What to expect from a foreign language tutor? Well, if you think a tutor can learn the language for you, you’ll be disappointed. That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not worth hiring a foreign language tutor, though. Get your expectations right and you’ll find, as I have over the years, that a good language tutor can be hugely helpful at key stages on your road to fluency. This post will help you quickly set those fundamental expectations. If you haven’t yet found somebody to work with, first check out my post on How to choose a language tutor.
These days, I mainly use tutors in one-to-ones via Skype or Zoom. I book them through the site italki.com. But I’ve also had one-to-ones in person and I’m no stranger to group classes. The tips below apply equally to these contexts as well.
So, let’s set those foreign language tutor expectations!
Explaining and illustrating the language
First of all, you can, of course, expect your foreign language tutor to explain and illustrate the language.
By explain, I mean setting out grammar rules and unlocking vocabulary in general and deciphering particular examples of usage that you might be stuck with. Illustration would be providing more examples to go with the explanations.
It’s a mistake to study too much grammar or items of out-of-context vocab. We don’t want to mix up knowing about the language in theory with acquiring the language in the context of actually practising the four skills of speaking, reading, listening and writing.
But that doesn’t mean that clear explanations don’t help.
It pays to get a quick explanation of a rule with exceptions or examples of common patterns.
This saves us having to work things out from context (or guess incorrectly).
It helps us notice things in context when we’re using the language, in a virtuous circle of reinforcement.
I get nearly all the explanations that I need from self-study courses (books, online) or works of reference.
But if you prefer your instruction direct and you can use a tutor to great effect to help you through a course. If the course was designed for self-study, all the better. You can do what you can on your own and preview or review the material with the tutor.
Or just go to a tutor with the sticking points of grammar or vocabulary that arise from your course work or your less structured, “natural” practice.
Practising the four skills
Instruction in the language may be useful but you’ll never get fluent without hundreds and hundreds of hours of practice.
You’ll never be able to get ENOUGH practice even with a team of round-the-clock personal tutors. After all, even full-time taught courses require a lot of extra out-of-hours engagement from students.
No, you’ll need to read your language, listen to your language and live your language loads.
But hey, what a tutor can do, even in infrequent sessions is SOME focussed, quality practice.
Here one-to-one sessions really are more effective than a group class simply because, in one-to-one the spotlight is on you all the time.
As to what to practise, well, I don’t want to pay for a teacher’s time while I am reading or listening. To my mind, these activities I can do best on my own.
But you may want to do these activities along with a teacher. This may make sense, for example if you’re stuck on a particular piece of content or can’t find content that’s easy enough for you to use independently. Maybe you lack the discipline to engage on your own.
I also practise writing in my own time but bring in the teacher for correction.
Where a teacher really comes in is for speaking practice or, rather, two-way conversation practice. After all, you won’t just be practising speaking. You’ll also have the chance to improve your listening ability as you try to understand the teacher’s side of the exchange.
If you get nervous speaking in real-life situations, practising with a sympathetic tutor can help you to build your confidence where the stakes feel lower.
A cheaper way to do this is with an exchange partner. The drawback of exchanges is that you will then have to spend equivalent time offering your language to the other person.
Next, the teacher can provide you with corrective feedback on your speaking and writing skills.
You can get personalised help with pronunciation, intonation and other aspects of the physical sound of the language.
A good tutor will give you appropriate feedback on points of grammar, style and register in your speaking and writing.
Tutor feedback is not just for beginners.
If you’re already at an intermediate or an advanced level you may have mistakes in pronunciation, grammar and vocab, that you don’t even know about because people still understand you. These are “fossilised” mistakes that you make again and again.
As for writing: I do written work before the class, rather than putting pen to paper in class when the meter is ticking. It’s not reasonable to expect a teacher to correct your work outside lesson time for free. Of course, you could pay them extra to do this outside the lessons. My preference, though, is to have them correct the work live during the lesson. We do this through screen share or us both hopping on Google Docs in another window.
Advising on materials and methods
A course or less comprehensive materials (such as worksheets or individual exercises) can really help to cover the key bases and provide some structure and progression.
I always find teachers who are willing to work with the materials that I bring to the party. For you, though, a big advantage of working with a tutor may be that they offer to structure sessions around their own materials or one preferred course (or a choice of them).
In addition to core courses and other materials for use in the sessions, a good language teacher will be able to suggest supplementary reference works. These could be dictionaries, workbooks, grammar, collections of vocabulary) that can help you as you engage with the language in your own time.
Your tutor should also be a ready source of advice on things listen to, watch and read in the language, as part of your engagement outside the lesson.
Boosting your motivation and engagement
Not all teachers have the perspective and knowledge to help you set goals, build a routine and a language learning habit and keep you accountable.
For these things, a language coach can provide more bang for your buck.
Yet the sheer fact of an upcoming lesson can help with routine and force you to show up and perform.
If you try to cancel or reschedule lessons booked through italki within the final twenty-four hours, you still have to pay. When you’re boxed in that way, motivation suddenly takes care of itself.
If you ask your tutor to set you homework, this can also help keep you on the straight and narrow.
If you find the teacher inspiring, enjoyable to spend time with, that can be a great motivator too. The longer you work together, the deeper and more rewarding the relationship will probably become.
So, what to expect from a foreign language tutor?
Well, no, a language tutor can’t beat the language into your head. Yet he or she can explain and illustrate and provide you with some skills practice. Your tutor can provide good corrective feedback, help with materials and methods and help keep you motivated and engaged. No wonder so many successful language learners work a lot with tutors.
Next: specific ideas of what to do at the different levels.
Do share your expectations of a good teacher. What are you looking for? What do you think it’s realistic to expect from an online teacher? Share your stories or any further questions in the comments below.