You Can Learn Chinese

#36 How To Find The Perfect Tutor

Episode Summary

How can you be sure to find a good Chinese tutor? John and Jared give you tips on how to identify a tutor who can help you take your Chinese to the next level. Guest interview is with Lucy Jak-Lax, an aspiring musician who fell in love with China, explored the diverse ethnic music of the country, and has even written her own songs in Chinese.

Episode Notes

What does a great tutor do differently? How often should they correct you? What should you do if you can’t afford a private tutor? John and I will give you tips and advice on how to identify a tutor who can help you take your Chinese to the next level.

Guest interview is with Lucy Jak-Lax, an aspiring musician who fell in love with China, explored the diverse ethnic music of the country, and has even written her own songs in Chinese. By combining her love for Chinese and music, she is forging her own career and loving the ride.

Thanks for listening to our podcast! Please write us a review on Apple Podcasts and we’ll give you a shout out on the podcast! We are also taking questions from our listeners. If you have a question, reach us at Follow us on Facebook and catch our latest Chinese learning memes on Instagram

Links referenced in this Episode.

Episode Transcription

Today, we're going to talk about tutors. A lot of people are out there looking for a Chinese tutors to help them learn Chinese. We're specifically talking about freelance individual tutors, right? 

That's right. And this is a big demand item right now because a lot of people, they can't go to school. A lot of people are looking to keep up their Chinese or take this time that they have when there's a little more time during the warranty process and try to learn a little bit more Chinese.

Yeah. And 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. And there are a lot of pitfalls. I think tutors can definitely be the best, the most cost effective way to do it, but it is by no means a sure thing.

And also to preface this, maybe John won't quite say this, but with all set learning, it's essentially what you guys do. It's individual tutoring, right? I mean, I know you provide a bit of curriculum, but it's really customized to people. So, additionally, this is something you have a lot of experience in and specifically working with tutors to help them teach Chinese effectively to people.

Right? So it also that learning, 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. Cause, you know, some of the biggest pitfalls with tutors are scheduling or them not really knowing how to design a curriculum.

So those are some of the things we're going to talk about. If you've decided to go it alone and find a tutor on your own. 

And it prefaces John, just so we have a frame of reference, how many Chinese teachers have you worked with over the course of your business and also learning. 

Oh, man. Some of them are longterm and some of them are shorter term.

It's gotta be around 150. Okay. So 

you have a little bit of experience in this area. 

Yeah. I mean, that doesn't mean they've taught me, but I've trained them. I've done demo lessons with them and evaluated their teaching. I might have gotten lots of feedback from my clients on the tutor, strengths and weaknesses.

So yeah, it's something that I'm always involved with every day. 

Alright. So then a wise one, what should we look for when we're looking for a Chinese tutor? 

All right. So I want to start with something that I think is obvious, but at the same time, not so obvious, which is experience. So everyone knows, Oh yeah.

I want to find a tutor or the 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. 

Oh, this is so true. This really relates to honestly like any job.

I mean, I've worked in market research and I remember there was a one guy who worked for our company. He had 10 years of experience, but it was like, what kind of experience did you have? It was doing some things that I, in my opinion, wasn't quite qualified to work on it when I was working with him. But yeah.

So it's not just like, Oh, you know, have you been a teacher's aid? Have you been planning stuff? Have you been kind of a cognitive wheel or are you just kind of like developing your own things and what kind of success have the students been having? 

Okay. So I think one of the first things you need to look at is what kind of experience they have, like you're saying.

So for example, classroom experience, if you're hiring someone who has classroom experience for their first ever one-on-one tutoring gig, you might find the experience to be a bit classroom me if they've never done anything else, they're probably not so good at, you know, customizing content and interacting in a fun way.

One-on-one. Yeah, 

that's a big deal because the dynamics on tutoring one-on-one is very different than that classroom experience. 

Yeah. So when we hire our tutors, we're looking for people with different kinds of experience. So a variety of experience tends to lead to a much more seasoned veteran of a teacher.

Someone who can think quickly on their feet, you know, they're adaptable and they probably just have a lot more going on in their imagination. Other than just let's get through this curriculum for this textbook or this class. 

You know, like keys into one of the dynamics that happens in a classroom is that the teacher typically they teach toward the middle.

And what that means is, you know, they're teaching towards the average where the average student is. So the students who are maybe more advanced or getting ahead, it's almost like they have to put on the brakes a little bit. And the students who are behind you maybe need extra support and maybe don't always get that support to kind of catch up to where everyone else is.

So it's like that tutor. They need to be cognizant of that. Right? And that's why you're hiring a tutor. You're not hiring a tutor for a classroom experience. You need specific individualized and adaptive instruction. 

Right. So this is something that you can totally gauge by looking at a resume or someone's, you know, 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? So that's something that you can see in some cases, if they've taught Chinese for 20 years using the same textbook in the classroom, it's like they almost will have trouble unlearning their classroom approach.

Maybe more trouble than someone with a lot less experience. Another thing though. And this is something that you can't really see until you start doing a demo lesson or your first lesson. Is how they interact with you. So one important thing is, do they just like praise you nonstop? I mean, I think we've all had the experience of being praised by a Chinese native speakers for having amazing Chinese.

But you know, if you're elementary level, you know, your Chinese is not amazing. And the teacher just won't stop being like, Whoa, You know, gushing over your Chinese. To me, that kind of smacks of inexperience because if a teacher has had a lot of learners of different levels, they're, you know, they're going to be encouraging.

They're not going to put you down or anything, but they're not going to be flipping out all the time about your Chinese. 

You know, what's most effective that we find in like, psychology is that you don't praise the result. You praise the effort. Right. So it's kinda like, Oh no, your Chinese is so good because that gives you kind of that fixed mindset, right.

That like, Oh, so she said, it's good. So I always have to be good. Therefore it actually psychologically, it makes you a little more adverse to taking risks. Cause you always want to be able to projecting that, you know, successful or the. Good Chinese, but instead of just, Hey, you really tried hard, you know, that was a good effort you put in it.

Wasn't right. But I see where you're going with that. 

Or one thing that our teachers like to praise and I like to praise among our clients that also that learning is you did a lot of prep work. I can tell you, you did a lot of work preparing for this lesson. And that is great 

because that's praising effort really?

That's what it is. 

Exactly. Okay. So one is like how much they praise you, but another is just how much they push you. If you know that your pronunciation has issues, you know, your tones are all over the place. But the teacher is barely correcting you then that right there is a signal that this teacher may not have like really high standards.

And for me and my clients, like we have high standards. We want our pronunciation to one day be native-like or as close as possible. So we want to teach her that's going to help us get there. And this is a bit of a balancing act like the teacher can't 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.

So that's an important thing there. 

Yeah, John, what do you think the line is on that? Because like you said, there are some people like they're stopping you all the time and interrupting you and say, Oh, you didn't set it wrong. It's the way to say it versus, you know, like no correction at all. So where do you think is more appropriate?

Well, that kind of 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 or below level, but even at the intermediate level, if you're doing pronunciation practice and the teachers should be giving you immediate feedback on every.

Word or a line that comes out of your mouth. That's the whole point of pronunciation practice, immediate feedback. So that's one kind, but then the other kind is conversation practice. So if you guys are talking about something, this is the real purpose of language. This is 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 that's just 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. So when it comes to conversation, practice, I tell my teachers to make little notes on the things that the client is consistently saying wrong.

Especially if you, for example, suspect that they learn the tones wrong for a certain word or something like that. Make little notes on these. And then after the conversation kind of winds up or comes to a natural stopping point, then you deliver. The feedback, the corrective feedback, 

that sounds like very good advice.

So I think this is even probably helpful for people out there right now who have a tutor is maybe a, you know, maybe a little overzealous in some of these areas. So what would you recommend to someone who's learning right now through a tutor in their tutors doing this? How would you recommend to their tutor at they actually change how they're doing things.

Well, we actually have a blog post and also learning about this. So we could put a link in the lesson notes. One other form of correction that I think is really great. And it's especially good for intermediate learners who are trying to maintain the flow of the conversation. There's something called recasting.

The way this works is the learner says something and it's a little bit wrong. And then the teacher repeats it like. Questioning like a confirmation that I hear you. Right. But as they repeat it, they're actually correcting it. And then the learner, if they're, you know, a little bit observant, they'll pick up on this and then they'll correct themselves and just keep going.

So it's not like, you know, stop, you made a mistake. I have to correct. You. It's like a gentle reminder, like, Oh, you mean this word? And they're like, yeah, yeah, that word. And then they keep going. And the nice thing about this is. If they're talking about a special topic and there's a keyword that they're going to be using over and over again, but they're pronouncing it wrong, then it's nice to get the correction early on so that they can start repeating it correctly and get that reinforcement rather than saying it wrong 20 times, then finding at the end, you know, you got that word wrong 20 times.

So what else is important when we're looking for a tutor? 

All right. So I think that pretty much covers experience. Those are some things that you can definitely look for as a learner. I think personality is really important though. This is a person you're going to be having long conversations with, especially if you're intermediate level or higher, you're going to be having real conversations, not just, you know, what time do you get up in the morning?

So personality is super important. And if the teacher doesn't have any interests in common with you, then I would say that's kind of a red flag. 

So we're just looking for fit and personality or commonalities and interests. 

Yeah. Like, do you enjoy talking to them? If you love movies and they never watch movies or they love books and you don't read books, those could be some red flags, right?

Because if you're at a level that you can actually discuss this stuff, then some of the stuff you might want to discuss is not something they have any experience with. Right. 

Well, I guess it makes sense just because, you know, if you want to talk to this person, one of the key things about having this tutor is to improve your overall Chinese and speaking and listening skills is a key element of that.

Right? So if you have nothing to talk about or it's stilted conversation with this person, then yeah, that's going to be a problem moving forward. 

Yeah. I mean, you can still do it. You can make progress with a teacher who's like kind of boring and just a task master type you can. But if they're interesting and the conversation is part of what motivates you to keep improving and keep showing up to all your lessons, then I think that's the.

Better situation to be in. 

So this leads also to like the next aspect, personality traits, you know? And so this is not just like commonalities or interests, so to speak, but like what's this person really like, and you know, there's a lot of things I think that are important here. One, I think is good to highlight on is like patience.

I mean, it takes patience to. Communicate with someone who's not good at communicating in that language. 

Someone who keeps making the same tone mistakes over and over. Right. 

Exactly. You know, one of the things too, that I've found when I've worked with some other people who have, you know, been helping me learn Chinese or something, is that they don't jump into quick to like rescue you, you know, it's like, you need to let that person struggle a little bit.

Because a lot of times they actually they've studied the word. They studied the phrase, they know it it's somewhere in their head. Right. And they just need to make that connection. And there's some times, you know, I've struggled like that. And I still struggle like that sometimes. And sometimes when that person's just like, Oh, you mean this right?

And you're like, yeah, that's it. But I knew that, you know, I just want you to give me a second and let me figure that out and make that connection that neural pathway needs to form. And so that's one of the elements of patients. They need to have patience to let you struggle. And at the end, if you can't get it and you need help and okay, that's fine.

Yeah. I find that that's something that differentiates a experience or a really good teacher. And one who's less experienced is not just having patients, but knowing how to use it. So a lot of times the teacher will jump in when, if they just wait like half a second longer, the person will get it on their own.

And that act of struggling and getting on their own leads to direct progress. Another thing that I've seen teachers do, which is really cool is the student is talking. They make a mistake that the teacher has corrected many times and rather than correcting them again, the teacher just gives them like a look like.

Come on, you know, how to use that or whatever. And then they're like, Oh yeah. And then they correct themselves and be able to correct themselves with just a tiny little nonverbal prompt can make a big difference in progress as well. 

I think I know what you're talking about. So there's like, come on, 

we've been here before, but also on the topic of personality traits, I think this is really important is how.

Extroverted or introverted the teacher is because like, if you're a talker, then you might not want to find a teacher. Who's a total talker. And by the same token, if you're very introverted and you hire a teacher, who's very introverted. Could be kind of an awkward series of lessons you have. 

Hmm. Hmm.


true. Like we have this one client who's quite introverted and the two different tutors I have teaching him. One of them is more of a talker, so he's more okay with that. Of course, he's trying to get the guy to talk as much as possible, but he doesn't struggle with it too much, but one of the other teachers is less.

Extroverted. So she really has to like, do a bit of extra prep to make sure that she can get him talking and it's okay. She'll do the prep. But when you're dealing with like an unknown tutor, you don't know how much work they're going to do. It can be easier to just find a personality that's going to match better with yours.

No, that's so true. And you know, and that's one of the aspects though, of having a good tutor is that they'll find ways to start conversation. It's not that you have to have a whole lot of things in common or really get along with the person very, very well. It comes down to the skill of the teacher, right?

It's like, can they have prompts? Can they have things that are going to be able to elicit conversation or elicit discussion, give you opportunity to use your language and also use it in a way that's engaging and relevant to you. 

Right. Right. And I mentioned like some teachers are more extroverted that they should never be extroverted to the point that they're just listening to themselves.

Talk. The point of a lesson is to get lots of good practice speaking. And of course, some teachers are going to be more extroverted than others, but they need to be good at getting you to talk. And if you do a demo lesson or something, and they're not. Getting you talking, they're not asking any interesting questions.

They're basically only asking. Yes, no questions. Well then that's also a bad sign for future interactions. 

No, absolutely. 

Okay. So we've covered experience and personality. Number three on my list. And the last one is very practical one, but I think it's also important and that's just availability. So if you're going to hire a tutor and they have a very rigid schedule, like I only have time for you this one hour block.

These two times. And, you know, for a fact that you're sometimes going to need to reschedule, then be realistic, right? You might not be able to have more than a couple lessons a month with this person. And even if they're good, if that's all you're going to be doing with your Chinese, that's not enough. So you need to consider a teacher's flexibility, their availability schedule wise.

It's interesting that you bring this up because I've had a lot of friends who have tutors. And I remember one specifically, it's like, Oh yeah, my tutor were like, she's always rescheduling. You know, something came up and you know, this might be also when you're looking at a tutor, it's like a, not every tutor is like a full time tutor.

This might be something that they're doing on the side and that's totally fine, but sometimes they are involved in a job or something that takes a lot of extra time projects come up. They have to work overtime and they reschedule all the time. But that also is going to be a problem on the client's end on the learner's end, too.

Right. Cause I've known a lot of learners that they will constantly reschedule their tutor. 

Yeah. And that's what I have to deal with at my business, because what we do is we manage that for the clients. And a lot of our clients are super busy with work and so they keep rescheduling. So one of the ways that we deal with that is we have multiple tutors for each client.

And that gives us a lot more flexibility. But you know, if you're hiring an individual tutor, you don't really have that as an option. But aside from tutors, sometimes having a separate, full time job, which limits their availability. There's also the case where. Like some superstar tutors have a big long list of learners and they just don't have a lot of time in their schedule.

And if your schedule is pretty fixed and you can work with that, then great. That might be the best tutor you ever have. But if your schedule needs more flexibility than you need to be aware of that, and maybe prioritize that when you're looking for somebody. Jerry, let me return to one other thing that you just mentioned, which is how reliable they are.

Like, are they canceling? Are they constantly changing times? And this is one that I think is really hard because how can you know that from a demo lesson, people don't put that on their resume. I frequently cancel my lessons. So what do you think. 

I think it really comes down to how serious are you about learning Chinese?

Because if your teacher is not serious and you are, then, you know, you probably should find someone who's on the same level of seriousness. If you will, in mind, when you find a teacher that's a little more professional who can be willing to work with you and just be there when you need them. 

Now, that's actually a pitfall that I see a lot, which is.

Someone looks for a tutor. They find someone who seems pretty good. Maybe they don't have a lot of experience, but they're very serious. So then they start lessons. They go pretty well. But as time goes by, they kind of become friends and they noticed the teachers doing less and less prep. And for some people like it just devolves to the teachers showing up and like, what do you want to talk about today?

And you don't know prep. You just feel like they have 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 does happen and it can sometimes be awkward to be like, ah, I don't think I want to keep learning lessons with you.

So a lot of times people just make up an excuse to end the lessons and they find a new tutor, but that's just one of the things that you have to be aware of with tutors that can happen. And are you someone who's going to be too embarrassed to ever end the lessons? Or are you going to like really pursue excellence and, you know, sometimes switch tutors if you have to, that's kind of up to you.

You know, I think this brings up another aspect about all of this is that, you know, the cousin of tutors would be like a language exchange, right? If you have a tutor, like who's doing this or just showing up, you know, no prep, what do you want to talk about? You know, you might be able to find just a language exchange partner.

And you may be able to get to similar results. And for those of you who may not be familiar with the concept of a language exchange, what that is is you'd find like another Chinese person who's learning English and you can get together with them and you can practice your Chinese with them and they all get to practice their English with you.

So, you know, those can have hit and miss a little bit, give me a language partner, language exchange, but John, what's your opinion of like language exchanges. 

I think they're great, especially for poor students. I did that when I was a student and I made a great friend and I was still at university of Florida.

It didn't help my Chinese a ton, but helped a little bit. And it really helped my cultural understanding of China. And at the time I was planning to go to China and I'd never been there. So it was super, super useful, but actually getting back to the tutor thing related to language exchange. And this is a point that I wanted to make too.

If you want to hire a tutor that doesn't have a lot of experience, but they seem smart and capable. You can, if you do all the prep yourself. So when I was preparing to go to a grad school in China, I found someone who I thought was smart. She didn't really have any experience teaching foreigners. But she wasn't weird when we talked, she wasn't excessively praising me.

She was pretty interesting. You know, she checked a lot of the other boxes. I did the lesson plans. Like this is what I'm going to do. This is what I need you to do. And then as she did it, I would give her feedback. And so I was teaching her how to teach me. And then she was helping me learn Chinese and it worked pretty well, but that was quite time intensive.

And fortunately at that time in my life, I had the time for it. 

Oh, that's really clever. Also throw another aspect out there that I've had people contact me directly asking about this and explain what they've done with greater readers is they just have this other person that could be a tutor and it could also not be a tutor, right?

Just like what you're saying, someone who's, you know, maybe capable, but not a lot of experience, but you just reading the same book together. You could read like, you know, the secret garden. And you come and you discuss the first chapter. You just have kind of a discussion about the book. So that only takes your prep and reading.

And there just need to take, you know, they're going to read 10 times faster than you anyway, and you can just talk about the book and that can be quite effective. 

Yeah, they can literally read a chapter of the book and like two minutes and we have discussion questions in the back of the book too. So they don't even have to come up with their own questions, obviously they should, but to just get the ball rolling, you can use the discussion questions that we offer.

And John, I think I have to bring up one thing that I think is really important. When you're selecting a tutor or just makes a good teacher period. And this is someone who can understand the learner's perspective. This became so apparent to me when we started man or companion. Gosh, what do we have eight years ago?

Because I remember the early days when we were finding writers, To write our books. And you had a bunch of potential writers who he had found a lot of people from different sources. And when we looked through the samples of what we had, people write the best ones, there was like four or five, I thought, Hey, these are good, but they were all tutors.

They were all people who had tutored, you know, Chinese learners. For some period of time and they understood how they struggle with the language 

there. I remember back then, you were of the opinion in the very beginning that we should find someone who's like an experienced writer, someone who really knows how to craft a plot.

And then when we looked at the samples, they're were like, Oh, that's the diff 

my perspective changed that day 

experience. Means you're learning about the learner, a Chinese teacher who, you know, has never been a 400 learning. Chinese can only kind of vicariously experience what it's like to learn Chinese, but the more they have that experience, the more they can start to understand what it's like, you know, native speakers, some of them have more aptitude for this type of empathy.

But it's important to have a good idea of what's hard and what's not, you know, things like tones, you don't just get them in a week. They're a longterm thing. They're hard. And so someone who understands that is going to help you a lot more 

for all of our listeners right now, you're sitting there with your headphones on having a listen.

You know, this is probably even why you're listening to this podcast is because you're listening to John and I who have learned Chinese and been through that process. And we know what it's like. We know the challenges that you face in John, that's something that's even made us or companion effective is that we understand how hard it can be.

But the great thing about Chinese is that you can learn Chinese. 

You can learn Chinese, good luck finding those tutors. Don't give up on one bad tutor. It sometimes takes a bit of time. 

Got to kiss a few frogs before you find your Prince or princess, but you shouldn't be kissing your tutors.