Tips for Self Study, Part 3: Using a Tutor 个别辅导 gèbié fúdǎo

High School kids in Wuhan

Using a tutor can be a very effective way to learn Chinese, maintain what you have, or go beyond what you have learned in the classroom. Keep in mind that just because a person is native Chinese person does not automatically qualify them as a good tutor or teacher. To effectively use a tutor, it is important that you have clear objectives in mind and that those objectives are understood by your tutor.

Finding a tutor 

The best place to find a tutor is around university campuses. Students are often looking for a chance to make a little money on the side. You may also want to arrange a language exchange—you help a Chinese person with their English in exchange for them helping you with Chinese. There are numerous Chinese students that could use help with their English. A good place to start is with the department of foreign studies, or whatever department teaches Chinese as a foreign language. Many of these kinds of departments not only teaching Chinese as a foreign language, but also have graduate programs for Chinese learning how to teach Chinese as a foreign language. You may also check the English language department, or any other department where you have interests. For example, if you are studying engineering or are an engineer working in China, finding an engineering student may be best suited to help you with your specialized Chinese language needs. Most campuses have an “English Corner” where people get together in the evenings to practice English. This may also be a good place to meet a potential study partner.

Some Chinese have a deep-seated belief that foreigners cannot really learn Chinese well. You may need to convince your tutor that you are serious, and that you want to go beyond basic greetings and survival language if that is your goal. Hiring a faculty member, or a retired one, may also be a good bet. Often they could use the extra money and are just happy to interact with a foreigner. Or if you are working in China, a colleague may be willing to help.

Pay for services rendered 

If you want the best from your tutoring experience, I think it best to hire and pay for your tutoring services. You may have Chinese friends that will offer to help you out, but when they are not getting paid, they may not take it as serious as if they were getting paid and felt the accompanying responsibility to do a good job. In this case, you often get what you pay for.

Have clear objectives—you call the shots 

It’s usually not a good idea to hire a tutor and give them no guidelines. This usually results in chit-chat sessions that wander around but seldom get anywhere substantial. You will get much more mileage from your sessions with clear objectives about what you want to learn. If you are using a textbook or phrase book, make a copy of the lesson you want to cover and give it to your tutor. Tell them specifically that you want to work on the material in that lesson for the appointed meeting. This way, they will come prepared, and you can work together on practicing the material in that particular lesson. If you are not using any formal materials, come up with a plan of what you want to learn, then share with your tutor specifically what you want to learn. For example, if you are a beginner, you might want to work on basic greetings, talking about yourself and interests, asking others about themselves, and so on. You may also want to learn how to order a meal in a restaurant. Before each session, tell you tutor what you would like to learn so they can come prepared with some vocabulary items and phrases to practice with you. If you want to work specifically on your reading and writing skills, either pick out a reading passage from a textbook, or have your tutor select some passages for you based on your language level. Without a textbook, this may be challenging unless you are at the advanced level. Even at the advanced level it is suggested to at least read the newspaper or talk about current events.


The Problem with Most Chinese Language Textbooks

One of my areas of research, and where I have published, is in the field of Chinese language pedagogy; that is, teaching Chinese as a foreign language. Part of that is materials development (i.e. writing and reviewing textbooks). I am invited on a fairly regular basis to review new textbooks. Some of these are recently published books and the reviews are published in professional journals, and others are prepublication reviews. That is, a publisher will contact me and ask for a critical review and a recommendation whether I think they should publish it or not. Suffice it to say, I have seen quite a few Chinese language textbooks in my career, and most have pretty significant problems. Of course this is just my opinion, but most of my opinions are based on solid research in Chinese language pedagogy.

1. Too much focus on characters.

The vast majority of Chinese language textbooks have you learning Chinese characters from the very beginning. So you end up learning pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and characters all at the same time. This is a huge overload of information for new learners, especially since the Chinese writing system is non-alphabetic and totally different from Western languages. All people the world over learn to speak and are completely fluent in their native languages before they learn how to read. You do not need to know how to recognize and write characters to be able to learn how to speak Chinese. But most textbooks present dialogues and sentences in characters which means in order to learn how to speak you first must be able to read. Not a very efficient or effective approach. Research shows that if learners first learn how to speak Chinese and have at least a basic understanding of the sound system, they learn characters faster and have better pronunciation than those that learn characters from the beginning. Presenting a Spanish or French dialogue in Spanish or French does not impede a learners progress, but presenting dialogues in Chinese characters does.

2. Lack of contextualization.

Most textbooks present dialogues or other text with little or no context. There is no discussion about the people speaking, their relationship with each other, where the situation takes place, and so on. Learners must then make assumptions about the language and why it is used. Textbooks would be much better if they contextualized the language so learners know why certain language is used. The easiest example of this is with greetings. If textbooks only present 你好, then learners assume it is used the same as “hi” or “hello” in English. Language has meaning only in context.

3. Too much information.

Most Chinese language textbooks seem to have used European language textbooks as their models. This is evident with long vocabulary lists and dialogues. For English speakers, learning 20 or 30 new Spanish vocabulary items in a lesson is not the same as trying to learn the same number of Chinese words. Remember that there are no cognates in Chinese, and the language is both linguistically unrelated and culturally remote. Information needs to be presented in more manageable units.

4. Culture is treated as an after thought.

You simply cannot separate language and culture. Language has meaning only in a culturally rich context. I’m talking about behavioral culture—how people act, communicate, and interact with one another. Memorizing the dictionary and knowing all about the grammar of Chinese will not insure you will be able to communicate effectively. You need to know how to communicate, what language is okay to use with certain people, and so on. Most textbooks treat culture as a separate thing and focus on things like The Great Wall, chopsticks, Beijing Opera, and Chinese paper lanterns. Contextualizing the language entails providing information about things like, how close you stand to someone, what to do with your hands, what kinds of topics are okay to talk about, how you go about greeting someone, do you shake hands, how you apologize to someone based on your relationship with them, and so on. It not just the language that must be learned, but how to communicate, which includes communicative conventions that all natives know subconsciously.

The perfect textbook does not exist, but they are getting better. Most Chinese teachers have spent more time than they would like modifying and supplementing textbooks that they were either required to use, or selected but were not totally satisfied with. There are not too many beginning level textbooks that I would recommend without reservations. However, there are two textbook series that have recently been published that I think are worth looking into. They are:

Kubler, Cornelius. Basic Spoken Chinese and Basic Written Chinese. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing. 2011.

Ross, Claudia, et. al. The Routledge Course in Modern Mandarin Chinese. London and New York: Routledge. 2010.

Both of these excellent textbooks also include workbooks and online resources. In short, what makes these textbooks stand out from all the others, is that they treat the written language separately from the spoken language, the language is presented in manageable units, the language presented is highly contextualized with attention paid to behavioral culture, and they are attractive and easy to navigate. They are both very pedagogically sound and the authors are both highly respected in the field of Chinese language teaching.  They are not really intended for self study, though a motivated learner could probably use them as such. They are much better as part of a formal course in beginning level Chinese.

In the future, I will do a detailed review of each of these textbooks.