Some things you just can’t find in a book, or a video.
Visiting China for the first time in 2008 I remember seeing people studying English everywhere. On buses, in restaurants, waiting in lines, people would just pull out their flashcards or phrasebooks, poring over the words dutifully. I even remember trying to start a conversation with one such learner. Being still in University, I thought the half-hour train ride to Beijing would be better spent actually talking to someone.
I opened with an “Oh, you’re studying English” in a friendly, noncommittal tone. The guy (also a University student) looked up at me, terrified. “我不好以,我不會英文,對不起!” was his rapid-fire response before turning away and tucking back into the “Advanced English” textbook. Not wanting to disturb the poor guy further, I moved to a different car on the train. That terrified look stayed with me for a long time, though.
Over the subsequent decade of interest in and seven years living in China, I noticed a distinct pattern:
English learners spend years learning advanced grammar and vocabulary but are often entirely incapable of having a short conversation or text exchange.
The years of teaching and self-study of the language have not enabled these learners to gain meaningful competence, saying nothing of fluency.
How to Learn a Language With Purpose
I’m not the only one to notice this pattern. This problem is not limited to China, either. Language learning around the world takes a strange shape of rote memorization for tests, with limited use in the “real world”.
The converse is also true, as bright, young, enterprising people just “pick up” language through interaction. I’ve met a ton of people who have had little to no formal English training, but who managed to create businesses and operate easily in an English-language environment. I say easily with a large caveat. Often these self-taught speakers communicated effectively but were using English in weird, unintuitive ways.
They learned the language well enough to accomplish what they needed for work or social interaction but weren’t able to communicate eloquently or change formality registers. In some sense, they were stuck with a version of English relevant to their work.
These two approaches both produce “advanced” learners, but ultimately fail in building comprehensive language competence and confidence. One is trapped by fear and lack of practical experience, the other confined to a narrow area of competence but potentially limiting for the speaker in terms of career and educational advancement.
Why You Need an English Tutor
As an advanced learner, you have amassed a significant amount of experience with the language. You probably also created some bad habits. The role of an English tutor is different from that of an English teacher. The tutor is there to help you get the result you want. While the tutor offers their knowledge and expertise to help get you there, you are the one deciding where “there” is.
One thing a competent tutor will do is point out recurring mistakes and bad habits. Whether you tend to drop plurals, misconjugate specific verbs, or use the wrong tense — a tutor will help you identify and fix the problem. If you are already speaking and communicating effectively, most people will not point out these mistakes, letting you create stronger bad habits. A tutor’s job is to help you round out your skills.
Advanced Learning For The Advanced Learners
Rounding out your skillset is also relevant for the studious no-talkers. While many of these advanced learners have a sophisticated vocabulary and an academic understanding of grammar, they can’t speak. Often, they can’t reliably understand spoken language either. A tutor can be very helpful not just as a conversation partner, but as a guide. The English tutor can help identify media, from movies to YouTube channels, that provide relevant to the learner content. Soon enough, the gardening enthusiast English learner can drop the memorization and actually enjoy consuming English content by watching gardening videos, for example.
Because the tutor works for you, you can avoid the boring traditional learning approach. Instead, you can tie your English practice with other topics that actually matter to you. In no time at all, you can get comfortable using English, and start learning on the fly, everywhere, all the time.
Whether you’re a self-taught communicator or the mute academic, working with a real person who helps you shape your learning is key at this stage. As an advanced learner, you can benefit from the individual attention of a tutor more than a beginner. Whether studying for an exam, like IELTS or TOEFL, preparing for an interview, or improving your legal English or medical English skills, a specialized tutor can be a great help. While the beginner can get their foundation in books, classrooms, and tutorials, the advanced speaker needs personal, individual attention to create the English learning outcome they need.