10 Tried and True Tips for Learning with Chinese Tutors

So you’re learning Mandarin with a Chinese tutor.

Question: how do you know you’re making the most out of your time with your tutor?

If you are no longer a beginner and really want to get good, I don’t think it’s enough to sit back and take a fully passive approach.

Learning with multiple Chinese tutors helped me become fluent enough to work professionally in China in Mandarin Chinese.

From those experiences, here are my 10 tips on how to learn more effectively with Mandarin Chinese tutors.

10 Tips for Learning with Chinese Tutors

1) Speed, energy, and urgency

You will learn more when you both speak faster and with a sense of urgency. There should not be lulls in the conversation where you are both staring at each other. Instead, you should almost be cutting each other off because you have too much to say. Part of this is because  of quantity (you will fit more into your session) and part of this is because of quality (you will have more energy for the session).

2) It’s about you – you need to talk

You should be speaking most of the time (70 – 80%?), and at a rapid pace (it should feel like an hour long sprint). You can master new words and phrases only by using them yourself. Also, this creates opportunities for you to screw up, which creates opportunities for feedback and improvement. And when you get stuck, ask your language tutor to play the role of thesaurus and quickly list some words that you can use.

3) Challenge and push your tutor for feedback

If you’re talking a lot and your tutor is just smiling and agreeing, then something is wrong. Especially if you know you’ve been saying some awkward things. You need to ask constantly:

  • did I say anything remotely wrong or awkward?
  • is there a better way to say this?
  • is there a word that’s related to this that I should know but probably don’t?

This is where the tutor adds the most value and is absolutely critical.

4) Don’t gloss over mistakes

Actively seek out mistakes as opportunities to improve. When you know that you’ve made a mistake or even said something in an awkward way, instead of driving right past it, address it head on. Find the right answer and start using it right away. Those moments are where you can learn the fastest. Once you stop making mistakes, you stop improving.

5) Talk about what interests you

For you to be spending so much time talking, and to withstand so much (constructive) criticism, you need to be talking about topics that interest you. And in any case, you want to learn words that you’ll be using frequently anyway.


If you like this list, you might also like our vocab deck on Elementary Business words.

6) Talk about topics that challenge your Chinese level

At the same time, it’s critical that you talk about topics that will force you to learn new vocabulary. Avoid topics that you already know  like the weather or what you had for lunch (unless that is a new area for you).

7) Collect new words and play with them like toys

The best way to master new words is to actively collect them and to test them out. Jump up the learning curve by playing around with the word and understanding its boundaries and limits. Without your tutor, you’d have to do it in the real world, which would take more time and be more awkward.

8 ) Align early with your Chinese tutor on the fact that the tutoring session is not a normal conversation

When you begin talking fast, interrupting each other, talking about unusual topics, and using new words over and over, it could misinterpreted as strange or even rude. Make a point to align early with your tutor and explain to them why you’re doing what you’re doing. Ask if this approach would work with them. Try to reach the mutual understanding that it’s all about the Chinese.

9) Get multiple Chinese tutors

If you have just one tutor, you will tire them out as you treat them like a thesaurus and constantly ask for feedback. Also, you will not get exposed to a wider variety of Chinese. At my high point, I had 5 Chinese tutors and on some days I would meet all of them. Do yourself a favor and get multiple tutors.

Start with Verbling. This is the best online destination for finding language tutors, and you could easily find a few different tutors here who meet your needs in terms of scheduling and price range.

10) Rinse and repeat

Meet your tutors consistently, and make sure you review past words! At first they might see you strangely, but pretty soon you will again have 默契!

Your Chinese tutors are the ones who know the Chinese, but this doesn’t mean that you have to take a passive role to learning with them. Help them teach you by actively applying the tips above!

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10 Responses to 10 Tried and True Tips for Learning with Chinese Tutors

  1. Morris October 10, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    It’s kind of tricky to give tips on learning bc there are so many different ways. For instance i like to speak slow and make sure all words are pronounced correctly. Some like to go fast to keep the flow and not get bogged down thinking about the n/ng, s/sh. #3 is a good one. The great teachers will anticipate those questions and bring them up even without u asking. But you need to encourage them to do so. Some things that have worked for me:

    1. Set your focus

    If you have limited time in your studies make it clear to your tutor what area of Chinese you want to focus on. I tell my tutor I want to focus on pronunciation, building up vocabulary and recognizing characters. Just as important tell your tutor what you want to skip. I tell my tutor to take it easy on 成语 and 语法, and completely ignore how to write characters. It’s a one on one session so tailor it to your focus area.

    2. Choose textbook wisely

    Standard textbooks are good but having something connected to your interests and lifestyle is important. Select material that will keep you engaged such as Chinese songs, celebrity gossip magazines, your tenant landlord contract, lifestyle magazines, tang dynasty poems. For advanced students, I recommend 读者 http://www.duzhe.com/ or 青年文摘 http://www.qnwz.cn/. Both are bi-weekly digests of stories and articles from around China, including some translated articles from abroad. You can find these digests at any magazine and newspaper stand in shanghai for 5 RMB. The articles are short enough to complete in a two hour tutoring session and many of the stories are interesting.

    3. Create vocab lists

    From each session your tutor should send you a list of words to study. Before the next session you will create a sentence for each word that your tutor will review and correct. Actually using the word in a sentence will help to internalize the meaning. The next session should start with a test of those words that your tutor prepares. After one month there is another review of all the past words. If you do badly, the teacher should berate and shame you. if you do well, you get a cookie.

    4. Customize the class

    There are many ways to learn languages. Over time you will know what works and doesn’t work. Work with your tutor on tweaking the session. Give your tutor feedback on how he/she can help you learn more effectively. Be willing to try a new approach. If it doesn’t work, scrap it. I’ve been with my tutor for 4 years and we still tweak things almost every week.

  2. Alan October 10, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Hi Morris,

    Thanks for your comment!

    Yes I completely agree with you! The whole approach definitely has to be tailored to the individual.

  3. Olle Linge January 17, 2012 at 2:44 am #

    Excellent post in general, but I have one question. Why do say people should speak quickly? I agree 100% than they should speak a lot, but I think it’s counterproductive to speak qickly before one is ready for that. You might have seen it already, but this week’s article on Hacking Chinese is just about that, why it’s a bad idea to speak quickly.

    • Alan January 17, 2012 at 10:08 am #

      Olle, I agree with you 100%! When I was writing this post, I had in mind the “advanced learner.” So I make my recommendation with 2 caveats: 1) your pronunciation should already be perfect, or at least very good 2) you should continue to identify and correct every mistake that you make.

      The idea here is that you pack more feedback in (like you are doing the lesson at 2x speed), rather than that you are glossing over mistakes and cutting corners.

      For the beginner, I agree with you 100% – you have to build a strong foundation to build a skyscraper. The first bricks have to be laid perfectly, with the utmost care.

      By the way, fantastic post! “Slow, then fast; big, then small” — I couldn’t think of a pithier way to put it. That’s a masterpiece my friend!

  4. Jonathan February 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Wow. Great suggestions, Alan. I’m kicking myself now because I was spending four hours a week with a tutor for a number of months, and was way too laid back. If only I had been inspired to super charge those sessions by seeing your post earlier!

    Maybe I’ll give it another go.

    • Alan February 8, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

      Thanks Jonathan! Yes I always think it’s better late than never!


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