Disclosure: The iTalki links below are referral links. Should you sign up and purchase credits through this link, I will receive a small amount of credit to use toward my lessons, at no additional cost to you.
iTalki sessions have been an important part of my routine for some time now; I try to do them 1-2x a week. Nothing can replace direct conversation experience with someone listening patiently and gently correcting your mistakes. Once you get to know your tutor, it doesn't even feel like practice!
In this article I walk you through the steps of setting up and continuing with an iTalki schedule. To start out, though, let's discuss the types of lessons available on iTalki.
iTalki has three types of lessons available:
Professional lessons. These are lessons taught by a certified teacher. iTalki requires the instructor to upload credentials. These instructors typically have lesson plans and even lesson materials already prepared. Furthermore, they are used to teaching and understand grammar more thoroughly. For example, even though you speak English, you may not know all the parts of speech well. A teacher should know these.
Recommended for absolute beginners or those who need more structure.
Informal tutoring. These lessons are conducted with an ordinary person looking to make some extra cash and get to know new people. The lessons are usually unstructured, more revolving around topics of interest to you.
There is lots of good practice in here for normal conversation sentences, like "What did you do this weekend? What are you doing next weekend?" and so on.
More experienced tutors are adept at moving the conversation along, while newer tutors, I notice, can have more awkward silences.
Recommended for speakers who can formulate basic sentences at least, and those who do not mind unstructured conversation.
Language partners. These lessons are like informal tutoring, but in a more tit-for-tat fashion. Each session is split up into two parts: the first part in one speaker's native language, the other part in the other. For example, half an hour in Spanish then half an hour in English.
This means you will spend half the time as the instructor! Conversing with the person and gently correcting them.
This is not as appealing to many people, but the advantage is that it is free.
Recommended for those who would like to do informal tutoring but have a tighter budget.
Once you know what kind of session you want, how do you go about finding a teacher? Fortunately, iTalki makes it pretty simple. You simply select your native language and language-to-learn, and it presents you with a list of available tutors. A few things to note:
Be mindful of what part of the world your instructor is from, especially for Spanish. Don't use a person from Spain unless you want to learn Spain Spanish. Likewise, Argentinian Spanish is very different from Mexican Spanish. I don't just mean slang, but accents can vary largely.
Read reviews. I'll admit that they are largely useless, but you may be able to get a little insight into their personality and lesson structure.
Highly rated, experienced teachers can be expensive. You are paying for their experience to move a lesson along, their judgment of how often to correct vs. letting little mistakes slide, and so on.
Even so, an "expensive" teacher on iTalki is still far cheaper than one-on-one in-person lessons I looked at long ago.
Once you decide on a teacher / tutor, it's time for a lesson! Many offer a "sample session", usually half an hour where you can test out the person for a little less money. These are a great opportunity to talk to someone briefly before committing more of your time, but don't exclude good teachers just because they don't offer them.
After your session, you should have a good feel for how well you liked working with this person. After all, it will mostly come down to personal taste. A few things to watch for, though:
Do they over-correct? Some teachers feel they must correct every little mistake, where in practice this actually encourages students to overthink sentences rather than feel free to make mistakes.
Were they punctual? Sometimes problems do occur, but some tutors may regularly be late.
Did you enjoy the session? If you did not enjoy it, you are less likely to regularly schedule sessions.
Tutors can offer packages, a group of lessons usually offered at a discount. These can be a great way to both save a little money and signal to the instructor your committment to practicing with them.
Packages have an added bonus in that they "lock in" a lesson rate. As teachers get experience, they start increasing their price.
One thing to keep in mind. If you purchase a package, try to use the sessions in a reasonable amount of time. The instructors are not paid until you finish a session.
It is a good idea to pick regular times each week to have your iTalki sessions. Make it a habit. The more sessions you can fit in / afford, the quicker you will progress. Trust me, an hour of dedicated conversation is worth countless hours of Duolingo.
Don't get too hung up on the "perfect" teacher. Over your time practicing, you will probably go through many tutors. Some lose interest or get busy with their day job, others may raise their rates where it is not economical for you.
This isn't bad, though. You want to get exposure to as many accents and cultures as possible. I routinely have two tutors I use simultaneously.