Paid vs. free online English teachers – which is best for you?

Learning to speak English fluently is faster and easier if you can get a lot of feedback, wouldn’t you agree? But getting quality feedback on your spoken English can be tough, especially if you live somewhere with little or no access to native speakers of English. In another article I explain how to find native speakers for speaking practice online. That article focuses on free resources. But having had experience with both free and paid conversation practice for my own language learning, I’ve realized that “free” often comes at a price. Yes, it’s good to take advantage of free resources for English learning. But if you are serious about improving your English fluency as efficiently as possible, here are some reasons that paying for an English teacher online can be better than relying on free resources.

Time and Energy

There is a reason we have sayings like “you get what you pay for” and “nothing is really free.” Free has a hefty price tag: the cost of your time and energy. The older I get the more I realize that my time and energy are my two most precious resources. Wasting them hurts. In my experience, relying on free conversation partners and language exchanges ends up costing a lot more time and energy than the dollar equivalent of what I would pay for a teacher or tutor. Here’s why:

Active speaking time

Most language exchanges involve splitting your time 50/50 with your partner. Normally you only get to spend half the time being the learner. You also have to spend half the time as the teacher. You do get some English practice, but you also have to help your partner learn your own language. That means that for half the time you probably won’t even be speaking English!

Compare that to a lesson with a professional teacher or tutor where you get to speak English the whole time. The focus is 100 percent on you and your learning. A good teacher will be aiming to give YOU the lesson YOU need. They don’t do this only from the goodness of their hearts. Most sites that connect English teachers and learners encourage the learners to write public reviews about their teacher. No teacher wants a bad review, believe me. Free exchanges can be fun, useful, and rewarding, but they come at the cost of 50 percent of your active speaking practice time.

Learning structure

Another potential problem with free language exchanges is a lack of structure. If you don’t need any structure and just want to practice your spoken English kind of randomly, then it doesn’t matter. But if you learn better with a structured approach and a logical progression to your lessons, then a good teacher will be able to help you get organized with your English learning.

Correction and feedback

When you’re trying to improve your English conversation, getting feedback on your performance and progress is crucial. A qualified, professional teacher will be able to identify important problems with your English and help you overcome them. They will be able to explain things that you don’t understand in a way that makes sense. They will be able to give you exercises and tasks that help you improve in specific areas.

Professional teachers spend years learning how to help people learn English efficiently. With native speakers who aren’t teachers, it’s really hit or miss when it comes to feedback. Of course, if you are at a lower level where any practice is good practice, then a free language exchange can still be fantastic. But once you’re at the dreaded “intermediate plateau,” you know, where you are speaking fairly fluently but still making lots of mistakes, you will really benefit from targeted feedback.

Scheduling headaches

It can be extremely time-consuming to search for and connect with free language exchange partners. Sometimes you get lucky and find one right away. But most of the time you’ll need to send messages to many potential partners before you can get to the “let’s meet on Zoom” scheduling stage. And then there’s the risk that they won’t even show up.

You never know how motivated other learners are, or how serious they are about following through with their commitment to you. But professional teachers make their living from connecting with students for lessons. If they don’t teach, they don’t pay their bills.

Sites like italki save you a lot of time by making it easy to search for, find and schedule lessons with paid teachers and tutors. You can even get “on demand” or “instant” tutoring. That means you can search for a teacher and be having your first lesson in a matter of MINUTES.

Would you rather spend days trying to schedule a session with a free conversation partner? Or would you rather be up and running quickly with a qualified teacher or tutor?


When you are an independent learner, it can be hard to stick to a regular schedule and consistently show up and do the work. Maybe you find yourself constantly putting off doing the things you need to do to improve your English fluency. Maybe despite your best intentions, you just can’t seem to get started. I am constantly fighting my own battles with procrastination, so I totally know how you feel.

If you have trouble getting motivated to speak or study English, then being accountable to another person is a fantastic motivator. This is one of the biggest advantages of working with a paid English teacher. Having some skin in the game in the form of your hard earned cash is highly motivating. You don’t want to waste your money by not showing up for a scheduled lesson, or by phoning it in if you do show up, and not doing your best.

Another great motivator is the feeling of not wanting to disappoint your teacher. Personally, knowing that my italki tutor is expecting things of me and holding me accountable is a huge motivator. I don’t want him to feel like I’m wasting his time. This helps me stay on track with my language practice even on days when I really don’t feel like it.

How much speaking practice have you done this week?

If speaking fluent English is your goal, you should be getting at least a half hour of speaking practice two or three times per week. That’s a bare minimum. How is that going for you?

If you’ve been spending your time and energy on chasing after free English learning options, then I suggest you try this experiment:

  1. Sign up for italki or any language learning site of your choice.
  2. Fill out your profile with a short description of yourself and your English learning goals. Here is my own italki profile as an example.
  3. Browse the paid teachers and tutors until you find a few that look like a good fit for you.
  4. Book lessons with the two or three that look like the best fit for you.
  5. Spend some time preparing for your lessons, at least writing down a list of things you want to talk about
  6. Show up for your lessons and do your best to get as much out of them as possible.

You’ll be amazed at how fast your speaking will progress after just a few lessons.

Free or paid isn’t really the point. Just do SOMETHING.

If you simply can’t afford to invest any money in your English learning, that’s OK. I totally understand that it’s not possible for everyone, especially with the current state of the world due to the coronavirus. But you can still try the experiment above with free English conversation partners. You will probably have to reach out to at least 15-20 people before you hit pay dirt. But you will still be getting to practice your spoken English, which is crucial for learning to speak English fluently. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is.

There’s never a perfect time to start

Maybe you’ve thought about paying for some lessons with an online English teacher or tutor for a long time, but keep putting it off. Are you waiting for the perfect time to start? Honestly, truly, there is no “perfect time.”

Out of your comfort zone is where learning happens
Learning happens outside your comfort zone.

Don’t wait until you feel confident about your spoken English. Don’t wait until you feel super motivated. Motivation and confidence are fickle. You can’t depend on them to push you to improve. Successful language learners don’t wait until they feel like it before they practice or study. They don’t wait until they feel confident. They know that feeling a little anxiety means that they’re pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, which is where real learning happens. They fit English into their daily routines and find ways to get their English learning in, even if it’s only a few minutes a day.

If you’ve been wasting your precious time wondering where, when, or how you are going to get to start speaking English, it’s time to stop. Stop waiting until you feel confident, motivated, and inspired. Commit to taking action TODAY. Whether you choose to go with free or paid English conversation practice, the most important thing is that you stop searching, questioning, wondering, and worrying — and start DOING.