“I’d gladly pay someone to help me with my Chinese if I could just find someone good enough.”
If that’s you, there’s a new service that will take you up on that offer: ChineseTeachers.com.
Although this particular site launched for students in April of this year, interactive online language learning/teaching is not a new idea and I’ve long been interested in trying it out. So when I got a personalized email from ChineseTeachers.com inviting me to try out the beta version of the site I was just too flattered to turn it down. (If everyone else got that same email, don’t tell me OK? I want to feel special.)
ChineseTeachers.com provides what’s basically a big chat room where everyone except you is a native speaker of Chinese who’s qualified as a Chinese teacher. But you can only chat with one teacher at a time (which is plenty) and you can only voice chat (no typing, which I’ll list later in the cons). So anyone who’s used Skype, GTalk, or QQ to voice chat over the internet should know what to expect as far as technology goes.
You log in, see who’s online, choose a teacher you want to talk to, and then ring ’em up. As soon as the call connects, the clock starts ticking and you pay for every minute you chat (starting at about $0.20 USD / minute). The first two minutes are always free in case you have some technical difficulties or can’t understand the other teacher. So it’s “Chinese on your terms” like ChinesePod says, but this is interactive instead of just listening.
I tried three different teachers, all female. (I tried to talk to a male teacher but the few that were online were all busy. No, really!)
I deliberately left my profile blank and jumped straight into the lessons just to see how the teachers would handle a new student without any info (such as my Chinese level, goals, etc.). It was surprisingly easy to click a button and immediately start talking to someone with almost no setup whatsoever. The teachers each quickly determined my level and initiated interesting conversations (one of which was about research the teacher had done on pronunciation of certain fāngyán 方言!).
The 1st and 3rd teachers started in English and then asked me to speak a little Chinese. The 2nd teacher started in Chinese and we never used any English. That lead me to believe that the first teacher might have communicated somehow with the 2nd teacher. But then the 3rd teacher didn’t seem to know my level, so I don’t think there’s any interaction between the teachers, even in the form of shared notes about the students.
Now on to my favorite part of the review where I get to mix 1st and 2nd person whenever I feel like it!
- You direct the learning – You can upload documents or any materials you want help with. If you don’t have any documents (like I didn’t), you can chat about whatever you want and then the teachers will make suggestions and email you study materials for the next class. You also decide how long the lesson/call lasts. All the teachers were very good about sensing that I was drawing the call to a close and didn’t try to keep me on the line any longer than I wanted (even as short as 4 minutes with one teacher).
- Flexible schedule – You log on whenever you want and see which teachers are online (and it seems there are always some). I suppose you could find a teacher you really like and ask him/her when a good time to meet again would be.
- Good teachers – I only spoke to three of the 150+ teachers, but they all spoke slowly and clearly and were very patient and willing to repeat things that I didn’t understand. They were all proficient in English and they were all good conversationalists who could keep the ball rolling (I deliberately left some awkward silences to see what they’d do, and they didn’t miss a beat). It’s clear they would all be good informants or “Chat Buddies.”
- Nothing to install – This is huge to me because I HATE installing things on my computer. With this site, you don’t have to install or download any software. You just need the standard Flash Player that anyone who’s watched Youtube (before it was banned!) has.
- Sound quality acceptable – It usually sounds just as good as a normal phone call. I didn’t notice any difference between the quality of these calls and Skype calls. There was a little delay on the 3rd lesson, but that happens sometimes with Skype too.
- Don’t call me, I’ll call you – One of my calls got cut off while we were chatting and I was waiting to see if the teacher would call me back, but she either wouldn’t or couldn’t. Either way it’s good because it keeps the ball in the student’s court.
- Free, immediate tech support – There is at least one staff member in the chat room, whom you can call for free and ask any questions about the site or setup. Even though I’d already done some calls without any need for tech support, I called with one minor question just to see what would happen. The staff member was very helpful (although it was a bit unnerving when she answered with “Hello Albert” but never told me her name – I guess my profile wasn’t completely blank).
- Lots of feedback – After each lesson you evaluate the teacher (out of 5 stars) and the sound quality (out of 5 stars). Then you can write notes to yourself about the teacher and/or the lesson. You can also write a note to the teacher about the lesson. The teacher always seems to write you a little note about the lesson as well.
- Reasonable rates – $12 USD / hour is very reasonable for a private tutor in the States. According to the comparison table, this site seems to be quite competitive in their pricing.
NOTE: Some of these are not really problems with ChineseTeachers.com as much as they are with the whole concept of online language tutoring.
- Phone calls are hard in a foreign language – You don’t have any visual clues like body language or facial expressions. Also, regardless of how good the sound quality is, it won’t be as clear as talking face-to-face. Misunderstanding was rare, but ironically I misunderstood the word qīngchu 清楚 at one point because I just couldn’t hear the initial consonants clearly.
- No typing – There were a few times during the lessons when it would have been very helpful if the teacher could have just typed a quick word to me (like qīngchu 清楚) or I could have sent a quick note. There may be some reason why they don’t want the teachers and students to have the ability to communicate outside the headset, but I think it would have been very helpful.
[Update: I just got an email informing me that the teachers actually can type things to me, but I can’t type back to them. I guess none of my teachers thought that was necessary.] [Update #2: Now both sides can type chat.]
- It’s Scary to Call a Stranger – If you’re insecure about your Chinese during face-to-face interaction with people that you know, this will be even more difficult. I’m paying them so I assume they want to talk to me, but how do I know?! And how do I know I’ll like talking to them? The initial two minutes of free chat are supposed to give me a bailout if the chemistry isn’t right, but for some reason I wouldn’t feel right just ditching someone. I’m the one who called after all! I suppose I will eventually build up some relationships with my favorite teachers, but I found it a bit awkward at first.
- Time pressure – I couldn’t help looking at that ticking clock thinking, “Am I really getting my money’s worth out of this?” I probably was, but how would I even know? For a paid service there’s no way to escape that feeling, but I was surprised how distracted I was by the clock. On a positive note, I was also surprised how quickly the time passed.
- Added! Typing chat built in to the lesson screen (as mentioned above).
- Added! Word list – It would be cool if there were some integration with online dictionaries and/or Skritter so that I or the teacher could add words that came up in the lesson for me to review later. There’s a place on the site for notes, but a personal glossary of my own vocabulary would be useful. It would also be good when I switch teachers so the teacher could see what words I know and might like to review.
- Time remaining countdown – I know I just finished complaining about the time pressure, but I needed to know when I was out of time. When my account started running low, I got a little message that said I would soon be out of money and I should recharge. I panicked and quickly said goodbye to the teacher who was on the line with me. When I hung up I saw I still had several minutes left. A little countdown timer would help so I know when to expect the red light (like a lawyer before the Supreme Court).
If you’re willing to pay but you can’t find a good Chinese tutor in your area, or if you’re tired of the Chewbacca Method, this would be a good site for you. But if you don’t like talking on the phone in a foreign language, or are afraid to talk to strangers, you might want to just look around your neighborhood harder.
I haven’t really examined it closely, but apparently, if you’re a Chinese teacher and you’d like to register to be included in the site, it’s free as long as you pass the selection process. Has anyone done that and would like to tell us about the experience of teaching for an online platform?