A few months ago I decided to commit myself to a long-time goal of learning a second language. For many reasons, I settled on learning Spanish, and (after some trial and error) decided to use live one-on-one tutors on Preply. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, I have been a volunteer English teacher for about seven years, and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have started thinking about increasing my volunteer work in areas that help people, particularly immigrants, and am even considering an eventual career change. Since Spanish is the second most common language in the United States, it was the obvious choice.
Like many people, I also want to learn Spanish quickly and efficiently. I already know what did not work, as this is not my first time attempting to learn another language. Between high school and college, I studied French for six years, and at the end I neither spoke nor understood French. From that, I know that a typical classroom + text book format doesn’t work for me. Coupling this knowledge with the influence of years of advertising, I bought a lifetime subscription to Rosetta Stone and got to work. For several weeks I hit little pictures on my phone in response to Spanish sentences. I learned a little and am still using it as an additional resource. But I soon began wondering if I would actually achieve Spanish proficiency using just the app. As I should have done before I purchased it, I googled it and the answer was . . . nope. It helps, certainly, but you must interact with other humans in Spanish to train your brain to respond and communicate.
But armed with that knowledge, I still delayed making the jump to a live teacher. I naively thought a private tutor would be both hard to find and expensive, and I also didn’t really see the point of it when I still knew so little vocabulary. But at the same time, I knew I needed more than Rosetta Stone. I did some searching and discovered the podcast Coffee Break Spanish. The great thing about podcast learning is that it is perfect for multitaskers like myself. I could listen to Mark teach his student, Kara, the basics of Spanish while I gardened or cleaned. And it was really good, but again, I soon saw the limitations. I had to listen to each podcast several times to really learn the words, and that got boring. Also, the focus of this podcast was Spain, and I am really more interested in Central America. But it was overall useful and I appreciated the brevity of the lessons and the patience with which Mark explained the grammar points.
After a little more experimenting with YouTube (I really like watching Que Hora Es while riding my exercise bike) and flashcards, I saw an ad for Preply and clicked on it. Preply offers tutors in fifty languages as well as other subjects. Contrary to my expectations, individual tutors were not astronomically expensive. I decided to give it a try.
Selecting My Tutor
First things first, Preply doesn’t actually provide the educational services. Instead, it connects learners with tutors around the world. Tutors set their hourly rate, and Preply takes a commission from them. Since I have only used the site to learn, not teach, my review focuses on the student perspective. I began searching through the tutors immediately (you don’t need an account to search) and liked that I could search not just by price and language, but also country where tutor is from and what days and times they are available to teach. Since I am mostly interested in Central American countries, I entered those. After I got my search results, I was able to browse and review the tutors’ head shots and bios. I could also see what other languages they spoke, and their levels in those languages. As a total beginner, I wanted my tutor to speak English, and so I focused on those with either “advanced” or “proficient” English. After narrowing it down, I watched a few of the videos that they had recorded to introduce themselves. That was my favorite feature, as I could get a much better sense of who the person was and what working with them would be like. There also are reviews, if you wish to read those. I skimmed them briefly to make sure no one said anything outrageous. However, since the commitment and risk factor is low (more on that below), I did not spend loads of times reading reviews. I finally settled on a tutor, Maria, from Guatemala.
Booking My First Lesson
Preply lets you book the first lesson as a trial. You pay for it, but you don’t have to purchase a block of lessons until after you have had your first session with the tutor. Maria’s rate was $8.00 an hour, so that is all I paid. (I later discovered that Preply does not have a function for tipping, so make sure the rate is one you are comfortable with at both ends of the scale.) All of her available lesson times were in a chart, so after I registered, I just picked an opening for the next day. Within an hour of making the appointment, I got a friendly email from Maria asking me to complete the placement test so she would know what to start with. I began the placement test, didn’t know any answers, and gave up on that. I replied to Maria to just start me at the beginning, and she agreed.
At my designated lesson time, I logged into Preply and was greeted by a link to start my lesson. It immediately put me into a video application and there was Maria, smiling to greet me. I felt comfortable immediately. She asked me a little in English about my goals and why I wanted to learn Spanish, and then we got into the lesson. She had Powerpoint slides and guided me through the alphabet, and then words for greetings in Spanish. She then had me do a few exercises using Jamboard, language learning game sites, and watching videos. The hour went quickly. I enjoyed the parts we spent interacting, but had less enthusiasm for trying to follow instructions on the games. Overall though, the class went okay and I decided to move forward.
After the lesson concluded, I was given the option of purchasing future lessons. I could choose between 6 hours, 12 hours, or 20 hours, with discounts given the more hours I purchased. I went with the lowest option and scheduled another lesson with Maria for the next day. At the beginning of this lesson, she asked me to switch to Zoom, which I did. She said the features were better. She again taught with a mix of slides and games on other websites. For the games, she would give me the link in the chat, then meet me there. I found most of the games confusing, not in terms of Spanish, but in trying to figure out what Maria intended me to do. The slides continued to go better, and she was kind and patient in her explanations. We went over words for body parts and adjectives to describe people. The only weakness I encountered was many of her adjective slides were just lists of words, and Maria did not always know the translation. She was noted as being at the advanced English level on Preply, and overall was able to communicate, but not able to translate all words. While this can be overcome (I myself teach English to learners of mixed nationalities and languages) good visuals are critical, and she didn’t always have those. Between that and the games, I decided to look for another tutor.
I went through the same search again, but this time I focused on tutors who were proficient in English. I selected Ana from Honduras, who said she had 10 years classroom experience in a bilingual school, and booked a trial lesson. At my lesson several days later, Ana also switched us to Zoom. (Apparently the Preply video interface isn’t great from a teacher perspective.) Ana’s extensive language teaching experience was immediately apparent. She easily explained grammar points and knew exactly how many repetitions each exercise needed in order to help my memory. Best of all, there were no complicated games. I have stuck with Ana. She starts each class with a review, and keeps track of the areas where I need the most work. I look forward to the lessons and feel as though I am gaining vocabulary and, with her ready compliments, confidence with each meeting. She is double the cost of Maria, but worth every penny.
Having a tutor has made a world of difference in my Spanish studies. I am still mixing my learning with the other methods, mostly videos and podcasts, but it is making more sense now that I have a human guide. I will write a follow-up in a few months, and let you know how it is going. I highly recommend adding an online tutor to your learning, if you decide to start studying a foreign language. ¡Hasta luego!