Do you need a Chinese tutor to help teach yourself Mandarin? Are you hoping to supplement your AP Chinese, HSK, or college classroom learning with the help of a native Chinese speaker?
Could you use some help to follow through on your study plan and language learning goals?
A lot of people are out there looking for a Chinese tutor to help them learn Chinese. Right now, there is a huge demand for Mandarin tutors because even though a lot of people can’t go to school, they are still looking to keep up their Chinese or take this time (the pandemic) to try to learn a little bit more Chinese.
Whether you aim to learn Chinese online, self-study, or hit the internet to search for a “private Chinese tutor near me,” here’s our best advice on how to source a top-notch Chinese tutor.
But First: Who We Are
We like to think we’re pretty qualified to give advice on finding a Chinese tutor.
John, co-founder of Mandarin Companion and founder of All Set Learning: “Tutors is one thing I have a lot of experience with. It’s how I got my Chinese up from intermediate to being able to go to a master’s program in Chinese, with Chinese classmates. I think tutors can definitely be the best, most cost effective way to do it.”
John’s company, All Set Learning, is focused primarily on individual tutoring and understands how to find the perfect Chinese tutor. They provide a highly customized curriculum suited to the individual needs of the learner. He specifically works with tutors to help them teach Chinese effectively to people.
“We try to take the best of both worlds of tutors and schools, so you have the personalization associated with tutors, but then you have a bit more control and management associated with schools. Some of the biggest pitfalls with tutors are scheduling and/or the Mandarin tutors not really knowing how to design a curriculum.” – John
John has worked with no fewer than 150 Mandarin Chinese teachers to help them excel as tutors and meet the needs of Chinese learners. He’s viewed countless demo lessons and evaluated teaching skills. He’s collected copious amounts of feedback from clients on their tutor, including their strengths and weaknesses.
Needless to say, he has a little bit of experience in this area. “It’s something that I’m involved with every day.” Keep reading to learn what you should look for when hiring a potential Chinese tutor.
3 Things to Look for When Hiring a Chinese Tutor
Three crucial factors that separate an OK tutor and a GREAT tutor are their experience, personality, and availability. Here, we unpack what each of these important elements mean for your overarching work towards Chinese fluency.
They Have the Right Experience
You want to find a tutor with experience. Sure. That’s a no brainer, but what does that mean, really? Because if your indicator of experience is just “I’ve been teaching Chinese for X years” and they put that on their resume, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Jared points out “I worked in market research and I remember one guy I worked with who had 10 years of experience, but it was like, what kind of experience did he have? It was doing some things that he, in my opinion, wasn’t quite qualified to work on.”
Questions to ask to assess a tutor’s prior experience:
- Why did you want to be a Chinese tutor?
- Could you tell me about your Chinese teaching experience?
- How do you plan a curriculum for your students?
- What kind of success have your students had?
- What can I expect from you as my tutor?
For example, if the tutor primarily has experience in a classroom as a teacher and this is their first ever one-on-one tutoring gig, you might find the overall experience to be a bit “classroom-y.” If they’ve never done anything else or taught as a tutor, they may not be so good at customizing content and interacting in a fun way.
“That’s a big deal because the dynamics of Chinese tutoring one-on-one is very different than a classroom experience. When hiring Chinese tutors online or in-person, look for people with different kinds of experience, as a variety of experience tends to lead to a much more seasoned veteran of a teacher,” shares John.
You want someone who can think quickly on their feet, who is adaptable, and has a lot more going on in their imagination. Otherwise, you can expect to just go through the curriculum of a textbook or a class. ZzzzZZzzz
Here are some Chinese tutor tips to know if your potential instructor will adapt to your Chinese level:
- Find out if they’re solely classroom teachers. This is something that you can totally gauge by looking at a resume or a potential Chinese tutor’s list of the work experience. Have they had classroom experience only, or have they had tutoring experience or other kinds of experience individualizing a learning process? If they’ve taught Chinese for 20 years using the same textbook in the classroom, they may have trouble unlearning their classroom approach.
- Tune into your first-demo feelings. You can’t really see some things until you have a demo or first lesson and see how they interact with you.
They Don’t Just Praise You Constantly
If you’re at the elementary level, your Chinese is not amazing. And if the teacher just won’t stop gushing over your Chinese, this is a word of caution.
“To me, that smacks of inexperience. If a teacher has had a lot of learners of different levels, they’re going to be encouraging and not put you down, but they’re not going to be flipping out all the time about your Chinese.”
What we find in psychology is that you don’t praise the result—you praise the effort. That leads to a fixed rather than a growth mindset, which can psychologically make you more adverse to taking risks.
“One thing that our teachers like to praise, and I like to praise among our clients, is that ‘I can tell you did a lot of prep work preparing for this lesson, and that is great.’”
That’s praising effort. And that’s what sticks.
They Will Push You
If you know that your pronunciation has issues and your tones are all over the place, is the Mandarin tutor barely correcting you? Then that right there is a signal that this teacher may not have high standards that are good for you in the long run.
“For me and my clients, we maintain those high standards. One day, we want our pronunciation to be native-like or as close as possible. So we want Chinese tutors that are going to help us get there.”
This is a bit of a balancing act, because you don’t really want the teacher to be correcting every single sound that comes out of your mouth, but at the same time, you want to feel like they’re pushing you.
They Will Give Regular, Well-Timed Feedback
It can be tough to know when a teacher should stop you and correct you or if they should group feedback after-the-fact. Here’s what John recommends:
“There is a two pronged approach. If you’re doing pronunciation practice, which I think is really good and everyone should be doing, especially at the elementary and even at intermediate levels, the teachers should be giving you immediate feedback on every word or line that comes out of your mouth. That’s the whole point of pronunciation practice, immediate feedback.”
That’s the whole point of pronunciation practice, immediate feedback.John Pasden
“The other way to think about finding a Chinese language tutor that will correct you is to consider conversation practice. If you are talking about something, this is the real purpose of language; communication. You’re trying to tell the other person what you’re thinking, how you feel.”
“And if you’re interrupting everything that’s coming out of their mouth, then the communication is getting stifled and it quickly becomes annoying. Some people are more tolerant of it than others, but as a general rule, a teacher should not be breaking up the communication at every pause.”
As a general rule, a teacher should not be breaking up the communication at every pause.John Pasden
When it comes to conversation practice, find Mandarin tutors who will take notes. They can point out where you’re consistently saying things incorrectly at a natural stopping point. This is helpful, corrective feedback. You should look for this when figuring out how to find the perfect Chinese tutor.
“One other form of correction that is especially good for intermediate learners while maintaining the flow of conversation is called recasting,” shares John.
Here is how recasting works. When the learner says something a little bit wrong, the teacher repeats it in a questioning tone, sort of like a confirmation that I hear you. However, as they repeat it, the tutor is actually correcting it. Then the learner, if they’re observant, will pick up on this, correct themselves, and keep going.
It’s more of a gentle reminder.
“If you’re talking about a specific topic, and there’s a keyword that the student is going to be using over and over again but they’re pronouncing it wrong, it’s nice to get the correction early on. In this way, they can start repeating it correctly and get that correct reinforcement, rather than discovering at the end that they had been saying the word wrong 20 times.”
This is a person you’re going to be having long conversations with and, especially if you’re intermediate level or higher, you’re going to be having real conversations, not just “what time do you get up in the morning” conversations.
If the teacher doesn’t have any interests in common with you, that’s kind of a red flag.
Do you enjoy talking to them? Do you love movies and they don’t? Are they big time readers but you only watch TV series?
If you’re at a level that you can actually discuss topics to some degree, and what you want to talk about isn’t something they have any experience with, studying together may be more challenging.
“One of the key things about having a tutor is to improve your overall Chinese. Speaking and listening skills are a key element of that, so if you have nothing to talk about or it’s stilted, you’re going to have a problem moving forward.”
The better situation is that they’re interesting and your conversations are part of what motivates you to continue improving and show up to your Chinese lessons. You can make progress with a boring tutor who is just a task master but it won’t be as much fun.
Star Personality Traits, like Patience
When we talk about personality traits, this is not simply commonalities or interests, but what the Mandarin tutor’s personality is really like.
Key traits you should look for include:
- Patience. It takes patience to communicate with someone who’s not good at communicating in that language or continues to make the same mistakes over and over. You want a tutor who doesn’t jump in quickly to “rescue” you at the first sign of distress. You need a person who can let you struggle a little bit—to give you time to make a connection and form a new neural pathway. They need to have patience to let you be challenged, which can lead to direct progress. In the end, if you still can’t get it and you need help, then they are there to help you.
- Extrovert or introvert? If you’re a talker, then you might not want to find a teacher who’s a total talker. If you’re very introverted and you hire a teacher who’s very introverted, you could be in for an awkward series of lessons. When you’re dealing with an unknown tutor, you don’t know how much they’re willing to change their behaviors to specifically accommodate YOU. It can be easier to simply find a tutor with a personality that’s going to match better with yours.
- Conversational. Do they have prompts? Can they be prepared to elicit conversation or discussion and give you an opportunity to use your language, ideally in a way that’s engaging and relevant to you? TALK. A key point of a lesson is to get lots of good practice speaking. If you do a demo lesson or something, and they’re not getting you talking, they may not be asking any interesting questions.
Make sure that you truly jive with your tutor, regardless if you’re trying to learn Chinese online or in-person.
Number three on the list for what to look for in a Chinese language tutor is a very practical one: availability.
John shares: “You know for a fact that sometimes you will need to reschedule. At times, you might not be able to have more than a couple lessons a month with this person. And even if they’re a good Chinese tutor online or in-person, you need to consider a teacher’s flexibility and schedule.”
There are some teachers who have very rigid schedules that are not very flexible. Sometimes, tutoring is a part-time job or a side hustle for this person and you have to be prepared to become second-fiddle to their full time gig.
“I think it really comes down to how serious are you about learning Chinese. If your Chinese tutor is not serious and you are, then you probably should find someone who’s on the same level of seriousness.”
I think it really comes down to how serious are you about learning Chinese. Because if your Chinese tutor is not serious and you are, then you probably should find someone who’s on the same level of seriousness.John Pasden
Be Wary of Chinese Tutor Burnout
A cautionary tale:
You can easily Google “Chinese tutors near me” and find someone who seems pretty good. Perhaps they don’t have a lot of experience, but the tutor is serious and competent.
They decide to start lessons and they go pretty well. However, as time goes on, the tutor and the student become friends, and the student starts to notice that the teacher is doing less and less prep for each session. Then it devolves to the tutors showing up and simply saying, “what do you want to talk about today?”
The student doesn’t know if they prepped, and the tutor didn’t prep either. The student has no direction and they’re not getting much corrective feedback or being pushed at all.
That is something that you need to be aware of. It can sometimes be awkward to admit you don’t want to keep learning lessons with a particular Chinese tutor.
“Are you going to pursue excellence and switch tutors if you have to? That’s up to you.”
“Are you going to pursue excellence and switch tutors if you have to? That’s up to you.”Jared Turner
Pro Tip: Consider a Language Exchange Partner
The “cousin” of Chinese tutors is a language exchange partner. If you have a tutor who’s just showing up without prepping, you might consider finding a language exchange partner instead.
What is a language exchange? It’s when you find another Chinese person who is learning English. You then arrange meet up’s, virtual or in person, where you practice your Chinese with them and they practice their English with you.
“You may be able to get to similar results. They’re great, especially for cash-poor students. I did that while at the University of Florida and made a great friend. Plus it really helped my cultural understanding of China as I was planning to go to China for the first time. It was super useful.” – John
Graded Readers Can Help
You can use any of Mandarin Companion’s graded readers as a launch point for conversations with your tutor. Simply come prepared to your lesson having read a chapter or two and ready to discuss it.
There are pre-made discussion questions in the back of each book to get the ball rolling. It’s a great way to adjust to your new tutor and make a learning plan that fits your goals. “You can just talk about the book and that can be very effective,” shares John.
“When you’re selecting a Chinese tutor, you need someone who can understand the learner’s perspective. This became so apparent to me when we started Mandarin Companion.
When you’re selecting a Chinese tutor, you need someone who can understand the learner’s perspective.Jared Turner
“I remember the early days when we were finding writers to write for Mandarin Companion. When we looked through the writing samples from potential authors, the people who wrote the most readable texts for Chinese learners were all tutors. They all understood how learners struggle with the language.”
Your Ideal Chinese Tutor is Out There
You might kiss a few frogs before you find your prince/princess, but you shouldn’t be kissing your tutors. 😆 With this advice on how to find a great Chinese tutor online or in-person, you’ll be ready to 读 Dú, 写 Xiě, 听 Tīng, or 说 Shuō Mandarin ASAP.