Ethical Language Learning: Are We Paying Online Teachers Too Little?

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
  • Read time3 mins
  • Comments8

Okay, so this is not going to be a popular topic I’m sure.

There’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time – years, in fact.

I’ll explain what it is in just a moment.

But first, we really are in a lucky time when it comes to the accessibility of language teachers and practice partners.

Tools like italki have changed everything.

The same can be said for all kinds of freelance labor (i.e. Upwork).

When I started this blog around 8 years ago, it was legitimately challenging just to find someone to speak to in a target language.

For some languages, practice just wasn’t even an option.

Back when I started my Irish mission, I searched high and low where I lived for native speakers (even learners) to practice with and had zero luck (I had to travel from Australia to Ireland just to get some practice!).

These days you have access to teachers in just about every language you can think of. A few clicks and a few bucks is all it takes.

We’re seriously luckier than we realize.

What’s a language teacher worth to you?

So here’s the issue.

If you browse through the lists of teachers on italki for instance, you’ll find many teachers and community tutors pricing themselves at totally undignified rates.

$4 an hour for example. $2 for half an hour.

I wouldn’t even bend over to pick that up in the street!

Now, imagine offering that kind of money to a university qualified teacher in America, Australia or the UK.

You simply wouldn’t.

They’d be insulted by it or think you were joking.

I realize that I probably sound like I’m virtue signalling by bringing this up but I think it’s at least worthy of a discussion.

Just because they offer it, doesn’t you mean you have to take it

I’ve already received a few messages from people saying things like:

“If they price themselves low, then that’s what they want and it’s not wrong to accept it.”

I don’t agree with this at all.

It sounds like an attempt to absolve yourself of responsibility or care.

Two things I want to point out:

  1. You know you’re getting a steal by accepting their pricing (which means the onus is on you to know better).
  2. They price themselves lower and lower to remain competitive with other people in their country which means everybody is basically racing to the bottom.

It’s not necessarily that they want that amount of money.

You have to wonder if they’re comparing themselves to European language teachers (charging high double digits) and wondering how they could ever price themselves the same way.

Even if they wanted to, competition from their own countrymen would make it impossible.

Especially when we’re happy to oblige.

Remember: just because someone offers you something undignified, doesn’t automatically absolve you of responsibility.

Tip your language teachers

I don’t actually know if italki has a tipping option in place currently.

I’ve seen it suggested in forums by other people.

This would be a really great feature to highlight in my opinion – a way to show undervalued teachers that you appreciate the work they do.

If someone’s pricing themselves too low and you’re able to afford higher, you should have the option to pay more.

Or they could introduce a ‘minimum cap’ but that might make the platforms less appealing and stifle market competition in the end.

What do you think?

Comment below.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Yes! I’m currently studying at Verbling. After I did the math, my instructor (very good!) is making like seven U.S. dollars an hour. I want to tip him but I don’t want to insult him. If he has paypal or the like, I’m planning on at least doubling what I’ve been paying.



Never thought about pay in this way. I know online teachers/instructors who teach many, many courses, probably due to the pay rate.

Paula Guard

Paula Guard

Really interesting article! I have used Italki for Spanish (general conversation practice, structured lessons, and specific prep for DELE C1 exam) and for Italian (general conversation and structured lessons).

You can see by how many classes tutors have given that plenty of students do go for the lower prices. I often find too that tutors who offer very low prices are available all hours of the day and night.

Part of the responsibility lies too with Italki, and with the tutors themselves knowing their own value. I had not read about the tipping idea but I think it would be a really great option.

mary f.

mary f.

I would agree with you if we paid them directly and we didn’t have to comply with higher bank “add-ons” oh price . So, for instance, when I buy U$60 in credits on italki I pay nearly R$ 300,00 . So for me, it is usually cheaper and even “better” to hire someone from my country. Plus, mostly of the teachers on italki aren’t really “teachers” with a background study, they are just someone willing to get an extra. Of course , the situation is all ugly, but I won’t pay U$ 30 dollars or more to someone who is not qualified. If this devaluates the whole class of teachers , it is another story.



I disagree. An Egyptian charging 5dollars per hour of teaching, for example, earns the equivalent of a dinner in a nice Egyptian restaurant. That would be like charging 80 dollars for an hour of teaching in the US. If you want to be generous you might as well give to really poor locals instead of your teachers who are usually much better off financially than the vast majority of the local population. Tipping the wrong people just contributes to exacerbating inequalities and at the end of the day prices rise in the country and the poor get poorer.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

> “That would be like charging 80 dollars for an hour of teaching in the US. “

That’s a false equivalent.

Even if $5 an hour is sufficient money for someone in Egypt, the issue that I’m trying to point out is that we would *never* pay that to an American teacher. So if it’s not good enough for an American teacher, then why do we have no problem paying the same amount to someone in the developing world.

The value of the work is the same to us but the perceived value of the freelancer is not.

And charity is a separate matter altogether. This is about payment for services.

I see the same thing here in the wine region of California all the time. People need work done and the general attitude is, “I’ll just hire a Mexican.”

Els Withers

Els Withers

Have you tried discussing this with your teachers?

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Good question.
No I haven’t actually. The teachers I personally use charge over $20 USD an hour.
I have considered taking a lesson with one of these underpriced teachers just to talk to them about it.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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