What is a language tutor?

Dentists take care of people’s teeth. Candlestick makers sell candles. There are professions that require no introduction and whose services we can easily grasp by a simple effort of the imagination. But some professions remain elusive to our understanding such as “Senior SEO Consultant” or even “Language Tutor” whose skill we sense we might need but whose benefit to ourselves we can’t quite measure.

Well, fret not because this blog post will explain to you exactly what you should be looking for in a language tutor.

A zebra is not a horse is not a donkey…

Let’s start with the basics. As it pertains to languages, there is a separation to make between professor, teacher and tutor. The professor is a scientist who lectures. More often than not, they don’t have a “teaching skill”. They might be described as a sort of human tap (faucet) of knowledge that turns on when the lecture starts and whose every drop the students try to catch in their little cups as they speak. When the lecture ends, the tap is turned off and the students are left with a pile of scribblings they will have to re-order before the exam. Obviously, it’s not what we do.

Next the school teacher, who is far less of a linguist than a tutor or a professor and follows a set curriculum out of a schoolbook. As part of their duties, they are also heavily involved in discipline and in teaching kids the basics of life in society. They don’t exactly “teach” languages in the tutor’s sense of the word, but they do classroom lessons on languages. There is a difference.

Finally, the tutor’s job could be described as “doing all you can to place a new language into someone’s head.” It is usually learned on the fly by trial and error and doesn’t (yet) have an official diploma to back it up. A good tutor shouldn’t be seen as less deserving than the other two professions. Some might be former school teachers who didn’t feel challenged enough in their role as language specialists. A high-level tutor could even comfortably step in a college/university context and assist the students.

The job of a tutor explained

So what can a tutor do for you?

If you find yourself in a position of wanting to learn a new language, you might require a tutor. Your problem now is that since few people exactly know about the profession of tutor they might approach the matter by considering that one tutor is as good as any other. After all, the only skill it takes is to know a language as a native and to chat with the student a bit, right?

Wrong! Ten times wrong.

In my own job as a French tutor, my role is to see languages with a far different set of eyes than just speaking it as a native and pointing out right from wrong.

Firstly, there is the necessity to structure a language in your head and break it up into a sort of mental grid. I listen to a student speak and I know which are the parts of the grid that the students does well, and which are the parts they need to work on. (Picture a crosswords in which each square is a language skill)

Within the grid there are different priorities because not all parts of the language are equally as important. This may be decided on the function that a certain “word” fulfills in a language or on the frequency of that word. As an example, the verb “to be” would be quite high on the list of priorities because it is used all the time. Not knowing how to say “I am” in a foreign language is a serious handicap. Starting a sentence with the word “Interestingly” would be a priority at a later stage.

A good tutor knows from experience which are the priorities that relate to each level: A1, B1, B2…They keep an ear open for everything at once: pronunciation and grammar. If a student is able to say “I am” but is mispronouncing it, the tutor will ask themselves if it is a problem relating to that one word or if it’s rather the sound that the student didn’t learn well.

Proactive VS reactive tutoring

A tutor is not just reactive and pays close attention to the dynamic role which the student plays in the class. Believe it or not, the student plays a large part in the success of the class through their energy and commitment. It will be up to the tutor to sense the energy and productivity. Leaving too much room for the student to guide the class will often lead to a standstill or a drop in the learning. It should be the tutor who guides the student through the language, not the opposite.

Pointing out a mistake should not be limited to that one mistake and should open up a conversation about the category which that mistake belongs to. For example, if a student says “I would liked” , it should trigger a warning in the tutor’s head that tells of the possibility that the students doesn’t quite understand the use of “would” and the Conditional tense. The job is to measure how much they understand and exactly why they don’t understand and figure out the right explanation to help them understand.

If we were to compare the behaviour of a “bad” language tutor to a “bad” tennis instructor for the sake of clarity, let’s imagine a learner of tennis who serves and whacks the ball right into the net. The bad tennis tutor will state the obvious and say “You have to hit the ball higher so that it goes over the net”. (This is what pointing out the mistakes does for you)

The good tennis instructor is looking at many other factors, some of which they can rationalize and others they have developed a “feeling” for. They see your grip on the racket, the way you throw the ball, your foot positioning, your overall level of fitness and your commitment to tennis and with all these elements they will find a way to personalise the explanation and help you achieve a better serving technique.

The fear of a large tutoring company…

If my image seems a little over-exaggerated, be quite certain that it is not. Most of the largest tutor platforms on the internet use these types of tutors. The signing up process is as easy as “Do you play tennis? Have you taught tennis before? Never mind you’ll learn” and just as easily a kid becomes a language tutor.

I have personally had job interviews with large tutoring companies whose level was astonishingly low. They hadn’t figured anything out which I didn’t know and just seemed to have a very corporate structure around a mediocre service. Even the people interviewing me had dreadful English. (You work for a language company. Don’t you have interest in learning one yourself??)

Then we have the Italkis / Preplys of this world in which anything goes. Barrier to entry is zero. These are little more than “money trickle upwards” websites that barely pretend to be involved in language learning.

The tutor’s academic background

The academic background of a tutor will strongly influence the service you receive in a class. So will their philosophy as professionals, as will their own awareness of the student. Let us explain: Since the student doesn’t usually know about the science of languages or the process of learning a language, they start at a definite disadvantage. They are in a position of having to trust their tutor and hope they are doing a good job. How would you know a good one from a bad one? Exactly.

There may be very pleasing and entertaining tutors who have limited backgrounds in Linguistics and who will honestly believe in the virtues of doing roll playing such as “Let’s pretend you’re ordering a train ticket” or “Let’s learn this English song”. You will usually spot them by the emphasis they place on the “cultural” side of the language they teach. All very entertaining but not entirely beneficial. Especially in the internet world, such tutors might not even have been to college at all and simply studied for 3 weeks for one of those grandiose-sounding TEFL certificates. Very possible.

The issue we face in these situations is that while the classes remain very entertaining, they might only project the illusion of being useful. If the tutors have never been trained to think as linguists, the service you receive will rather be from a very good native speaker who is unaware of their own limitations. If their philosophy as professionals guides them to want to sell you a “fun moment” they will sustain the lesson in this way for a long while. Lastly, their lack of awareness of the student might cause them not notice that you are learning imperfectly.

The languages your tutor knows…

The next point is the understanding of YOUR first language. Finding a language tutor who is only a specialist in one language carries the disadvantage of a limited understanding of your problems. They should ideally know as much about your first language as they do about the language they teach.

Simple example: an Italian tutor teaching Italian to a person who has Persian as a first language will only partly understand the reasons for the mistakes or mispronunciations. They do not know how a Persian thinks or approaches languages and will fail to correct a number of mistakes, or even just not know the shortcuts to teach Italian properly to that specific student. This means time lost for yourself and an uncertain result at the end.

An interest in learning?

Aside from an expertise in languages, a good tutor should have an active interest in the process of learning. How does it work and what are the best ways possible to make this happen are questions the student should be able to discuss with the tutor. This aspect is also one that strongly distinguishes the tutor from the teacher and the professor since neither of the other two are actively involved in the student’s actual learning. (When indeed did you last hear a teacher say “in order to know my course, I recommend you follow the following steps when you study…”)

Speaking for myself, the learning process takes first spot in my list of my concerns when working on OuiCommunicate. I want to know what causes certain learners to memorize or to understand, and others not. I want to find out which are the variables that play into a student’s success. Very closely linked is an almost anthropological-like interest in humans, almost as a psychologist or a sociologist. Since we are in the trade of making humans “do things”, we must at the very least concern ourselves with the triggers which humans respond to. Why do people do what they do? What pushes them to act? These should be topics for which a “good” tutor nurtures a passionate interest.

Holding high standards

Last on the list of things to watch out for is the level of standards your tutor holds themselves to. What does their appearance look like? Do they seem interested in their environment? Do they practice self-discipline in any way? Is tutoring a thing they seem to do for lack of a more compelling opportunity?

If your tutor does not seem like they have standards of their own, you may be quite sure that they will let many things slide. They likely won’t bother pointing out that extra detail or even holding you to any sort of accountability. Also, don’t confuse the organizations’ standards with the individual tutor’s standards. Each school will have a well-written statement on the excellence they pursue and yet this has nothing to do with the service you will get from the tutor. A manifesto is never studied by heart by tutor who is only an “extra” in a tutoring company and has no interest in their success or failure.

There is a difference between signing a contract with the representative of a cleaning company and the dedication which the actual cleaners put into the job. The salesperson will promise you wonders. The cleaner will do the minimum not to be fired. This is exactly what you will get from a large-sized language school or tutoring platform. Word to the wise…

Our own standards at OuiCommunicate are simple enough: we aimed to create a tutoring platform we could not possibly improve on. We wanted for it to contain all of the French language and for it to teach native speakers of English for a more targeted learning experience.

The founder of this company, Chris has been through 6 years of university academic standards, has been working out for the better part of 30 years, runs regularly, plays multiple instruments, has learned two foreign languages, eats healthy and doesn’t smoke or do any type of drugs. He believes in positive thinking, clean body and mind and in lifelong learning.

Chris wants to see his students achieve the best they can and for OuiCommunicate to be the standard by which other schools are measured. (Though of this doesn’t happen, it won’t be too much of an issue! We’ll stay great anyways.)

A Bentley is not a Volkswagen is not a bicycle…

Let’s conclude. Tutoring is often misrepresented and misunderstood. Many times, it is the larger companies themselves who don’t quite grasp the complexity of the task at hand. It is often narrowed down to “knowing a language as a native” and pointing out the mistakes of the student. To other misguided language tutors, it is a fun class on the “top 10 things French people say” or cultural explorations à la “Let’s discover the Spanish paella”. Fun, but of questionable use.

As we hope to have made clear, there is a language skill that is necessary to master but also an aptitude for teaching as well as an interest in psychology and human behaviour. Your tutor needs to understand language as a science, has to be able to observe and “feel” the students and needs to be able to find solutions to individual problems. A tutor should have high standards and visibly demonstrate that they are personally involved in the improvement of language learning. (Such as single-handedly creating this OuiCommunicate leaning platform. Just saying.)

The cherry on top of the cake is for your tutor to know YOUR native language (English) as well as you do and to be qualified to teach it too. This way they can help you learn a new language while knowing exactly what goes on in your head. But that’s a tall order. (Except if you book with OuiCommunicate.)

Thanks for reading and may this guide serve you well !

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