Tips for Choosing a Tutor and How a Preply Tutor Transformed My Language Learning Experience

Language learners have so many excellent resources to make their journey to fluency as smooth as possible, and I’d say an online tutor might be the most important. Last year, I watched YouTube videos for tips on learning Japanese, and somewhat jp recommends finding a tutor in his how i learned Japanese, and how you should too video.

Here’s why I decided to hire a Japanese tutor on Preply, how I chose the best tutor for me, at what point a tutor was most helpful, and how often I meet with my tutor.

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Why I found a tutor

I’m taking a community college program in Japanese with online asynchronous classes, which means it’s essentially like self-study. Here are some of the reasons I decided to find a tutor:

  • Students at my school don’t get regular time with the professor or each other.
  • The Genki textbook doesn’t work for me.
  • My school’s Japanese tutor has a pretty limited schedule and isn’t available when school is not in session.
  • I want to continue studying even during breaks.
  • I learn best in a one-on-one environment.

Plus, practicing conversation is critical for fluency, and speaking with a language partner, while helpful, is not the same as having a session with a skilled tutor.

A tutor may also provide some structure and accountability, if that’s something you need in your studies.

How I chose my tutor

Preply has tutor profiles to help you choose one to work with. Profiles show a photo, text, and a video to introduce themselves and explain their teaching experience and style, as well as reviews from current or previous students.

I must’ve spent hours reviewing tutor profiles before finally choosing one. To help narrow down your search, consider the following and use the filters accordingly:

  • Budget
  • Schedule
  • Native speaker or non-native speaker

For example, I knew I wanted a tutor who was a native Japanese speaker to ensure I would be taught a natural way of speaking and given cultural insight. This generally meant hiring a tutor who lives in Japan, which can make scheduling a bit challenging. I also specifically looked for tutors who had:

  • Training or certification in teaching Japanese
  • Experience with any kind of teaching
  • Proficiency in English
  • Good reviews, preferably from long-term students
  • JLPT preparation

I read profiles and watched their videos to get a feel for a tutor’s personality and style. I also knew I wanted someone who was flexible with lessons because I didn’t want to simply review the textbook; I wasn’t looking for a lecture.

So think about what you’re looking to gain from hiring a tutor, how you want your lessons structured, and keep that in mind when you read profiles. But you can only get so much information from a profile — eventually, you need to schedule a lesson.

Even if you pick one who looks good on paper, the two of you still may not be a good match for each other, and that’s ok! Finding a tutor may take some trial and error, so don’t be shy about finding a different one if yours isn’t working for you.

That being said, try to have at least 2 lessons with a tutor before making a decision if you can. The first session is to get to know each other and get on the same page in terms of your skill level and goals. Keep in mind that just as you might be nervous meeting someone new, they might be just as nervous.

My tutor is totally incredible and we get along really well — she feels like a friend! — but we didn’t click until the second session. And honestly, even the second session seemed fast to get into a great rhythm. I actually think I was extremely lucky, so this isn’t a hard rule. It might take longer or you might know right away whether or not you’re a good match. Either way, finding the right tutor is worth investing some time.

The most obvious way I knew if a tutor was working for me was how I felt about the sessions. Here are some questions to ask when deciding on whether or not to continue with a tutor:

  • Did I look forward to the session with my tutor?
  • Do I learn something new or get clarification during sessions?
  • Did I feel good after the session?
  • Was the session fun?
  • Do the sessions pass quickly?

If the answer to most or all of these questions was Yes, I knew the tutor was a good fit. In fact, with my current tutor, sometimes I’m in a bad mood before we begin, but I always end up feeling better after my lesson.

Conversely, I knew I needed a new tutor when I:

  • Thought about canceling before every session.
  • Found myself constantly looking at the clock during the session.

When a tutor is most helpful

Normally I generalize and say things are a personal preference, but I can think of several specific circumstances that would indicate you’re ready for or need a tutor.

The most straightforward reason: when you’re struggling.

My first attempt at finding a tutor was a couple months into my first quarter of Japanese class (chapters 1–4 in Genki). Because I’d taken that class before, all the material was review for me, and I didn’t have any questions or need help with the class materials. Plus, other than introducing myself, I didn’t know enough Japanese to make conversation yet, so with this first tutor, I basically I learned that I wasn’t ready for a tutor.

My next attempt was about a month into my second quarter of Japanese class (chapters 5–8 in Genki), and that was perfect timing. I had a lot of questions about the materials in class, and I was starting to learn enough grammar and vocabulary to actually convey thoughts and ask questions in Japanese. This was the perfect time for me to apply the concepts from class to real conversation and build confidence.

Another great time to find a tutor is if you have a specific, time-sensitive goal you’d like to reach. I am going to visit one of my best friends in the summer, and her new boyfriend lived in Japan for 5 years and speaks fluently. Of course I’m excited to meet my friend’s boyfriend, but I’m especially excited to practice my Japanese. I asked my tutor to help me practice conversation so I can speak well when I meet him. Other specific goals that would be great for tutoring might be job interviews, the JLPT, or a trip to Japan. Specific goals are great for tutoring because you can easily measure progress and the structure of lessons is straightforward.

You might also consider finding a tutor if it’s too easy. If studying is going really well, a tutor could help push you to the next level. I had a teacher in veterinary technician school who gave our class advice I haven’t forgotten, even after 10 years:

Studying should make you uncomfortable. If studying is easy for you, you’re studying the wrong things — you’re studying what you already know.

Dr. Karl Peter

So if studying is easy, consider finding a tutor to challenge you and help you keep learning.

How often to meet with a tutor

Here’s where I’ll generalize: How often you meet with a tutor is totally personal, depending on your budget, learning style, goals, schedule, etc.

Initially, I wanted to save money, so I met with my tutor once per month or every couple of weeks, but I had so much fun in our lessons and found them so helpful that I increased to once per week.

During spring break, I started meeting with my tutor twice per week since I wasn’t in class. This really helped keep up my skills so I didn’t forget as much during the 2-week break. I also found that the more often I meet with her, the better the result. I am able to retain more vocabulary and grammar concepts.

I’m not sure if we’ll keep this cadence when school starts next week, but I plan to meet with her at least once per week during school for continued support with classwork.

What I’ve learned with a tutor

I’ve learned so much from my tutor, but I wanted to specifically call out our most recent session. We spoke almost exclusively in Japanese for the entire 1-hour session for the first time! It was really exciting and an important learning experience for me.

In the beginning of the session, I was really tired and struggling to find the right words and conjugate correctly. I was ready to give up and switch to speaking English, but she saw this and encouraged me to do my best because we’d already been speaking in Japanese for 20 minutes!

I didn’t realize that, so that was really encouraging. Then I realized that, in the beginning when I’m translating my thoughts from English to Japanese — until I can think in Japanese 😉 — I first need to simplify what I want to say so I can use my current knowledge of the language to express my thoughts.

In closing

Finding the right tutor completely changed my learning experience. I’m so glad I found someone who is not only fun, but also skilled at teaching.

If you’re looking for a native speaker, scheduling may be a challenge because of time differences, but prices are reasonable, and I’ve found it’s well worth the effort. I’m building confidence in my speaking and learning to communicate in my target language.

I highly recommend finding a tutor through Preply! Get 70% off your first lesson with Preply.

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels