Four Things to Look For in a Good Chinese Tutor (and What to Avoid)

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Searching for a Chinese tutor online can be a headache. Whilst there are plenty of online apps and websites pairing language learners with tutors it can take a while before you find a suitable teacher to match your personality, interests and learning style. In this blog I will outline four key traits you should look for in a tutor. If any one of these is missing it may be best to keep searching for your perfect match.

1. Genuine Interest in the Learner

Too many tutors I’ve met on courses or apps are highly focussed on teaching from a textbook or exam-based curricula. They have become comfortable delivering the same material to every student instead of tailoring their approach to your needs. A great way to tell whether your teacher is really interested in you or not is by paying attention to the questions they ask. It’s a good sign if they take some time to get to know you at the start, ask what your interests are, inquire about your goals and the obstacles you’re facing. On the other hand consider it a red flag if they only ask you about your HSK level or which textbook you’ve been using and rush into delivering the first session.

2. Ability to Diagnose Specific Problems

If you ask ordinary native speakers to correct your Chinese they will often be surprisingly bad at pinpointing specific errors. Typically they can hear something is off but will struggle to discern whether the cause is sentence structure, intonation, tones, initials or finals. The ability to isolate incorrect patterns of speech and correct them appropriately is a skill that has to be developed. Unfortunately not all teachers have acquired this skill so it’s important to find one that has and can give you accurate feedback on your Mandarin.

3. Tried and Tested Solutions

Most problems Chinese learners face have tried and tested solutions. In an ideal world Chinese teachers would all be aware of these solutions but sadly we don’t live in that world. A good example is tones. There is a widespread and entirely misguided belief that most most foreigners simply lack the talent to speak tonal Mandarin. This mindset causes a significant proportion of teachers to give up on their students. Instead of teaching us about tone pairs, shadowing and echoing techniques they tell us not to worry about it and reassure us they can still understand us. In some cases they let us know we have a problem but don’t tell us how to solve it. If this describes your teacher it may be time to find a new one.

4. Encouraging but Honest Feedback

As I’ve written elsewhere, learners can expect to be showered with compliments from native speakers regardless of their level. However, this is not the role of your tutor and it’s important to find someone who is willing to be honest with you even when there is a risk that doing so might hurt your pride. When I decided to work on my tones a year ago it took me a couple of months to find a tutor who would tell me anything other than that my Chinese was already excellent and I had nothing to worry about. Eventually I found someone who was willing to patiently correct all my tone and grammar mistakes whilst encouraging me to pursue my goal of speaking clearly. I have continued working with her ever since.

How about you? What do you look for in a tutor? Let me know in the comments!

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