Is it worth hiring a language tutor as a beginner?

I used to think that hiring a tutor as a total beginner was a waste of money, but now believe it can be helpful — if you find the right tutor

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I didn’t book my first lesson with an online tutor until about one and half years after starting to learn German. My lesson was my first conversation in German, but by that point I was already speaking at an intermediate level (about B1 for you CEFR people).

I used to think that it’d be a waste of time and money to hire a language tutor as a total beginner. For me, working with tutors was always about practicing speech — the only language skill I couldn’t learn alone. And why pay to talk to someone in your target language if you’re not ready to actually talk yet?

The few lessons I’ve taken in Spanish and Danish, two languages I’m not confident speaking in, didn’t convince me they were any more helpful than learning on my own. But recently, I started taking lessons in Italian, and working with my stellar Italian tutor completely changed my mind:

It can be worth it to work with a tutor as a total beginner —  if you find the right teacher.

Why wait to hire a tutor?

If you poll the language learning community, you’ll hear a range of opinions on whether tutors are worth it at the beginning (or at all). Waiting to start lessons worked well for me, and there certainly are good reasons to wait on hiring a language tutor until you reach an intermediate level.

First, informal conversation lessons are generally cheaper than lessons for beginners. It takes more work and time to design lessons suitable for true beginners in a new language. Starting at an intermediate level means that you can opt for less expensive, informal conversation-based classes.

Likewise, finding a tutor as a beginner can be more expensive. Community tutors — tutors who are not certified second-language teachers — on language tutoring marketplaces like iTalki often only offer informal conversation courses for intermediate and advanced students (some do teach beginners, though). Tutors who are confident guiding beginners from 0 to A1 are often certified teachers and therefore more expensive.

Many of the things you need to learn as a beginner are easy to teach yourself for free, anyways. You can save yourself a nice chunk of cash by teaching yourself the basics.

And finally — and perhaps most controversially — starting to speak too early might not be a great idea.

Maybe don’t “speak from day one”

The jury is still out on whether “speaking from day one” — an approach popularized among others by Irish polyglot Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months fame — is a good idea. I tend to think it isn’t, and that a silent period is important, for two reasons:

One, I don’t think struggling through formulaic beginner conversations is necessarily the best use of your time at the beginning. At the start, learning a few basic grammar rules and a core vocabulary of a few hundred words will rapidly increase your comprehension. If your foreign language has a script that you need to learn before you can read, learning that early is critical. I can’t imagine how spending a few hours struggling through basic conversations would be more useful than giving yourself the core toolkit you need for comprehension.

Second — and this is definitely controversial — I think that speaking early can actually hinder learning, specifically by allowing you to practice incorrect speech and pronunciation. When you speak, you become your own “input.” And if you speak incorrectly, you are feeding yourself incorrect input. A silent period protects your brain from incorrect input for a while and gives you time to get a feel for your target language before you start using it and almost inevitably imposing your native language’s patterns and rules on it.

Hiring a tutor too early might give you the chance to speak and make mistakes that will stick with you as you improve and become hard to un-learn.

However, I will caution here that a “silent period” in 2nd language acquisition by children isn’t even settled in the research yet, let alone in language-learning adults (Roberts 2014). Lots of polyglots swear by the speak-from-day-one approach, lots don’t. Do what feels right for you.

Hiring a tutor as a beginner can be very helpful — if you find the right tutor

All that being said, I recently had an amazing experience with an Italian tutor that changed my mind about starting lessons as a beginner. I now believe that a tutor can be worth it from day one… but only if they’re the right tutor.

Informal conversation practice isn’t enough

Many tutors on sites like iTalki offer mostly informal conversation practice. This is fantastic, since it makes speaking practice available at a more accessible price, but it isn’t ideal for beginners who can’t hold conversations yet (see reasons above).

The right tutor for a beginner offers more than informal conversation practice. They need to — a true beginner can’t hold a conversation in their target language for 30 minutes or an hour.

What a good tutor can do for beginners

For me, a tutor is only “worth it” if working with them gives me something helpful I couldn’t get on my own.

At the intermediate level, that is speaking practice. At the beginner level, a skilled tutor can provide custom-tailored comprehensible input that teaches the things most relevant to you. They offer a window on the culture associated with your target language. And they can also do wonders for motivation.

My Italian tutor clearly plans our lessons around vocabulary that she anticipates will be relevant to me based on my iTalki profile and on what she learns about me during lessons. She modifies her speech so that I can understand it and so that it models the most common patterns I need to understand and communicate basic ideas in Italian. She recommends level-appropriate content in Italian for me to enjoy between lessons, and shares Italian culture with me as part of the lesson. She takes time to explain her approach and what she thinks I need to work on, which makes it easier for me to see the value her lessons bring me and understand if I’m making more progress with her than I would alone.

Here are some things a great language tutor can do for a beginner:

  • Modify their speech so that it serves as a kind of dynamic, totally customized comprehensible input perfect for your level
  • Model the correct use of forms you need to learn during conversation
  • Recommend level-appropriate content for comprehensible input
  • Customize the lesson material to expose you to the words most relevant to you and your life first
  • Help you understand your level and your weak points
  • Be a source of accountability that keeps you consistent
  • Motivate you and inspire your interest in the language

How to find the “right” tutor as a beginner

If you decide that you’d like to work with a tutor as a beginner, here are a few tips for finding one who will be a good fit.

Look for someone who will show up with a lesson planned

As a beginner, holding your own in a conversation lesson is a challenge… a challenge I’m not totally convinced is worth at all. I know people do it, but I can think of many better things to do with 30 minutes to an hour as a beginner (learning core vocabulary, bare bones grammar, and scripts) than struggling through formulaic beginner dialogues. A tutor with a plan, however, can really make the best use of your time.

Keep an eye out for tutors who use materials like images, slides, documents, videos, discussion prompts, etc. to structure lessons and who obviously have a plan for what to do with your time together. You should feel like you’re making more progress with your tutor than you would alone, and never have to struggle to come up with something to talk about or focus on during lessons yourself.

Message your tutor first to introduce yourself and ask if they take beginners

This seems obvious, but it’s been helpful for me in the past. If a tutor’s profile or pricing intrigues you but you’re not sure if they take beginners, it’s always a good idea to ask. Providing a bit of information about yourself helps tutors customize lessons for you, too.

Take advantage of trial lesson prices and shop around

When you hire a tutor, you are not signing a blood contract binding you together forever. You’re free to move on and find someone else, or simply to shop around a bit before choosing one or two people to work with more consistently.

Trial lessons are often cheaper than standard lessons and they’re a good chance to get to know tutors. Take advantage of them, and keep an eye out for signs that your teacher knows what they’re doing with beginners:

  • Has a lesson plan prepared before you show up
  • Uses materials like slideshows and documents to aide learning
  • Gives you individual feedback, esp. written down for later reference
  • Customizes lessons so you learn the words you actually need first
  • Simplifies their speech to provide you with comprehensible input
  • Helps you find media in the language that you’re interested in
  • Excites you about learning the language
  • “Feels” correct — a good fit is sometimes a gut feeling

Consider hiring a certified teacher

There are certainly amazing community tutors out there who do great work with beginners. But if you want a safe bet that someone has experience working with beginners and can offer more than casual conversation, consider working with a certified teacher at the beginning. My current Italian tutor on iTalki is a certified teacher and she’s fantastic.

If certified teachers are too expensive for you long-term, booking lessons for your first month or two and then switching to a community tutor for conversation lessons could be a good compromise.

The bottom line: beginners should wait on casual conversation lessons, but can benefit from good tutors

If you’re a beginner to your target language, I recommend that you wait on casual conversation lessons until you can actually hold a casual conversation — imperfectly, of course, but at least mostly without defaulting to your native language.

But finding the right tutor early on can be helpful. A good tutor can provide you with targeted comprehensible input — including their speech — that’s appropriate for your level. They can customize lessons to you, your needs, and your interests so that you learn what you specifically need first and skip things that you don’t need as often in the beginning. A good tutor can also add a source of accountability to your learning and inspire your love for the language — something that will help you learn more between your lessons no matter what you focus on together with your tutor.

Just make sure you shop around to find the right tutor for you.