A language tutor is a great resource. Books and apps are great; I use them every day. But books and apps aren’t humans.
A human can see if something is too easy or too hard for you and adapt accordingly. They can role-play with you. They can answer questions for you as they pop into your head. They can notice a weak point you have in the language that you didn’t know you had and address it. A language tutor can really give your language game a boost.
So what qualities should you look for in a language tutor? I’ve been learning languages since 2004 and teaching them since 2011. Here are 5 things that I’ve observed make a good tutor.
No. 1: Has Learned Another Language as an Adult
I would like to make it clear that I’m not saying the teacher should be bilingual. I’ve known plenty of effective language tutors who only speak the language they teach. I’m saying the best language teachers are ones who have tried to learn a language as an adult and therefore know what an adult language-learner goes through.
Again, I’m not saying that a good language teacher has to have learned to speak flawless Japanese. I’m not even saying they need to have gotten very good at another language. But if they’ve been where you are right now, then they can relate to you. They have some understanding of what you’re going through. That will have a positive effect on their teaching skills.
No. 2: Will Speak with You in the Target Language
The more you use a language, the faster you will improve in it. In general, this is a well-accepted fact. That’s why I am so dumbfounded when I still hear of language tutors who only ever talk about a language, and never talk in the language.
Learning grammar tables is fine and has its place, but no one ever got fluent in a language by memorizing conjugation charts. When starting out with a tutor, make it clear from the beginning that you want as much conversation practice as possible. 100% target language, 0% support language would be ideal, but it’s understandable that you might not be ready for that as an absolute beginner. Regardless, you should still make it clear as the noonday sun to your tutor that you want a significant portion of each lesson to only be in the target language.
If despite making it clear to the tutor that you want to speak as much in the target language as possible they keep only using the support language with you, it’s time to break up with them. They don’t seem to understand how language acquisition works. Find a tutor who understands the value of speaking slowly, clearly and simply in the target language.
No. 3: Has a Good Sense of Humor
Your tutoring session can either fly by or drag on forever. A tutor who has a good sense of humor and doesn’t take themselves (or you) too seriously will make the session fly by.
Your marvelously designed brain is smarter than you think. If the brain picks up on positive emotions, it says to itself, 🧠 “Oh, wow! We LIKE this activity. This activity makes us feel good. Okay then, we need all neurons on deck! We need to remember what we’re doing and get good at it so we can keep that dopamine coming!” But if on the other hand your brain senses that you are stressed, uneasy, bored, frustrated, etc., it says to itself, 🧠 “Oh wow! We HATE doing this. Stand down, neurons. We don’t want anything to do with this activity in the future. Hopefully we never go through this again!”
I apologize to any neuroscientists who read this for the oversimplification. But the point is when the brain senses you’re having fun, it tends to hangs on to memories better. The old saying “fun gets done” especially applies to learning new skills, including language skills.
So you don’t need to find a language teacher who is a stand-up comedian (although I’ve seen they do exist!) but you should find one that can keep things fun and not too serious.
No. 4: Doesn’t Dominate Conversations
A good teacher gets their student talking. They understand how important student talking time (called STT in pedagogy books) and keep the teacher talking time (TTT) to a minimum. It’s good for a tutor to be friendly and sociable. But the more TTT they put into the session, the less precious STT you’re getting. A good tutor gives you the most STT for your 💰💰💰.
No. 5: Empathetic and Observant
A good teacher knows when you’re dragging mentally and will switch things up to keep you engaged and having fun. If a tutor is just focused on covering course material, they’ve lost sight of the most important component of the session, which is you. Your needs don’t conform to a course book.
Maybe you find the course material boring. Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe it’s not challenging enough. In any case, a good tutor is observant during the session, can discern your individual needs and adapt accordingly.
These are things that I’ve observed make a good tutor. What qualities have you noticed make language-teachers effective? I’d love to read your comments below.
Cover photo by Ben Mullins.