Most of my experiences with Chinese tutors over the years have been excellent and I have benefited from their guidance immensely. However, several months ago I had a bizarre experience online which I have since discovered may be part of a widespread and ugly ploy some tutors use to lure in naive students.
Having spent the past year self studying using mass input methods, I was looking for a tutor who might be able to help me improve my spoken Chinese. I was especially interested in improving my accent, tones and spoken fluency as this is the area I had worked on the least during lockdown. I also wanted some help improving my comprehension of Chinese TV and movies. After searching on a language app I came across a tutor who had good reviews and seemed friendly in her profile video. I decided to book a lesson.
The teacher immediately replied thanking me for booking with her and inquiring about my Chinese level. I replied in Chinese informing her that I had been studying for nearly four years from outside China and that while my listening and reading were OK I still found watching TV and movies hard. I also stated I wanted to work on my spoken Mandarin, especially tones. The tutor then asked me to specify my HSK proficiency level. I replied that I might be around the equivalent of HSK V. I added I had never prepared for this exam, had no interest in proficiency exams and that my main goal was to improve my spoken Mandarin (which this exam doesn’t assess). She replied saying she understood and that was that.
The next day I joined the online classroom at the agreed time. My tutor introduced herself and seemed as friendly as she had in her profile video. So far so good. But suddenly her demeanour changed. Without discussing it with me first she announced she was going to show me a couple of short movie clips which she wanted me to watch. The first clip was of two men arguing loudly at a wedding. The men were shouting at each other using colloquial language and speaking much faster than usual, as people tend to when arguing. The subtitles helped me pick up a few words but as Chinese movie scenes go it was about as hard to comprehend as it gets.
When the clip ended she asked me what I had understood of the dialogue. I replied that I had not understood very much at all. She looked distinctly puzzled, as though my listening ability had not matched her expectations. I also looked puzzled. Why was she assessing my ability to understand Chinese movies when I had already told her I found this difficult? Why had she specifically chosen a clip that was significantly harder to understand than the average movie scene? And why was she surprised I couldn’t understand it? None of it made any sense.
Sensing I was a little crestfallen the teacher quickly diffused the situation and told me not to worry. Next, she said we would watch another movie clip only this one would be easier. In fact it was even harder. The second scene also began in the middle of a chaotic argument between two protagonists. With no background information or context I once again struggled to make out what they were arguing about. Just as before, the tutor looked puzzled when I told her I hadn’t understood the clip, then told me not to worry and that we would move on to easier material.
She then proceeded to test me on a series of readings based around the HSK proficiency exam I had informed her I had no interest in. By this point the session had the air of a formal assessment. I felt very uncomfortable but part of me also wanted to prove that my Chinese wasn’t actually that bad! I continued following her instructions and attempting to complete her tasks. They included reading articles aloud and listening to her read articles followed by comprehension quizes.
Each task followed the same pattern: I would struggle to complete it and she would appear surprised that I was struggling to complete it. After the assessment was over the tutor delivered her final judgment. She informed me I was not yet ready to take the HSK proficiency test and that I had a lot of work to do. “That’s strange,” I thought to myself, “didn’t I specifically mention I had no interest in taking HSK exams?” But by this point I just wanted to leave the lesson as quickly as possible.
Later I sent her a message raising my concerns about her approach. She apologised for making me feel uncomfortable but failed to explain why her entire lesson plan had so perfectly contradicted everything I had told her about my motivations for learning Chinese.
Over the next few days I recounted this experience to several friends. Initially I wondered whether whether it might have been the result of a culture clash. After all, Chinese tutors often place a lot of emphasis on proficiency tests. But I soon learned that my experience was not an isolated one. According to friends who have had similar experiences this appears to be a well established technique adopted by a small minority of language tutors who use the preliminary lesson to shatter their students’ confidence before offering them a bespoke service to rebuild it. Like the cosmetics industry, they create a demand for their product by identifying your insecurities and making you feel a bit rubbish about yourself.
This dubious tactic can be profitable. New learners who have not had time to develop any confience about their Chinese level and students who have an interest in taking proficiency tests are especially vulnerable. The tutor in question had dozens of positive reviews from other users, some of whom even thanked her for showing them how little they knew. “I have just started taking lessons with this teacher and I have a lot to learn!” says one, “I look forwarding to learning more Chinese from her.” “My first class was so interesting,” says another, “Can’t wait to level up to HSK Level 2, 3, 4…”
Chinese learners be warned: tutors who deliberately break your confidence to try and prove their own value are not worth any of your time or money. If you ever encounter a tutor who makes you feel less confident at the end of the lesson than you were at the start, run away and don’t look back.