Teaching a language is people helping people talk to other people.
Derek DeWitt, Akcent IH Prague, Czech Republic
This article was born from a simple idea to keep track on the impressive geography of my online language teachers on italki website. I enjoy learning languages, not just teaching them. Getting access to native speakers and great professionals online have brought a lot of value to my learning.
When I registered at italki.com in 2009, I was delighted with the opportunities it gave me. I could easily book a lesson with a person from the other continent! I remember I started with practising Spanish with a teacher in Peru. The whole experience was insane! I wouldn’t have been able to meet this person otherwise.
I hope you know this platform for finding language teachers online. If not, check them out. There are, of course, alternatives, and they are probably good. But 6 years ago, when I just started, they provided a great choice of teachers from different countries all over the world. And they have never disappointed me.
This is not a promotional article for italki.com, but a real, positive experience of using the platform.
Since that time, I have had over 100 lessons in 6 different languages. The whole experience has changed me a lot as a person and as a professional. And I have taught 805 lessons with the platform myself.
I like the platform for the variety of people you can meet both as a student and a teacher. When I visited my Spanish teacher in Sweden 3 years ago, it changed my view of the whole learning process. It became real and even more inspiring!
Keeping that in mind, I contacted some of my favourite teachers to learn more about their experience of online teaching. I wanted to give them a voice, a chance to share at least some of the stories they have collected from working online. We talked a lot about the nature of online classes and benefits they bring to language learning. Some of the ideas are useful for both new teachers and potential students.
First, I talked to Ana (Spanish teacher) who comes from Argentina and currently lives in Sweden, as I mentioned before.
How do you see your experience with online teaching now?
Working online, of course, has lots of benefits. In my case, it worked well when I was moving from Argentina to Sweden. I travelled a lot between the continents, and it was a perfect job because it suited my lifestyle at the time.
We have this wonderful story of me visiting you in Stockholm after studying together for a year or so. For me, it was one of the most powerful cultural experiences of my whole life. I saw a new place, met a person I only know through Skype and practised a language I was learning. And it turned out right. I was not a stranger, I had a friend. And this whole experience persuaded me that online learning was a real thing. Will you agree?
I once met a student who had a similar lifestyle with me. He was from the UK, but, due to his job, he was living between the UK, Brasil, and Argentina. We switched to offline lessons in Argentina. And then, we went to go dance tango together; we experienced the culture and the language together. And I thought that was amazing because someone from the UK wouldn’t have a chance to actually go so deep into the target culture.
This is interesting what you are telling about the immersion into the culture. Do you think it is an important part of learning?
Many students don’t see this as a potential but it depends on the type of the relationship you build with a teacher. I mean, it’s not just looking at the screen, there is a person behind.
From my point of view, becoming fluent in a language is impossible without immersion into the culture. And THAT is impossible without establishing a personal connection with a teacher. This experience will later help you in communication with native speakers.
I agree with you absolutely. Also, I have been teaching a Scottish guy for over 7 years or even more. We met with his wife, and I teach his kids sometimes. I feel like I am teaching the whole family, and it’s such a close connection that we have. We never met, but we have stayed in touch for a long time, and you could call it friendship.
Online, you can meet all sorts of people.
And where were your students from?
I had two students from China, one from Australia, two students from Russia. I had a student from Poland, two students from Germany, some from France and Italy. The majority of them were from the UK and the US. I was also teaching Spanish to Brazilians in Brazil, and also English to Mexicans.
One of the most interesting ones was a Chinese guy. He was a university student, so he had lessons in the evening. You would see his room and how crowded it was – there were like 4 people in a tiny room. He would walk around the university, he would show me all the floors, and people would be studying although it was 11pm. And then, at midnight, they turned off the lights, so it all went dark. So, he said: ‘Oh, I have to go because they turned the lights off, so I need to go to sleep’. It was fascinating to see how different the world is, and how, despite that, there are things that unite us and get us connected.
You have given me so much. Thank you for all this experience.
My Polish teacher Adrianna, who currently lives in the US, told me an incredible story about how her life turned upside down thanks to her teaching online.
You have been with italki for a long time. What has it been like?
I have been with them from almost the very beginning (I taught over 1000 lessons in 6 years). I remember when there were 3 or 4 workers only, but now they are a corporation.
For the major part of my career, I was a student, and it was a good career start. I think it is possible to make it your full-time career, but I think you need to be dedicated to know what you are doing. This job is rewarding, but it’s also hard at times because you could feel isolated.
Still, it’s great to meet people online, isn’t it? I only use it for teaching, but I know they have a language exchange option.
My husband uses it. He speaks once or twice a week with a guy from Poland, and it has been working well for him. However, it can only work if you know enough of the language to communicate with each other. It has to be a real exchange – you speak 15 minutes in Polish, and 15 minutes in English. But it has to be equal, otherwise, one part will be always dissatisfied. But I think it works well. It’s a good option.
Can you list me the countries where your students came from?
Russia, many Ukrainians, British, and Americans – they are the majority. Plus people from everywhere else, from all around Europe: Germany, France, Spain and other. I had a Japanese student for a long time. And you meet awesome people. You can always learn something about them and their culture. I had one guy from Macau. I met everybody from the strangest places on the planet. And it’s great because they are interested in Polish culture, but I am also interested in their culture. I always asked them to make presentations for me about their home country. But I also think that this is something they might actually need to speak about. I don’t want to only discuss Polish culture because, of course, you need some balance. So, with some, I became friends.
I have also had – and it’s very precious to me – senior students. They treated me like their daughter, and they were so happy that they could learn something new, and I was so patient, and I never gave up on them. I think for seniors it is often a problem, because people don’t treat them seriously.
This experience gave me a lot because I got to work with people in the huge age range, from people being 20 years old to 85. It helps me a lot now in my current career.
Even though the medical field I am now in is totally different, but my interpersonal and intercultural skills came from my teaching. I get many compliments on that, here in the US – that I am a foreigner, but I can still communicate with many cultures much better than Americans can. [bctt tweet=”I learnt all this through teaching because I was always a shy person, and now I think I am not that shy.” username=”StordarLearn”]
And also I met my husband through my online teaching! He was my student at first, but then we caught up in Europe, and then it grew into something bigger. Nobody believes that this story is real. People think that we met on a dating website – no, it was just a language learning website.
Next, I talked to Carina (German teacher) from Austria.
We haven’t worked with her as a teacher and a student, but I like materials she posts on her Facebook page. I also like her approach to teaching, and I now a reliable German teacher if I ever need one. 🙂
First of all, you are a teacher with italki now. Can you please tell us about your career history.
About 10 years ago, I started university and I started my Bachelor’s degree. At the end of the course, though, I wasn’t happy with my future prospects. I had some experience with tutoring by then and it was a lot of fun. So, I thought, I could start as a teacher, and I went back to university. Now I am a still a part-time student and part-time online teacher. That’s the thing I want to do with my life, it really makes me happy. You also get a lot of energy from your students and I am really happy with my life right now.
How long have you been on italki?
A bit over 2 years.
What do you think about online teaching? Does it have advantages, from your point of view?
Of course, everything has positive and negative sides, but what I like about online teaching is that it saves time. You don’t have to travel to your students. That’s convenient. But also I feel more energetic when teaching from home, in comfortable atmosphere, not restricted by business style of clothes, for example.
Where do people come from among your students?
I would say I have students from all over the world. There are, of course, some countries which appear more on my student list. For example, I have a lot of students from Egypt, especially, Cairo.
Interesting. I wouldn’t expect that.
Or also from the US. In the last year and a half, I had a lot of students from Spain who moved to Switzerland, Germany, Austria or maybe also France. A lot of Spanish and English speakers. I have had a few Russians, but not a lot of them.
Is teaching culture involved in your teaching?
Of course. For example, I once met one of my first students here in Austria. He is from Egypt, from Cairo. He was making a tour around Europe, and he came to Austria. And we met in Gratz, and I showed him the city a bit, and he also wanted to visit a doctor. And we went to the doctor together. I was his translator and helped him with the questions. I think it’s important to have a real-life experience when learning a language. And I was happy to help.
And he is still my student, after 2 years.
This is also crucial to mention. Many people think online learning is not serious. You make a couple of random calls, and that’s it. But it is not true. Because most of students, if you have a good connection, they stay for at least a year or maybe even longer.
Yes, it is true.
And also. It is not only about students, but more. I also connected with one teacher. She teaches Italian, and she wanted to apply for a job in the southern part of Austria where I am from. We have a strong dialect here. And she wanted to improve her listening skills for this specific dialect. First, I helped her, then she helped me, and we stayed in touch. We had an opportunity to talk about our experience, which is often a missing part in your italki career. Sometimes we are like lone wolves. For me, it was also valuable because she was also interested in my dialect. A lot of speakers are not aware that we, Austrians, have a strong dialect, or some people think we don’t speak German at all.
This is again about the culture awareness. And you can’t miss this part in learning. I believe, a lot of communication problems come not from technical difficulties but the poor knowledge of cultural context. Thank you for mentioning this.
And now I will tell you about Christelle (French teacher)
She comes from France and currently lives in La Reunion. She was my first ‘exotic’ experience, and it was also so inspiring! Every time I imagine this point on the map, I feel excited. Another amazing cultural experience!
How long have you been teaching online?
Online, two years.
Is it your full-time job?
And she does work a lot. Since 2015, Christelle has taught almost 2500 lessons!
Do you think it’s a good way to learn and to teach?
First, I think it’s a good way to learn because we are face-to-face. The students are serious about learning so I can see them progress. I have had some regular students for 2 years, and some students make remarkable progress. Part of them prepare for exams and succeed in them, so it’s good proof for me.
For me, teaching online is also good because I stay at home, and I can organise my family life. Also, I like to be in my house and work. It’s a good thing for me. It depends on the people. For me, it’s a good way to teach.
You said that the students are serious. I remember when I started teaching online, I thought that it would be difficult to discipline them. But I was surprised because, from the very first month, I got regular students who had long-term commitments with me. And sometimes I even think that online teaching is more effective. What do you think?
In my case, for the French, they are very serious: they prepare for the sessions, they do care about their result, and they do a lot for their own progress.
When I found you, it was a huge inspiration for me. The fact that you live so far away from Europe. I think teaching online is wonderful because you meet people from different countries.
Yes, sure. Yeah, my students come from the United States, from Poland, from Russia (a lot of Russians), from Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan – all over of the world.
Last year I met one student – I was in France, and I met her in Provence, and it was wonderful to meet, to cross the screen of the computer and to get together. It was a good experience.
What are you working on at the moment?
And I have a new project – it’s immersion with a French family here in my home, in La Reunion. One student is coming in March, and I have another one who is interested in coming. So, people can enjoy our place, the nature, the beach, the forest, and a lot of activities, including speaking French. In the evening, we will make a resume of the day in a form of a little class. Then, we will cook together. One of my students gave me an idea, and I decided to do it.
Also, I organise monthly Cafe Francais meetings. We talk on Skype with a group of Advanced students. It is one more opportunity for people to practise.
I saw the list of students, and I hope to join the next Cafe Francais. The list of locations is impressive: Russia, Canada, Poland (me), the UK, the US, New Zealand. A way to go! I am thrilled about this opportunity!
Christelle is working on her teaching website, and I wish her good luck – she is a great teacher!
To summarise, I think being a student has helped me to learn a lot from my teachers and transformed me as a person. And I became a better teacher adding techniques of online instruction to my professional portfolio. My own student geography is also varied: China, Japan, the US, Egypt, Poland, Czech Republic, Belarus, Mexico, Argentina, and others. Multicultural environment (even virtual) and multicultural dialogue helps the world become a better place. It increases cultural awareness and tolerance. We all need it these days, don’t we?
And yes, we most of us work long hours, and yes, we often get frustrated and tired. But the whole experience brings us new wisdom and an opportunity to share everything we know to a wider audience.
I hope these experiences were inspiring for you, and we were able to answer many questions about online learning.