class! Now I know what you’re thinking “jeez have you got any other brain busters?” But hear me out, let me share my language class experiences and perhaps provide you with an alternative, more efficient route.
When decided that I wanted to learn Mandarin, I initially went to a group class once a week for two hours. The course advert said “By the end of this course you should be able to…” then they lists tons of topics that you should master. I really worry about the unrealistic expectations group language classes set to attract students.
Here are the key issues I have with group classes in my experience:
Different Goals and Learning Speeds
Every student has different goals, time to commit and ability. Here are a few examples of the different characters in my class: ‘The Retiree’ who would tell me that he has revised for 6 hours a day, ‘The Polyglot Scientist’ that just soaked up knowledge and ‘The Undeclared Resit’ the person that constantly has their hand raised, flies through the course but keeps it secret that this is their 2nd time sitting the course. It created a disjointed environment and the teacher is unable to attend to everyone’s learning needs.
To fulfil the courses’ promise: “By the end of this course you will be able to say x, read x, write x”; the teachers must fly past the basics. One of the courses I attended spent only one hour teaching pīnyīn (pīnyīn, is the official romanisation system for Mandarin). The other students and I were unable to gain a solid foundation in Mandarin and it was demoralising when we couldn’t pronounce what was in the textbook.
No Speaking Practice
To add to that, I found it impossible to grasp the tones. Granted we chanted out phrases when we heard “Repeat after me” and every so often we were individually put on the spot to rehearse a phrase. I truly believe within a two-hour class I would speak for 10 minutes. That is not a sufficient amount of time and consistency for a Westerner to learn Mandarin.
I’m not a complete group class hater!
Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for group classes. It gave me a taste of Chinese culture and I fell in love with the language. It can allow you to meet likeminded people learning your target language. I also think it would be beneficial if you drilled down into a specific area/skill. For example I really want to go on an intensive Mandarin writing course to get a grasp of Chinese characters.
I had to find an alternative
I came to the realisation that the only way that I am going to learn Mandarin is one-to-one tuition. So, I found a local tutor. We negotiated the price per hour which was £30 and I would have to travel to their house. I couldn’t help thinking “It may take thousands of hours to learn Mandarin, one hour a week is going to cost me a fortune and I may never become conversational in Mandarin”. I had to find another way and did! I am going to share with you the cornerstone to my language learning strategy; please let me introduce Italki.
What is Italki?
Italki is a website that connects native tutors with language learners. Italki at its roots is about people, interaction and connection. Which is ironically missing from most language services or education. And although this blog focuses on Mandarin, Italki has thousands of tutors for almost every widespread language.
Why I used Italki rather than traditional face to face tuition
The simple answer is quality, convenience and price. Instead of traipsing across London once a week, after work, when I’m tired, going to a class I can barely afford. I can roll out of bed, make a cup of tea, plonk myself on the sofa and start talking to my tutor through my laptop (predominantly through Skype). It’s effortless, a fraction of the cost and I feel like I’m in a Sci-Fi film. I know that may sound odd but every morning I get to speak to someone from the other side of the world. In China. A place I’ve always wanted to visit, a beautiful culture that has incredible history and has a fascinating language. Every lesson I feel so lucky, privileged and honoured to have a glimpse into that world.
What is the difference between Professional Teachers, Community Teachers and language partners
Italki has two categories of teachers. They are Professional and Community. Professional teachers must submit their teaching qualifications to Italki to meet the requirements of the professional category. The standard is incredibly high. Many of the teachers have a degree in teaching the target language as a foreign language. Community teachers are (as a minimum) native or C2 in the languages they teach. Therefore, Professional teachers are able to ask for a higher rate than community teachers… usually.
Now I have to admit I have not used the language partner service and there are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, in general it takes numerous hours for an English native speaker to grasp basic conversations in Mandarin. I wasn’t convinced that the time invested into talking with a language partner would be the most effective plan. No matter the language partner’s native language, I couldn’t teach them how to speak English. So how could I expect someone who is learning English, to teach Mandarin effectively to me. Also, every hour would need to be split evenly between the language partners. In the future, I would love to talk with many language partners when my Mandarin is better and I can confidently give advice about their English.
So I needed to be a little bit selfish and focus on my own progression. But I could afford to be. When I started looking for teachers I was shocked how reasonable the lessons were. I started to feel guilty about how low the rates were. Teachers in London without degrees were charging £30 to £50 and professionals from China on Italki were charging as little as $10 to $20 USD (community teachers often charge much less). However, after a bit of research I realised that in certain parts of China the cost of living is low and the strong exchange rate of USD/GBP into Chinese Yuan enables me to buy many lessons. So I hope it’s true that both parties benefit, learners from places like the UK/USA get value for money and Chinese teachers get a comparably high rate.
If you would like to try Italki out please click this link and sign up: http://promos.italki.com/myputonghua/. Now for a disclaimer, half way through writing this article I became an affiliate of Italki. So, I will get a small commission (from Italki at no expense to you) if you start taking lessons. I will only vouch for products or services I truly believe will enhance your learning experience and I personally tested. Over the past three months I have tallied up 100+ hours on Italki and I must pay too. In the next section of this blog post I will walk you through the dos and don’ts. I’ll point out the great features of Italki and those that need improving.
Let’s Get Started but don’t do what I did
I had decided that I was going to learn Mandarin (big tick). To achieve this goal, I would have to be consistent, maintain good habits and go fourth with massive commitment (bravo). So, I took out a credit card and deposited lots of money onto the platform, just after Brexit so the pound had slumped (not so good). Then I thought it would be great to book multiple teachers without trial lessons, for multiple teaching styles, lots of revision, different accents and personalities. For a minimum of two hours a day.
My aim was to have one professional teacher and then I could practice what I had learnt with many community teachers. I ended up exhausted, learning multiple different topics at the same time. And just like real life there were some teachers were we naturally clicked and others where we just didn’t. So I want you to have the same enthusiasm I had but have a smarter approach.
Now let’s find the perfect teacher for you
When looking for a teacher there are plenty of search options:
- What language he or she teaches
- Availability (includes “Instant Tutoring” – teachers who are available right now!)
- What other languages the teacher speaks
- Where the teacher is from
- Price or Hourly Rate
- Tags or “Teaching Specialties”, these are teachers who want to teach lessons for:
- Test Preparation
When searching for a Mandarin teacher I suggest searching from ‘China’ and on the more tab click ‘Native’. Without these search parameters teachers that do not live in China, that may not be a Chinese native. And, depending on the teacher’s living cost, can be more expensive. Nevertheless, you may be restricted by your time zone. I currently get up at around 5am to 7am to attend my language classes with my tutors from Beijing. If that’s not for you, you may have to choose a teacher from another country for an evening class. But my top tip would be to commit to a morning class. The main reason is: your evening plans always change (e.g. another Fast and Furious came out at the movies, a childhood friend is in town for the weekend). I’ve seen people stop using Italki because they kept cancelling their classes – I don’t want this to be you.
Then fill out the hourly rate that you are willing to pay and make sure you include the tags that are relevant like ‘beginner’. Now it’s up to you if you select a professional or community teacher. My personal preference is one professional teacher (for 3 to 4 hours a week) and one community teacher (for an hour a week).
Reviewing Teacher profiles:
Once you’ve typed in your search parameters you can start browsing through the teachers profiles. I look at the price, qualifications and only teachers with a rating that is very close to 5/5 stars. You may think I am being a bit harsh filtering out any teachers that don’t have 5/5 stars but I’ll explain why in a second.
Once you find a teacher that looks like they suite your requirements do the following checks:
- Teachers Schedule: First thing to do is check their schedule. There is no point proceeding further if their availability doesn’t match your needs. Click ‘View Schedule’ and a handy scheduling system pops up that is set to your timezone. Green equals available, greyed out equals booked out and white is unavailable. Check a couple of weeks ahead to make sure their availability is consistent.
- Watch the teacher’s introduction video: This is where you can get a feel for whether you would enjoy the teacher’s style and their passion for teaching the language. Do not base your judgement on their ability to speak English. I have a friend that was looking for an Italian tutor she said “This teacher’s English is really good I think I’ll go for her”. This can be detrimental. I’ve had a teacher before that was native in English and Mandarin. We would talk about Chinese culture but in English. In a class switching back and forth in both languages feels like switching from sixth gear and back to first gear every time you change.
- Qualifications: I rarely think grades are everything but it does provide an indication to the quality of the teacher. Getting one-to-one tuition from someone who has a master’s in teaching Mandarin as a second language is special. However, many Italki teachers speak multiple languages, they may have a degree/ qualification in teaching a different language to your target language. I would not rule these teachers out. For example you may have a Native Chinese teacher that has qualifications for Japanese. I’ve found that these teachers are patient and empathetic to language learners. Because they usually acquired their qualifications for another language as an adult, they’ve been through the language learning struggle too!
- Trail lessons: I can’t stress this enough. Have a trail lesson. Get a feel for the teacher’s style. Some teacher’s can be strict, some can be laid back. Some maybe adamant that you complete homework before the next class, some may use visual aids, some use white boards… you get the point. Everyone is different. Find someone that matches your style and perhaps someone you feel comfortable chatting to for a long time. Have a trail lesson before you commit to many lessons with one teacher… nothing worse than multiple lessons full of awkward silences.
- MOST IMPORTANT- Feedback: This is accidently a misleading area within Italki. Look at most of the teachers, most of them have 5-star rating…. hmmm curious. Now I don’t know any education centre or school where all the teachers are loved by all the students. Call me cynical. I think the feedback system is slightly flawed and I’ll explain why. All feedback (student to the teacher and vice versa) is public and I believe this skews honest feedback. I’ll give you an example of my own experience, I had booked a package of 10 lessons and I was currently on the fifth lesson. The teacher had 5/5 star rating but I truly felt that I had to give constructive criticism for the lesson I just had. That would mean leaving a 3/5 star rating (smudging her perfect record) and leaving a public comment from me, that would go to the top of her feedback record. I now have to balance being honest to the teacher and other students, whilst having the added pressure of thinking this may affect the teachers livelihood then to top it all off I need to sit and face this teacher for five hours more. I think you would agree, most people would just put 5 star rating and muscle through the remaining lessons. Using the current system, it is important to look at the qualitative feedback at the bottom of the teacher’s profile. I look for long term students that leave consistent positive feedback:
- Save Money through Packages: Learning a language can be a big financial commitment. However, if your smart about it and shop around there are some great deals. On Italki, teachers can reward you for your loyalty with package discounts. Check out the teacher’s packages and see what they are offering. I have found that community teachers give the best discounts (but remember sometimes you get what you pay for).
Areas where I think Italki can Improve:
- 24 hours cancellation: Sometimes life just gets in the way. Illness, interviews or impromptu visits from the in-laws. And if you have been learning for a while hopefully you will build up a rapport with your teacher. They will understand if you have to cancel last minute… as long as you don’t do it every week. Unfortunately, Italki does not allow you to cancel the class immediately. You must wait until the class has passed then redeem you class credit. But the only person this hurts is the teacher, they have a cancelled class that cannot be moved to allow another student to book a class. I believe the teacher should be allowed to accept the cancelation before the lesson starts, perhaps even charge a late cancelation fee if the student keeps dropping out a lot.
- Moving Classes around: If you’re like me and you book a lot of classes in advance (I like to bagsy a certain time, on specific days), if you need to move them it can be tedious. Every class has to be moved to a different time/ day, I think it would be better if the class could just be returned back to your package.
- Incredible team: Italki’s team and culture is nothing but inspiring. The company hires the most passionate language learners. And whenever I have had an issue their customer service team are best! If you have any issues, give them a shout, they’re lovely.
We are in this together!
I absolutely love this company, it is the foundation of my language learning strategy. If you fancy giving Italki a go please click this link: http://promos.italki.com/myputonghua/. Through my link Italki will send you a voucher for $10 USD in italki Credits when you make your first purchase! (Offer only available for new italki users). Please let me know how you get on and let me know if I missed anything important, or tips you think your fellow language learners will benefit from. Enjoy!
Disclosure: Please note that this blog has affiliate links. Which mean that – at zero cost to you – I might earn a commission if you buy something through this affiliate link. That said, I would never recommend anything I don’t personally use and find to be a valuable asset to language learning.