Do you really need a Chinese tutor? I think this isn’t easily answered.
This isn’t a question of if you need to learn the language – you do.
Many of us might find ourselves in this peculiar perdicament with a lack of amount of time, an unusual and fluctuating schedule, a handful of kids in your home, uncertainty in the length of stay in the country, or the lack of funds. Whatever your reasons for considering this question, I assume you have legitimate reasons.
I do want to say you should be trying to learn the language. Especially if you expect immigrants to your country to learn your country’s language. I’m going to be honest that this is a great way expats can represent our own countries well while living abroad. You need to make your best attempts at learning the language. The longer you stay here, the more likely you are to be scolded for not knowing the language. You’ll definitely lose face if you’re not at least trying. On the flip side, the majority of sweet Chinese people will think you’re 太好了!
This is the question: “Am I able to learn without a tutor?”
Many of the stories about people of the 1600’s-1900’s who went overseas for their faith or for colonization included testimonies of self-taught language. Really, that’s amazing! They didn’t have workbooks, apps, software or anything else we have today.
If those travelers of the past self-taught, so can we!
We can do this because learning language is a skill. Language should not be considered a subject. The members of the bilingual panel stressed “language learning is a skill” several times. (Posts about that are here and here, by the way.)
So, I would say that a Chinese tutor may not be totally necessary all of the time if one has gained the skill of learning a language. The same goes for any language including English.
How Can We Pown Putonghua?
I want to say upfront I am not a language acquisition specialist, and all of these tips are observations. These observations have worked with others who have exceptional improvement in one area of putonghua before they eventually needed a Chinese tutor for specialized vocabulary or grammar.
All of the people who excelled in an area of the language without a Chinese tutor have these qualities:
- Brave and courageous – They don’t let embarrassment of mistakes deter them from trying.
- Disciplined – Trying to study on a schedule and trying to study in every situation takes effort.
Also, just because they didn’t have a tutor doesn’t mean they didn’t have a learning aide. I use Rosetta Stone since the program is super convenient for me as a mom along with immersion techniques. (By the way, my Chinese has greatly suffered since I stopped so intentionally practicing during this very busy season.) My friends all love Anki and New Practical Chinese textbooks and workbooks. We all love Tuttle for learning to read and write characters. We’ve all utilized online resources like podcasts, tutoring videos and cartoons. I learned how to say star, We did it!, We found it!, Hot dog! among other things from Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse cartoons found on IQiyi.com.
Immerse yourself in the language. You really can’t go wrong with immersion. The catch here is that you need to be actively listening to the songs, shows or situations you use for immersion. You can’t check out and start thinking about the next blog post you’re going to write or the things you need to do when you get back to your apartment. As you hear the different sounds, try to reproduce them inside your mind or quietly under your breath. Pay attention to body language and especially when native speakers make hand gestures or utilize an object in their expressions. Context is key. Two grandmothers on the subway probably aren’t talking about football. Try to guess what might be relevant to them.
Anytime you hear someone say something you can’t quite decode, ask them to say what they said again into some sort of recorder. Don’t be shy, but also be polite by explaining why and pulling up your recording app quickly. This is a great explanation: Wǒ de pǔtōnghuà bù tài hǎo. Qǐng zàishuō yībiàn. Wǒ xiǎng xuéxí.
The great thing about a good listening ear is that your brain should naturally pick up the speaking patterns and translate that into your speech. Your brain might not do this perfectly, but by golly, my speech sounds better than my husband’s even though I’ve never studied tones. At least, that’s the opinion of 8 out of 10 native speakers. Why is that even though he thinks about the tones as he speaks? I have had a whole lot more opportunity to listen.
Just stinkin’ speak and stop worrying about how awful you sound. Ask your friends to correct your speech. Practice speaking into a recorder and then compare the recordings to standard speakers/ prerecorded speech found online. Formulate what you’re going to say to someone in any given situation ahead of time. For example, you’re going to the dentist’s office and you know you’re allergic to a specific type of pain medication. Prep that information. When you record the sayings of native speakers for the listening tips above, figure out how you could have responded.
Speak, speak, speak! And laugh a whole lot!
Traditional Chinese is unique because most of the characters have some sort of story or closely tied pictures/symbols that can help a reader decode the meanings of characters. Simplified characters have lost some of those features, but books like Tuttle can help a new learner read. Tuttle even has learning tips within the curriculum, which includes stroke order. Once you’ve learned the meaning and the sound of characters, intentionally look at every character in every sign so you can see if you recognize characters. The great thing about this is that context is also key. You can learn new phrases about the language based on signs you see over entrances, exits, restaurants, pictures, etc.
Another great thing about learning Chinese characters is that younger children need pinyin in their books, too! Read pinyin books which have the 汉子 included above or below the pinyin so you can learn along with the rest of Chinese youth.
Stroke order and neatness really matter. Stroke order matters if you ever want to be able to look up characters inside of an app. Pleco expects that the users know correct stroke orders since the app is useable for both English and Chinese native speakers. If you have great handwriting in your native script, you probably won’t have too much difficulty once you understand proportions and stroke order. Practice controlling your pen and hand connection if you write like a farm animal.
Other than that, practice! Say what you’re writing and visual the symbols that you learned while speaking and reading.
When do you need a tutor?
Lastly, if you’re going to be in a situation where you need highly specialized language but can’t immerse yourself in those situations, you need a Chinese tutor. A conversation partner won’t even suffice since your putonghua is probably past the point of petty, informal practice. Make sure to find a tutor trained in language acquisition or else money and time will evaporate but the specialized vocabulary will never emerge.
What do you do for your language learning??? Do you have a Chinese tutor?
I’m making a list of pinyin books that are available inside China. Make sure to subscribe my monthly newsletter to get that list, since I’m only giving it out to those who receive that.
Original photo thanks to -5m.