How to find the best Mandarin tutor for your child
- Many parents mistakenly place too much importance on cost or qualifications
- There are numerous factors to consider in making the right decision
Tutoring: for some families, it’s a love-hate relationship. The struggle is heightened when it comes to finding a Mandarin tutor. During the selection process, parents’ concerns may be skewed towards either finding the most economical cost or the best teaching qualifications.
These are not the only criteria affecting your child’s learning efficiency. One thing is for sure, though – the last thing we all want is someone who leaves your child feeling bored, frightened or demotivated about Mandarin.
We look at several qualities you may want to consider to ensure an efficient and enjoyable learning experience for your children from their tutor. They are represented by three letters: S-E-A, which stands for Structure, Engagement, and Accent:
Structure and weakness identification
Tutors are often hired to either help children complete their school work or to teach beyond school materials in the hope of getting them ahead. Many tutors may simply take your instructions and do what they are told, but a good tutor should be able to structure the class in a way that makes the child keen to learn. They should also be able to identify areas of weakness in your child’s language needs and guide them through to your expected level in the long run.
You may also want to keep an open dialogue with your child’s classroom teacher to help you identify those weaknesses so that you can check whether your tutor has sensed the same issues.
Kitty Chen is a tutor with more than 30 years’ experience of teaching children Chinese as a second language, and has definite views about tutoring older children. “As tutors, we are constantly innovating teaching methods, so that children will not be tired of learning. For primary students or older, I first open the topic for discussion and help children get into the mode. Do not open the homework book to start the work. I then use the most succinct explanations to help the child understand what they have learned before they can do their homework.”
Do sit down and learn more about what is taught during the lesson. Regardless of whether you are a native speaker, parents have an instinctive ability to recognise areas where their child needs help. Spend at least one lesson sitting with your child while they are being taught. You can sense whether there is a good chemistry and understand which area your child needs help with. Each child has different areas where they need support, and no one knows your child’s needs better than you!
Engagement and patience to ignite their interest
It is said that good teachers know how to find the key to open the student’s mind to make the class enjoyable and effective, so it is vital to have a Mandarin tutor who makes classes engaging and interesting. For example, when teaching a young child, a good tutor should incorporate games, songs, and interactive activities into the class. These keep them keen to participate. While having fun, they will be learning Chinese without even realising it.
According to Chen, “Nowadays, the main issue with Chinese – Mandarin, in particular – is that children are learning it as a second language, with a maximum one to two hours per day. Yet parents’ expectations are far higher in order to catch up with schoolwork. This gap in expectations is what causes children to become more and more resentful over the language.”
The bottom line is to be realistic over expectations. How much you put in is how much you get out of a child. If they are already in primary school, and you feel that they are significantly lagging behind, the chances are their oral foundation and vocabulary pool still need more work.
If you want to catch up, you must devote sufficient resources to helping your child improve, such as daily Mandarin exposure with a native tutor, relative or friend for at least six months. If you cannot provide this additional exposure, there is no way you can expect your child to enjoy constant progress in the same way as his native tongue.
If your child is still in kindergarten, you still have time to give them consistent listening and speaking exposure, and at the same time help them build their vocabulary pool. All this contributes to building up a mind which can compose creative writing in later years. Writing is important too, but not until you are sure they have a good command of the logic of composing sentences in their head.
To illustrate this point, think of how you teach your child in their mother tongue. You will have spent one to two years helping them learn everything word by word before you help them build the sentences, and before you put a pen into their hand for formal writing. Can you spare the same clemency for their second or third language?
Accent is the key
One of the questions I most commonly get asked by parents is “Are your teachers from Beijing?” This is one of the biggest misconceptions about how to attest whether the teacher is qualified. The truth is, some people from Beijing have a heavy “curled tongue” dialect accent, like the other 200-plus dialects spoken across China that create a strong accent.
A child’s accent is heavily influenced by their educators, so parents must ensure that their tutor’s pronunciation is clear and accurate. Yet pronunciation competency is commonly overlooked, as the parents’ own level may not be sufficient for them to spot the difference.
If you are looking for Mandarin tutors from the mainland, you can find out their oral proficiency levels by asking them for their results in the Putonghua Proficiency Test or Putonghua Shuiping Ceshi (PSC). This is an official test of spoken fluency in standard Chinese intended for native speakers, to offer a credible assurance of the teacher's pronunciation competency.
The test consists of reading words and a 400-character passage to test pronunciation, fluency, vocabulary and syntax accuracy, as well as speaking for three minutes on a topic chosen by a panel of examiners. Those taking the test start off with 100 per cent; points are then deducted for each error. Candidates who pass the test are given a Certificate of Putonghua Proficiency at levels 1, 2 or 3, each of which is sub-divided into grades A and B.
Level 1 certificate holders speak what commonly known as “Standard Mandarin”. To know what perfect “Standard Mandarin” is, listen to those news presenters on CCTV or Phoenix TV Channel talk. Below are the levels and the scores they achieve, Level 1A, 1B or 2A are quality-assuring levels. Anything below 2B, you will be able to identify apparent accent or mispronunciation on various words.
Level 1-A (97 per cent correct) - Candidates reaching this, the highest stage, can qualify as presenters on national and provincial radio and television, what we consider as perfect “Standard Chinese”.
Level 1-B (92 per cent correct)
Level 2-A (87 per cent correct)
Level 2-B (80 per cent correct)
Level 3-A (70 per cent correct)
Level 3-B (60 per cent correct)
A good tutor also needs a pleasant personality as well as a passion for teaching. Students are always attracted to teachers with a good attitude as this leads to better communication, understanding and, ultimately, good results.
What I have discussed may apply to private tutoring and group lessons, where both types of learning benefit children in their own way. There is no perfect tutor, but there is always one who suits your child’s Chinese learning journey.