7 Questions on What Makes a Great Mandarin Teacher
If you’ve been putting off taking Mandarin lessons because you’re still looking for the perfect Mandarin teacher, here are 7 questions to ask yourself while on your search:
1. Should Mandarin teachers have a degree?
One of the first things students ask when looking for a Mandarin teacher is whether their teacher needs to have any specific education or degree.
And that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because as a society we put a high value on formal education. It just makes us feel more comfortable knowing that the professional we’re entrusting our valuable time and money to has all the required certificates hanging pretty on the wall.
But while there are some professions for which you’d definitely want a formal education as a prerequisite—like your dentist, for example—it’s not as black-and-white for Mandarin teachers.
While some Mandarin teachers may come with the academic pedigree to prove their skills, others have instead acquired their skills through a combination of work and life experience that you don’t always get going the traditional degree route.
Therefore, it’s more important to look at your teacher’s overall background instead of whether they followed a formal educational career path.
Maybe they were a kindergarten teacher who decided to make the switch to teaching adults? Maybe they learned Mandarin while climbing the corporate business ladder in China, and then decided to go for their true passion of teaching.
No single path to teaching is the same, nor should it be. It’s those unique circumstances that shape a Mandarin teacher into a unique individual, with a distinct teaching style that may be the best for you, after all—even if they don’t have all the acronyms after their name.
That being said, it’s important to make sure your teacher has the credentials you need for your specific Mandarin goals, whether you need to learn business Mandarin to get that promotion, or you’re studying for the HSK, moving to Taiwan to pursue a career in zoology, or just want to be all-around conversational.
2. Should Mandarin teachers be Chinese?
The short answer is: not really. Being a native speaker doesn’t automatically make you good at teaching, whether it’s Mandarin, Spanish or Macedonian.
Sure, native speakers may be able to point out some things here and there, maybe even teach someone a few words (swear words don’t count!). But teaching a language goes beyond merely speaking it.
Teaching is more than just rattling off vocabulary or verb conjugation rules—it takes a unique skill set, aside from having even an impressive grasp of the language.
Think about how many native English speakers you know that would make great teachers.
That being said, let’s say your Mandarin teacher is a native speaker. Now does that come with any extra perks? Like maybe getting to know some Mandarin regional accents?
Sure, a native speaker from a particular region who speaks with that region’s accent is great to diversify your learning. Of course, that doesn’t mean that someone from, say, Spain, can’t learn that same regionally accented Mandarin, and get good enough to teach it.
Aside from regional accents, a native speaker from a particular place in China or Taiwan can also clue you in on some fun and interesting aspects of the culture or traditions that a non-native speaker wouldn’t know. Things you pick up from living somewhere that you can’t really get from learning the language itself, even if at an expert level.
So in short, being a Mandarin native speaker doesn’t qualify anyone to be a great Mandarin teacher, although it definitely can’t hurt!
3. Should Mandarin teachers speak English?
In the United States, transitional bilingual education is at the core of ESL programs, or English as a Second Language. The idea is that children are taught different subjects using both English and their native language (the bilingual part), eventually dialing up the English as students improve in their understanding (the transitional part).
If you move to the states from anywhere as a kid (like me, except you can’t really call seeking political asylum exactly moving to the states), transitional bilingual education is mostly how you’ll learn English in school.
When I was in ESL, I took for granted that my teachers spoke both Spanish and English (not knowing, of course, that it was all part of a purposeful educational system with a theory behind it and all). But it actually made going to class less intimidating, because I didn’t have to dive headfirst into English. I could slowly build up my skills and confidence without it becoming too overwhelming.
The alternative to transitional bilingual education would be immersion, where the teacher speaks only the target language. If you were to move to Taiwan to teach English like Tom did, this would be the method you’d probably be asked to use with your own students—all English, all the time.
While immersion has its place, it can be a little like trying to teach someone to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool.
You can see how that analogy plays out in a Mandarin-only classroom—you either sink or swim.
Immersion may work for a narrow group of students, either those who already have a fair bit of Mandarin under their belt or those who just thrive in the struggle. (Hey, different strokes for different folks, amirite?)
Immersion may also work in the right setting, and if done by the right teacher. Like instead of throwing you in the deep end, they could let you gently ease in, even come along with you as you learn the language equivalent of paddling. It takes a specialist Mandarin teacher to get immersion right.
But for most of us, especially at the beginner and intermediate levels, having a Mandarin teacher that can speak English as well as Mandarin is a great way to learn. They can dial up or down the Mandarin depending on your level and constantly adjust it as you improve.
4. Should Mandarin teachers have decades of experience?
All things being equal, it seems pretty obvious that you’d want a teacher that has been teaching for longer over one with less experience.
It makes sense—the longer you do something, the better you get at it. And that may be true, but it’s only one dimension of mastering any skill. Aside from quantity, or length of time teaching Mandarin, there’s also quality, or the teaching style that a particular teacher brings to the table.
When looking for a Mandarin teacher, it’s important to not only look at how long they’ve been teaching, but also how they’ve been teaching.
For example, a teacher that has been teaching very young children may have developed a totally different teaching style than one that’s been working with only older adults. Environment plays a role, too. Teaching in an overcrowded school versus through private lessons are two completely different ball games—each with their unique share of ways to shape a teacher’s skillset.
The takeaway here is to look at a teacher’s overall experience in a more holistic way. Instead of just asking, “how long have you been teaching”, you may also consider asking “where did you teach before?” and “what’s your teaching style?”
5. Shouldn’t Mandarin teachers be way old?
This question is related to the one above, and hey, it’s got nothing to do with being agist or filial piety.
After all, the Mandarin word for teacher is lǎoshī (S:老师 T: 老師 ) which translates literally as “old master.”
Is there anything special about old age that makes for the best Mandarin teachers? It makes the best Gong Fu masters…at least in movies. Take Mr. Miyagi or Oogway from Kung Fu Panda (I mentioned them in another article about the benefits of learning Mandarin the slow way).
Well, there is something that exceptional teachers have in common that sets them apart from the rest, no matter their age: an open mind.
More specifically, an open mind in regard to how they see learning. Is it a destination or a journey?
The best Mandarin teachers are those who see learning as a constant (and enjoyable!) process that never truly stops, and continually seek out fun ways to learn Mandarin for their students.
Turns out, that’s exactly what makes old Gong Fu masters great, too. Their willingness to keep learning and honing their skills, even picking up a few moves from their students along the way.
So instead of focusing on the age of your Mandarin teacher, focus instead on how they approach learning. That will clue you in on their teaching style and ultimately, whether they’re a good fit for you, regardless of age.
6. Should Mandarin teachers be polyglots?
Do polyglots make the best Mandarin teachers? Should your Mandarin teacher speak other languages other than Mandarin?
It’s an interesting question, and you may even wonder why it would even matter to you that your Mandarin teacher also speaks Esperanto. You just want them to teach you Mandarin, right?
One of the perks of having a teacher that has learned multiple language is that they’ve been a language student more than once. Which means they can totally relate to the difficulties of learning a language. Teachers that can think like a student may be better able to explain things versus teachers who have only known the teaching side of a language (to a degree, because even teachers that focus on one language usually have had some level of formal training, and as such, also been students).
Aside from being able to walk in students’ shoes, a multilingual teacher has also had the chance to develop learning techniques several times over.
Research shows that when learning a third language, one can use some skills gained in learning the second language. And theoretically, this carryover effect would be multiplied when accounting for more languages.
So in theory, it’s already looking like Mandarin teaches that are also polyglots have a win over non-polyglot teachers. But it isn’t that simple (haven’t you already learned?)
Learning a language is a very personal experience that is different from teacher to teacher, and even from language to language. For example, learning Latin-based languages like Spanish and Italian is a lot different from learning Spanish and Mandarin. So it isn’t as simple as saying that the more languages you know, the better you are at learning languages.
Plus, being a polyglot just shows you’re good at learning languages, not teaching them.
Then there are those that would argue that the more languages a teacher speaks, the less proficient he or she can be at any one of them. It’s the whole jack of all trades, master of none argument.
Bottom line: are there perks to having a Mandarin teacher that’s also a bit of a polyglot? Possibly. If anything, it shows your teacher is really passionate about languages!
Is it a must-have? Absolutely not.
7. Should Mandarin teachers have a sense of humor?
As students, it’s helpful to have a sense of humor to help you stay motivated when learning gets tough. After all, we all know the saying, “When the learning gets tough, the tough get laughing.”
Okay, so I just made that one up, but it’s so true, right?
So is there anything to say about a Mandarin teacher having a sense of humor? The answer is a resounding yes!
Though it’s not one of the qualities we may even think to even look for in a Mandarin teacher—and definitely one that doesn’t show up in any curriculum vitae or academic record—having a sense of humor is definitely a must-have. Why?
For one, studies show that when students are laughing, they’re paying attention.
According to a review of several studies done by the APA, college teachers that bring humor into the classroom see higher attendance rates, better test performance and a whole host of other benefits.
But before you go thinking that your next Mandarin teacher needs to have the comedic chops to moonlight in standup circles, we should perhaps qualify what we mean by having a sense of humor.
It’s not about cracking jokes or being hilarious. In fact, it has less to do with being funny, and more to do with being relatable.
Teachers that don’t take themselves too seriously put everyone at ease and are more approachable, meaning that students are more likely to feel they can turn to them anytime they have questions. They make it easier to look forward to going to class, and they also make it way less intimidating to make mistakes. And that in itself is huge, because making mistakes is so important to learning Mandarin.
Take a Free Mandarin Lesson Today
When looking for the perfect Mandarin teacher, these are just a few of the questions you may be asking yourself.
While it’s okay to take your time to decide just what exactly makes a great teacher according to your needs, the search for the ideal teacher can sometimes turn into procrastination. Besides, the only way to truly know if a teacher is right for you is to give them a try, right?
That’s why we offer a free lesson with one of our teachers, so you can get to know them, ask them questions or just dive right into learning some Mandarin! Just pick your time, show up and pat yourself on the back for taking your Mandarin learning seriously—and not procrastinating on taking those lessons!