Choosing a good Chinese teacher is one of the key factors that will determine whether you can be successful and persist in learning Chinese, or whether you just end up giving up or becoming demotivated.
If you are in China or another Chinese speaking area, at first it can seem like you have an unlimited supply of teachers. After all, you are surrounded by native speakers, who could all potentially help you to learn their language. You might even get offers of help with your Chinese, in return for helping the other person with their English (although sometimes you end up speaking much more English than Chinese, and it doesn’t work out at all).
If you have a partner or girlfriend / boyfriend who speaks Chinese then your friends probably think that you don’t need a Chinese teacher at all, but your partner might be much better at English than you are at Chinese, or just not be patient enough to teach you.
Even if you live somewhere where there are not many Chinese speakers, and you are lucky enough to have friends who speak Chinese, they might not be the best people to teach you either.
Sometimes you have to search around to find a good Chinese teacher you can get you to where you want to be. The first teacher you try might not be the best, so you might have to switch around until you find a good fit.
Based on my experience studying with a number of different teachers both in mainland China, Taiwan and the UK, teaching Chinese myself online and from hearing feedback from friends about their Chinese teachers, I’ve come up with a checklist of things to look for when looking for a good Chinese teacher.
1. Somebody who really knows their stuff
Almost everybody who has grown up in mainland China or Taiwan will speak Mandarin, so some would argue that all native speakers ‘know their stuff’, but the problem is that not every speaker of a language has a detailed knowledge of how that language works and how to teach it, many people have just learned it as a skill.
Just as there are many painters who could not teach you how to paint and many good writers who could not teach you how to write, it takes more than just being a native speaker to be a good teacher of a language.
A good Chinese teacher should have experience working with Chinese learners, understand the difficulties they face, understand the workings of the Chinese language, be able to make cross-references and give you plenty of examples.
2. Somebody knows the ‘why’ and can explain things
To turn things around for a moment, there are many native English speakers in China who have got jobs teaching English mainly because they are native speakers, but sometimes struggle to answer questions from learners like “what is the difference between ‘among’ and ‘between’” or “why do you say ‘I used to go’ instead of ‘I was going.”
If you ask your teacher a question and they always answer “that’s the way it is,” “that’s how Chinese works” or “I don’t know either,” then you might want to think about finding somebody who can explain things to you more clearly.
If you are a complete beginner in Chinese or can only speak a little, then you’ll also want to find a teacher who speaks English or your native language well enough to explain difficult points to you. This is another area in which some teachers or Chinese friends might be weak in.
3. Somebody who can engage you and make Chinese interesting
Chinese is a fascinating language, but it be really frustrating to learn and you can get demotivated at times.
That’s why a good Chinese teacher also need to be able to make lessons engaging, and bring the language to life. I’ve been in classes before where the teacher simply picks up a textbook full of dialogues and examples of grammar points and simply talks through everything starting from the page you left off last time.
It’s best to look for a teacher with an engaging style who can add extra things to standard materials and even customise classes to your level and interests. If your teacher bores you, then you might want to think about finding a new one!
4. Somebody who can think logically and teach in a structured way
When you’re learning Chinese, it’s best to try and work progressively and methodically. That’s one of the reasons for finding a teacher in the first place.
You’ll want to find a teacher who is able to think clearly about the subject and break things down in a logical way for you, rather than just bombard you with a lot of examples.
Your teacher will also need to think about the order in which they teach you things, rather than just teaching things ‘as they come up’. If you have to process a lot of points about different aspects of the language all at once, there is a risk that you will just get overwhelmed and lose your motivation.
There is a danger of having too much structure to your lessons. If they become all about working through items and tests, then you might want some more casual elements in your classes.
At the same time though, you don’t want to go too far the other way. Once you get to a certain level, casual conversation practice can be useful, but it still works better if your sessions can be structured and you can reflect and revise what you have learned.
5. Somebody who can encourage and motivate you (but also give you useful feedback)
A teacher can be an excellent source of motivation and encouragement as you learn Chinese. Taking classes can be a way to get yourself into the habit of learning the language, and make things easier than learning on your own.
A lot of Chinese teachers are great at encouraging their students, and if you speak Chinese in China you are likely to get a lot of compliments. However, one of the reasons why you would want to pay a teacher is to get valuable professional feedback.
Some teachers are great at complimenting students, but reluctant to point out their mistakes. This is not so helpful for the learner. If your teacher is not giving you suggestions and feedback, then you might need to take the initiative to ask for some. If they only point out big mistakes you make, then you might want to ask for more detail.
Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher to be more harsh on you sometimes. Ask for indications of specific words, tones or structures you have got wrong as well as general suggestions for what you need to improve at the end of sessions.
6. Somebody who is passionate about their subject
There’s nothing worse than a teacher who just plods through a textbook reading in a monotone or who never prepares for lessons. That’s a sure sign that they have lost interest in teaching their subject.
You’ll want to find a teacher who is enthusiastic and loves teaching Chinese. They should also be a good learner; somebody who always wants to find out more about their area and about you.
7. A good Chinese teacher needs to be patient
All Chinese learners make a lot of mistakes. It’s just part of the process.
You’ll make hundreds of mistakes with the tones until you remember them. You’ll get words the wrong way round. You’ll mess up the order of words in sentences, and you’ll forget how to write all the characters you learn at least a few times.
That’s why you’ll need to find a Chinese teacher who is patient and forgiving, and is able to empathise with you as a learner.
One of the reason why Chinese friends / partners / boyfriends / girlfriends don’t always make good teachers is that they might not have the patience to sit with you and listen to you making mistakes over and over again, and you might not want to put them the trouble.
The best Chinese teachers will be patient by nature, not just because you’re paying them to give you lessons!
8. Somebody who you get on well with
This last one is simple. Sometimes a teacher might be doing everything right but you still don’t feel they’re a good match because you just don’t get on well with them for some reason.
And that’s fine. If you’re teacher doesn’t feel like a good fit, then you could try redefining what you want to get out of your sessions, or the teaching activities. If that doesn’t work, you might just be better off finding someone else.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that it’s fine to study Chinese on your own.
In fact, it can really help you to build up confidence and get a head start, but it’s also a good idea to get some feedback and extra practice from native speakers, even if it is just every week or a couple of times a month.
I hope these suggestions will be useful for you if you are looking for some extra support from native speakers, and push your Chinese to the next level!
Have you found a good Chinese teacher? Or have you had to switch around? Let me know in the comments!