You’ve decided that you want to get serious about learning Chinese and that the next step for you is finding a tutor. That’s a big step and one that will take your skills to the next level.
A good tutor can quickly correct your mistakes, provide valuable feedback, and in general make learning Chinese much easier.
But, you shouldn’t only depend on your teacher. After all, you’re responsible for your own learning. I’d recommend using a teacher similar to how you would use an app, a podcast, a course, or a textbook – as part of your Chinese learning strategy – not in isolation.
You don’t know what you don’t know – that’s why you’ll need a Chinese tutor
There are obviously tons of benefits to finding a Chinese tutor. The first, and most obvious, is the personal attention that comes with it. If you’re taking a course at university or just started studying Chinese independently, it can be hard to know exactly what your weaknesses are.
Is your pronunciation okay? Do you have quick questions that need answered? Do you simply need more conversation practice? Are you struggling with grammar?
Often times you may not be consciously aware of what you need to improve.
A tutor can’t teach you everything
Of course a tutor can teach you parts of the language, but nobody can teach you everything. If you’re dependent on someone teaching you, then you’ll be too passive in the learning process. Learning Chinese is an active process that you need to take personal responsibility for.
When I first moved to Beijing, I procrastinated on starting to learn Chinese for a couple of months. When I finally found my first tutor, the experience was underwhelming. I signed-up for ten lessons and soon after realized that this was not the way for me to learn Chinese. It moved at too slow of a pace. I wasn’t learning what I needed to learn. I wasn’t as engaged as I should have been.
If you’ve just started learning Chinese, I wouldn’t suggest finding a tutor right away. Instead, I’d recommend you to first self-study and get a base of knowledge. I know, self-studying a language as complex as Mandarin can be a daunting task, but it really isn’t that tough. I’d suggest taking a look at my advice for beginners in this post.
What shouldn’t a tutor teach you?
My opinion may go contrary to what many people think; but I believe that a tutor should only teach you a relatively small amount of the language.
You don’t need someone to teach you individual words – you can learn those more efficiently on your own. There’s no doubt that you’ll increase your vocabulary from talking with a tutor, but if they’re just telling you what words mean, then you’re wasting your time and money.
You don’t need a teacher to teach you all of the grammar rules. You should read about those on your own. There are plenty of good resources for this, including, the Chinese Grammar Wiki, Chinese Zero to Hero Youtube videos, the Chinese Boost blog, or a good grammar textbook. After you have a basic grasp of various rules, you should then practice implementing these with you teacher.
You don’t need a tutor to provide you with listening practice. Sure, you’ll get the listening practice from your conversations, but that should be far from the only time you practice listening. You’d be much better off using a resource like ChinesePod to improve your listening comprehension, with the tutor playing a minor role.
You don’t even need to have a tutor teach you how to read or write in Chinese. Apps like The Chairman’s Bao and Skritter can provide easy to read materials and practice writing Chinese characters. If you want to have longer form writing corrected, you can do this with the notebooks section of italki for free.
Even learning pronunciation and improving your speaking skills isn’t something that should be strictly delegated to your time with a teacher. Many teachers aren’t skilled enough to accurately teach you pronunciation.
Think about it, could you teach someone English pronunciation? Where should your tongue be when you make the “r” sound? What’s your mouth doing when saying words with an “x” in them? Many tutors you’ll find aren’t any more skilled than you are in this regard. But, you can and should learn the basics of pronunciation first, on your own.
I strongly believe that you should spend a good amount of time studying Chinese before looking for a tutor. There are many resources that will be able to teach you the fundamentals of Chinese better than a tutor would be able to.
Plus, if you’re depending on a tutor to teach you everything, then that’s going to become very expensive, very fast.
However, if a tutor is a supplemental part of learning Chinese, it’ll be a very affordable expense.
So, what should a tutor teach you?
A tutor should be more of a guide rather than explicitly teaching you things. Similar to the example I gave above; the tutor shouldn’t be telling you what words mean, but rather pushing you to use these words in a new context or sentence structure.
A tutor should listen carefully and spot your weaknesses. Even after learning pronunciation on your own, it’s entirely possible that you’re still making mistakes pronouncing the Mandarin “c”, this should be something your tutor points out and helps you to correct.
If you don’t have access to Chinese speakers, a tutor can provide conversational practice. Of course, language exchanges from places like italki, HelloTalk, Lingbe, and Tandem can also provide this for free.
Basically, a tutor should help you to apply what you’ve already learned and spot mistakes you don’t realize you’re making.
How to find the right tutor for you?
Finding the right tutor will be slightly different for everyone as each person has different needs.
First, I’ll share what my needs where and how I found a great tutor.
After moving to Beijing, procrastinating on studying Chinese, and having an underwhelming experience with my first tutor, I realized that I needed to spend some time studying on my own. After a while, I decided that I needed someone patient to practice conversational Chinese with.
Because I was living in Beijing, I wanted my tutor to also be someone living in Beijing so that I would become more accustomed to the local accent. I was also fairly broke and didn’t want to spend much more than $10/hour. Also, being a man, I’d prefer to find a male teacher (not as easy as it sounds) so that I wouldn’t develop a feminine speaking style. Finally, I found that an online tutor was even cheaper than an equivalently qualified in-person tutor and didn’t leave me needing to make long commutes. I tried several different tutors on italki and ended up taking regular lessons with one tutor who best matched my personality and needs.
So, how should you find the right teacher for you? I’d suggest a similar method. Does your ideal tutor have a specific accent? What’s your budget? Are there any specific skills or interests you’d prefer your tutor to have? How often and at what times would you like to have a class? Do you just want a casual conversation class or do you require someone who is an expert in a specific area?
If you use a site like italki or Verbling, you can then go through a read about the tutor’s teaching experience, style, and more. It’s definitely worth it to spend some time looking through the reviews of the teacher.
There’s a lot to consider but the most important part will probably come from your gut feeling. You’ll probably want to take classes with a few different teachers at first before deciding on one or two that you want to work with regularly. Sometimes, someone looks great on paper, but you just have completely opposite personality styles.
I’ve had classes with tutors where the time dragged on slowly and I wanted to quit early. On the other hand, there have been tutors that felt more like friends where the conversation flowed naturally and easily. Make sure you find someone that you enjoy talking with.
Where can I find an online Chinese tutor?
You have an abundance of options for finding a tutor online. These options will fall within one of two categories.
1. Online classes booked directly from the teacher.
2. Online classes booked through a Chinese school.
There are several options for each category, along with advantages and disadvantages for each. Let’s take a look at each of them now.