Online Language Learning: Counting the Hours

How long should one-to-one online language lessons be? 30 minutes? 45 minutes? An hour? Even longer?

I spend a lot of time in online lessons on iTalki. There, as on similar sites, the norm is the hour-long lesson. Although other options are sometimes available depending on the individual tutor, they are not a given. Many tutors only offer 60-minute sessions.

The trouble with an hour

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the idea of the hour-long lesson in itself. A full hour to work systematically on your language, one-to-one, can be great. However, it does depend on the teacher. If you strike it lucky with a tutor who organises meticulously and uses varied and engaging resources, an hour can fly by.

This does require a skilled and experienced tutor, though. I have worked with a handful of excellent teachers on the platform, who make an hour work really well. I get solid results in that setting, and I stick with them for that. But since iTalki tends to foster a more casual and informal vibe than traditional face-to-face lessons, the full whammy can sometimes feel a bit too long with others.

It depends on the student, too, of course. I won’t let myself off that lightly! An hour – plus the pre-prep and the post-housekeeping (adding words to Anki, etc.) – represents a substantial chunk of a busy day. You might end up, like I do, spacing our hour-long lessons across ten-day to fortnightly stretches, just to cram everything in along with work and general ‘life stuff’. At that pace, you risk losing momentum.

A more brain-friendly approach?

For me, for the majority of lessons now, there is a better way: plumping for sessions of just 30 minutes at a time. There may be fewer tutors that offer them, but they are worth the hunt.

For a start, since language learning is embedded in a busy life already, the 30-minute format mirrors the way I fit other activities into my schedule too. Just as I grab half an hour here, half an hour there, shorter lessons can be squeezed into a lunch break on the busiest of days. This way, classes are both less disruptive and a lot less painful to keep up as a habit.

Secondly, best practices around attention span and pacing during independent study support the idea of shorter, snappier and more effective lessons. When approaches like the Pomodoro Technique chunk our time against a maximum span of 20-25 minutes, then long, amorphous online language lessons should ring alarm bells. We need either shorter sessions, or very conscious and deliberate pacing of longer lessons for optimal learning on the part of the tutor. In the fairly informal setting of iTalki and similar platforms, the former is a lot easier to achieve.

Spaced learning

Combined with a more regular timetable – easier to achieve with shorter sessions – half an hour also respects the old little – but often adage. Why wear out a tired brain lumping all those minutes together, when you could spread the load? Techniques like spaced practice / repetition rely on the fact that the brain works on new material in the background between study sessions. Shorter but more frequent lessons give it the chance to do the same.

That said, I did initially worry that half an hour might be too brief to get anything substanital achieved with my tutor. A lot of that comes from the pressure of the norm. It can be hard tofind the self-assurance to question that and go against the grain. Maybe, that little voice says, there is good reason that many tutors only offer a full hour.

But in practice, it just works for me. Cumulatively, the effect is just as much learning with a lot less learner fatigue. And given the short window of time, the determination to eke the very most out of the lesson is all the greater.

Shorter online language lessons: worth the extra

There is one extra consideration to take into account. The minute-per-minute ratio between hour-long lessons and their shorter counterparts is not quite even. Generally, there is a price disadvantage for the student with shorter sessions. Understandably so, since, as a former teacher, I know well that there is a minimum time layout for topic-based prep for your students, regardless of the lesson length.

That said, I find that the extra cost is worth it for the attentional and organisational benefits. Looking for new teachers, I now filter based on lesson length offered. I am much more likely to go for the half-hour squad, especially with community tutors.

Ultimately, the teacher rarely loses out in my case. As I can fit them in more easily, I am much more likely to book a more frequent classes if I have the shorter option. The result: a much more lucrative student!

Online teachers, please consider adding a 30-minute option to your menu if you haven’t already. There’s nothing like having more options as a student to make these choices and have a little more control over your learning calendar.

How long is your ideal online lesson? Let us know in the comments!

Richard West-Soley

2 Comments

  1. Hi! Very good thoughts!
    I am learning Russian and I’ve been having one and a half hour online lessons with a tutor from a language school ( I see her in person whenever I can get to Russia) and I find I am totally worn out by the end of the lesson – it’s too long really, but it is absolutely worth it for the level of progress I want to make. (The school don’t offer shorter lessons) But recently I have started half hour conversation classes on iTalki at the weekends, just to practise informally (with a community tutor and no pressure to remember my homework or case endings!) and I find half an hour is very productive as you can usefully engage in a dialogue but not end up exhausted! I’d like to think my community tutor is happy with a half hour session because there is no preparation on her part; she’s basically just getting some money for chatting with me in her native tongue(s).
    I like the mix of long, formal teaching with one teacher and short, informal practice on iTalki with a community tutor.

  2. 90 minutes is epic, kudos to you for having the stamina for that! If you have the energy for it, it sounds like a fantastic, intense blast for your Russian. I think you’re right about having a mix of longer structured lessons and shorter practice sessions – the best of both worlds.

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