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Monday, September 29, 2014

Online Language Learning with Teachers
Free Conversation Exchanges in English & Other Languages

I - Online Teachers at a (Sweet) Price
II - Free Conversation Exchange Services as of September 30, 2014


The first part of this post will be of interest to online language teachers, and also to learners who can afford to pay online teachers.

The second part is meant to be helpful to English language learners who are looking for
live conversations for free with fluent or native speakers of English, especially for those learners who can't afford online lessons or who want additional practice. This becomes possible thanks to the notion of conversation exchanges.


1 - Online Teachers at a (Sweet) Price
There are already tens of  thousands of online teachers and online teaching companies / organizations, and many more are created daily. And it's just the beginning. Someone will probably provide us with such a directory since the demand exists amongst English Language Learners. 

In this section, I'd simply like to present one successful group of online teachers, called  E-Learning for All, an American organization of online language teachers. And when I write "American", I am speaking in the global sense of the term as used in Latin America, encompassing both North and South America.

The site was created by Luisa Oliveira. She keeps things loosely but intelligently organized and also teaches. The
group presently includes 17 teachers of English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, French, and German.

Many of the English teachers presently live in Argentina, as well as in Portugal, Brazil, and the US. Approximately half of them either still live in the US, were born and raised in the US before moving to South America, or spent at least a year there. In other words, Luisa does not require that all the English teachers in her group be native speakers, which in my mind, makes quite a bit of sense in her context.

Let's digress slightly to put the "native speaker" question in proper context (while I admit that all the teachers in my own brick-and-mortar
language school in France are all native speakers, teaching only their mother tongues, even in 2007 before the crash, when there were 32 full-time teachers).

Online English Teachers at E-Learning for All
The problem is that a lot of people seem to think that only native speakers can teach well. This is false. Rather, having a native speaker as teacher is a sort of a cultural bonus for the students, especially the more advanced ones.

My experience as director of a language school for French adults have (from 1976 to the present) has taught me that the following skills are the most important when hiring a new teacher, in the order listed, from most to least important:
1 - The ability to put students at ease,
2 - Planning one's lessons and mastering essential teaching techniques,
3 - Being a native speaker of the language taught,

4 - Obtaining specific certificates, or diplomas for language teaching.

Note that I mentioned that Luisa keeps the school
loosely organized. One example concerns pricing. Each teacher is an independent player, deciding on the prices he or she has decided to charge, providing prospective students with transparent choices in this regard. The only disadvantage in my opinion is that the teachers post in different currencies, making it difficult to compare one teacher's prices with another. I had to spend an inordinate amount of time on converting Argentine pesos, for example, to the Brazilian Real in order to make comparisons. Some teachers post in US dollars, and one wishes they all did.

One constant, however, is that all teachers give prices for the same amounts of time/duration. Choose a teacher here to see concrete examples of the following:
- 5 classes of 30 minutes each for total price "A"

- 10 classes of 30 minutes each
for total price "B"
- 5 classes of 1 hour each
for total price "C"
- 10 classes of 1 hour each  for total price "D"

The prices are reasonable
, or very reasonable, especially when compared to prices
charged in the US and Britain, for example. VERY generally speaking, and after comparing five colleagues chosen  randomly, the average of the averages came to approx. USD $21/hour.

The first class is free, which is the case with most, but not all online teaching sites/organizations. I noticed that there is a multiple choice test to help the teacher determine the student's level. In my experience, both written and oral tests are very important, allowing the teacher to properly prepare the student's first few lessons. In the case of my own school, the teachers know ahead of time if the student is going to be taking courses with us for 40 or 80 hours or longer, justifying not only complete entry tests, but regular progress tests too. But in this case of online learning where 10 hours seems to be a relatively long time, I am left wondering how this question of organization works out in practice.

few days ago, Luisa gave me a great Skype lesson in beginner Portuguese, and then we had a general conversation. I'm really sorry that I didn't think of recording our Skype lesson, she was so dynamic and at the same time made me relax, and I would have loved to show you how she deals with real beginners in Portuguese. And by recording her, I would have had thousands of great photos of her, instead of the photo she uses on her site which doesn't do her justice at all!

Portuguese lesson reminded me that every language teacher in the world should take a course in a language he or she doesn't know at all, in order to reopen his or her eyes to the challenges of being a student. On the other hand, it could be that my reaction to being on the other side of the fence is somewhat unique, since I am truly very average or perhaps less talented than the average language learner. I can only say that it has always been a sort of humbling experience, and a great eye-opener to be a student again. Every language teacher should be a student from time to time!

When I asked Luisa about the very reasonable prices, she reminded me that prospective students simply could not pay as much as they did in other, more economically developed countries. We also spoke about the advantage of being a native speaker of the language being taught, while she also pointed out to me the advantages of teaching English to fellow Brazilians, since one can anticipate problems in English specific to those who speak Portuguese. This made sense to me since I speak French fluently and have always taught French people. And we agreed that the point was to take advantage of this linguistic and cultural background and knowledge, but avoiding speaking anything but English during an English course!

Skype and Google Hangouts / One-on-One vs Mini-Groups

Skype  is often used for one-on-one courses while Google Hangout seems to be the preferred platform for group courses, which, so far, are extremely rare in comparison to the private courses. It's all a question of money of course. If a teacher has 2 students in the same class instead of one, both students contribute to the total amount earned by the teacher. Each student will be happy to pay less, and the teacher will be happy to earn a bit more. The key here is homogeneity. Whether the 2 students  are friends or strangers, they must be at the same level. Given my own experience, and on a scale of 1 - 100, there must not be more than 4 to 5 points difference in the written/oral test results in order for a group course to be successful. 

Finally, in order to be able to organize mini-groups of 2 or 3 students, the online organization needs a certain level of traffic, i.e., a pool of tested candidates who are willing to work together. Few of the online language schools are large enough to offer quality courses for truly homogeneous groups. Perhaps E-Learning for All will be one of the first in South America.

In my next articles on online teaching, I will speak about new online teacher training services such as the Teach English Online Course by Jack Askew, another sign that the market is entering maturity.

I also want to say a few words about Holly Dilatush who has created an online teaching site called LEWWWP - "Learn English with a WorldWide Perspective". This will hopefully be done soon, perhaps in a comparative review with others having the same or similar services, based in North America the next time around.

For the moment I want to finish with the second part of this post, hopefully giving hope to students who can't afford online teachers, no matter how reasonable in price:
 2 - Free Services as of October 2014
I have done a bit of research with help from my colleagues in the Webhead Community in order to try to make a complete beta list of resources dealing with the two ways of learning a second (or 3rd...) language. The free services all follow the same model. Upon signing up, you tell the community about your native language(s) as well as other the language(s) which you think you know well enough to "teach", and, of course, the language(s) that you want to learn.

The verb "teach" is in quotes because these sites do not pretend nor purport to teach languages per se. Their mission is to put people in contact with each other for conversational practice in the languages of their choosing.

The main reason that these services are free, is that there is no quality control, in fact there isn't any control at all concerning who can join nor the actual ability of a member to correctly converse in his chosen language. But it is free and many users are happy with their experiences. 

I am not reviewing any of these sites yet, but I have signed up with 5 of them so far, for general confirmation of my remarks in this post, and with hopes of becoming a more active member:

- Easy Language Exchange -   
- Language Exchange Community -
- Shared Talk, a service acquired by Rosetta Stone -
- The Mixxer -  
- Coeffee learning -

- Lingo Globe -
- Verbling includes a free (exchange) section-
- Babel Village - 
- Conversation Exchange
- Polyglot Club -
- HelloTalk - for mobile devices -
- Busuu  includes a free exchange section

- I would have included Livemocha, the largest or certainly one of the largest sites listed here, but it must be included with the paid services since their free audio exchanges between
"Language Partners" is available only for those who pay for their other services.

- My Language Exchange -  - This seems to be the only site in this list which includes an additional paid service for basic exchange functions such as initiating a conversation. If someone has the means to make a payment it would make more sense to me  for a real live teacher, I don't understand why anyone would pay for such a basic exchange-level service.

PalTalk -  is relevant but quite different. It's a Voice/Video Messenger Tool which includes chat rooms for learning languages, but was not specifically designed for learning languages.

italki -  is one of the larger and has a 3-tier organization which makes a lot of sense. It involves 2 options that you must pay for, i.e.,  lessons from professional teachers, practice with language enthusiasts (less expensive than the 1st option) and a free language exchange similar to all the services listed above. This service is based in Shanghai.

Transparency Statement: If you're like me, you are wary of many reviews you read regardless of the subject matter. So many apparently "objective articles" are skillfully written by affiliates or advertisers, and even include some negative remarks about the product or service being promoted in order to help give the appearance of objectivity and authenticity.

In my case, I have said a lot of positive things about Luisa and the community she has created
, but all of my remarks are based on personal experience with the site, the person, the teaching, and my honest interpretation of the facts and opinions.

I certainly will not hide the fact that I hope the new generation of online teachers will use my collection of Real English® video and exercises in their online courses the same way that the previous generation has used Real English in the classroom for the past 20 years or so. There are regular updates, with as many videos and lessons from the 90s as from the last 5 or 6 years.And since online teachers are already online (!), it becomes extremely easy to use this resource with students.

I think the best recipe is for teachers to use their own ideas with the main videos, and to assign the existing exercises-with-very-short-videos as homework, since they are indeed easy and fun for students to use on their own. But it's the teacher's choice, of course. The Teacher can go through the exercises/short videos with the Students from the start. In this case, the busy teacher has a concise lesson plan ready to use!

Acknowledgements: The following members of the Webhead Community contributed to the list above concerning "Free Services as of October 2014":
- Teresa Almeida d'Eça, of Pronunciation Made Easy for Portuguese-speaking learners of English
- Anne Fox
- Fernanda Rodrigues
- Mary Ziller
- Elizabeth Anne
- Bob Clark


  1. Great post about teaching online! I'll definitely be saving this to reference in the future!

  2. Thanks to you...such a great post with all can also visit for more help on this.

  3. Hello Michael,
    Thanks for sharing this article! Lot of great websites!
    I think you have missed for language exchange though!
    It is a social network to learn languages by meeting and practicing with native speakers. The website is really nice and definitely deserve a spot in your list! :-)
    Hope it helps

  4. Indeed, learning new languages has becoming easier and cheaper.

    Jeff (website)

  5. Hi Michael,
    Interesting way to learn a language.
    You can also use for classes.

  6. Wonderful blog, Thanks admin for sharing this info with us. It’s very useful and helpful for anyone who is looking to improve their fluency in English. Thanks for sharing this info. Keep on updating.
    Spoken English Speaking | English speaking app