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Surrogate Mother: The Proper, Correct And Only Way To Do Private Tutoring

Pen-name Jason sent me this cool email yesterday:

Hey Khazumoto,

Huge fan of the site,  I’ve read almost all of it.  I come to you with a question because I respect your opinion more than anyone on the subject of learning languages.

I live in Seoul and I’ve been learning Korean for a little over 2 months.  I enrolled in a course, which ended up with me as the only one in the class, so its basically 1 on 1 tutoring for a cheaper price.  It breaks down to a little more than 10 bucks an hour so I think it’s really worth it.  I do 6 hours a week, 3 hours twice a week in the morning.

My teacher is very cute and nice, but when I told her to stop teaching from the book because I thought it was bad (IT IS!), she got a little lost in how to teach the course, because thats the only way she’s ever done it.

It’s kinda turning into me dictating what I want to learn but I’m afraid I’m not really sure the best way to maximize my 2 three hour sessions a week and when I have nothing to suggest, she just goes back to what the book would teach.

I kinda came up with [a] scheme [whereby]:

  • First 30 mins is review of last class and homework.
  • Next hour is speaking only, no book.
  • Next hour in learning new grammar.
  • Final 30 minutes is using everything I learned and review the lesson.

I do many SRS reps outside of class and have designated that as the time to learn new vocab, so learning new vocab doesn’t take up time in the class.

2 months into learning, with a 1-on-1 tutor for 2 three-hour sessions a week, what would suggest I do in class?  How can I get the best value from these 1-on-1 classes? [Emphasis added]

I understand that you are very busy, any advice would be appreciated.  Learning Korean is my priority and I know you are the man who can help me on my quest!!

Thanks a ton,

Let’s answer this one.

I respect your opinion more than anyone on the subject of learning languages.

GOOD MAN! I like this kid already.

Learning Korean is my priority and I know you are the man who can help me on my quest!!

In the name of the Khatzumoto, the AJATT and the Internet…

OK…no…I’m done…

Seriously, though — good question; great question!
I don’t know how workable this is for you, but my choices would be:

1. Every Day Is A Field Trip

Think of your tutor as a surrogate mother more than anything else.

Go to town with her. No, literally.

Hang out with her and her friends…go out on errands with her — shopping, bank, post office, subway station, telephone calls — then you can see and hear how she REALLY uses Korean.

Not how she CLAIMS to use Korean.
Not how she BELIEVES Korean SHOULD be used,
but how she REALLY uses it.

Her word choice, her enunciation, how she mumbles, how she bounces back from forgetting a word. The shape of her mouth. Her word choice. Her actual decisions about formal versus casual register.

Wherever possible, record your conversations to playback and perhaps even discuss/question later.

Eat with her. Cook with her…have her tell you the names of foods and how to eat them, as you eat them.

Copy her music. Watch what she watches — especially comedy. Read the comics she reads. Watch her favorite movies with her.

Walk around town, have her answer your questions:

  • “Mommy, what’s that?”
  • “Mommy, what does that ad say?”
  • “Mommy, why are those two men kissing?”

This is highly unconventional, but ultimately, IMHO much more fun and more effective. I’m sure she’d rather be hanging out at the mall or something, than sitting around playing schoolmarm with you.

You live in Seoul, man! The real Korea is right in front of you. It is right outside the door. Use it. Enter it. Live it. Don’t shut it out because of some stupid book or “rule” or convention.

Basically, she gets PAID to just live her life — be Korean in Korea — and you get to reconstruct a realistic Korean childhood.

It’s practical and fun; it’s win-win. She gets her errands done AND gets paid. You can get help with your errands as you learn to stand on your own two feet as an adult:

  • How do you talk to a bank teller? — Go to the bank with “Mom” and see!
  • How do you do the bowing and clapping thing at a Buddhist temple? — Have “Mom” take you!
  • What’s that green, stalky stuff you get with the kimchee at like every restaurant? — Ask “Mom”!
  • How do you get your Internet and other utilities set up on the phone? — Get “Mom” to do it, and tape the conversation for further observation and imitation.

2. Unforgiving Essay Correction / Reading Her Email and Handwriting / Reading Aloud

Write essays about things like “my weekend” and have her check your writing with all the nitpickiness of an anxious parent. Although, I should note that the real way to get good at writing is to read more. You can get good at writing with or without a checker, but you can’t get good at writing (or write, period) without reading.

A more interesting exercise with text (and something I actually charmed my Japanese friends into doing) would be to have her forward you copies of her personal and professional emails, so you can see how real Koreans write to real Koreans in real Korean. Real emails are one of those things that are as common and useful as they are private and ephemeral — we all write email, but it’s all kept in such a closed circuit. Plug in.

Read those emails and SRS them. If she uses Korean words that are not yet defined in dictionaries, as native users are likely to do, your in-person time together will be a perfect opportunity to ask what stuff means. And, yeah, tell her she can remove any incriminating information.

Also, you are probably exposed to machine-printed Korean to the exclusion of handwritten Korean. Have your surrogate mother give you some real, handwritten Korean text. With all the electronic writing done today, handwritten language can come as a rude shock to print readers unless they proactively expose themselves to it.

One more thing on reading. Remember the bedtime story? Bring it back. Have your Korean mother read text aloud to you unprepared (no practice run), so you can see and hear her rhythm, cadence and best of all — how she bounces back from misreadings and other mistakes. Definitely record this, to listen to later. She can read you anything you want — newspaper articles, children’s books, comics…whatever.


Basically, get out of the foreigner-versus-native-Korean paradigm, and become her Korean kid/babysitee who just happens to have a strange condition that makes him look like, I dunno, a grown man of German(?) descent.

Due to her influence, your speech and writing may become slightly feminine (or at least “on the gentle side, for a man”) for a while. But this is not a problem; you can always fine-tune it and “man it up” later. The most important thing is to shed your foreignness and assume a Korean persona.

Linguistically, the difference between a foreigner and a Korean is far larger than that between a Korean man and a Korean woman. So, “fine-tuning” already native-like speech is one area where “Pimsleur time” actually applies — two weeks will be all you need to go from foppy metrosexual to brooding machosexual.

It sounds like your tutor is somewhat at a loss for what to do. Some of that is probably because she’s been trained, like most of us, to (falsely) dissociate fun and learning. She’s probably relieved to be off the textbook, but doesn’t feel permission to really “cut loose” as it were.

Now is your time to “lead”. But here, leadership does not mean giving orders. Leadership just means encouraging her to be herself, giving her permission to let go and chill, for the benefit of you both. Leadership here is about making sure everyone is (1) happy and (2) gets what they want. It is not about commanding; it is about almost invisibly shaping situations and outcomes — you can lead without anyone ever knowing you were leading; you can lead without being “in charge”.

So, the keyword is: “mother”. Surrogate mother.
The relationship is casual, but (in your case, since you’re paying) she has above-average responsibility to (1) answer questions and (2) slam you for any minor Korean mistake, where normal friends would let it slide or be like “dude, I’m not your tutor-slash-surrogate mother”.

The Surrogate Mother Model of Tutoring

The key actions are:

  1. Observe:
    Observation is huge. There can be no accurate imitation without extensive observation. Think: fly on the wall.
  2. Imitate: act Korean, and
  3. (sometimes) Query
    In language, I find that “what?” and “how?” matter more than “why?” — most of the “whys” are either unknown, ignored, or fiercely contested. But the “whats” and “hows” are an immediate reality.
    First figure out how and what to speak correctly — Koreanly — that is your first priority. Find out why later — when you’re fluent, you can go read books about the Korean language written in Korean by Koreans for Koreans, to your heart’s content.
  4. Based on all the above, surrogate mother gives: Feedback.

So don’t be her student. Be her family, her sidekick; become a part of her life, and by extension, the real lives of the real Korean people in her social network. Many Korean girls get adopted by foreign families, now it’s your turn to be adopted by a Korean girl (six hours a week)!

Or something like that!

So far, I’ve only gotten to know a handful of Korean or Japanese-Korean girls in my life, but half of them have been, how do you say…unflinchingly frank people. Coming from a somewhat indirect culture myself, such behavior just seemed…cruelly tactless at first. But when you use this cultural trait to your advantage, it actually turns out to be a priceless gift. EVERYONE should have at least four female friends from Korea.

Anyway, enough culturally insensitive comments. The point is: extreme behavior is useful. Extreme praise and kindness can fuel confidence; extreme meanness can fuel reflection and drive; “extreme” apathy can fuel self-reliance.

Now, I don’t actually know what your tutor is like, but I’m sure you’ll figure something out and I’m sure it’ll be really cool and fun — I mean,  “get paid to play”: it’s a totally sweet deal.

Remember, all of this is just one unreasonably handsome man’s idea. It’s just what he — I — would do if I were in your situation; it’s where I would start, tweaking as necessary along the way. Ultimately, it’s your life. Make your own choices; make your own decisions.

Keep it fun, keep it Korean, and the rest is details.

Let me know what you end up actually doing and how it works for you! And maybe some AJATTeers will have succesful models of their own to share with you here 😀 .

  25 comments for “Surrogate Mother: The Proper, Correct And Only Way To Do Private Tutoring

  1. Maya
    November 12, 2009 at 02:53

    First comment? 😮

    I got really excited reading this 🙂 I’m going to Kyoto for a homestay program in May, and when you think about it, homestay is similar to what you were talking about here. You become part of a Japanese (or whatever culture) family for a few weeks 😀 I can’t wait.

  2. Maya
    November 12, 2009 at 03:54

    Scratch that – homestay in May will surely be fun, but it’s still an eternity away.

    I just sent an e-mail to a Japanese aquaintance of mine (she’s an exchange student at my uni, she wants to become an English teacher in Japan one day) if she was willing to tutor me in the way you just described (I offered to pay her, of course – wouldn’t expect somebody to go out of their way to help me like this for free). It’ll benefit us both since it’s teaching experience for her, and Japanese experience for me. 🙂 Wish me luck!

  3. WC
    November 12, 2009 at 03:56

    Dang Khatz, you are right. I thought I wanted a Japanese girlfriend, but I really wanted a Japanese mother.

    Heh, joking aside, you’re correct. Real life experiences definitely sound like his best bet for learning, at least some of the time.

  4. アメド
    November 12, 2009 at 04:59

    This is very true. The environment of the language you’re trying to learn is key to success in the language. How the react daily to one another, email,via phone, via people, via how they right, via how they live. All these things add up. But for me i doubt that can be possible lol. I’m in second year and probably be studying for abit longer. I know a only 2 japanese people. One i know from highschool and is the same age as me, but he doesn’t like to use japanese alot lol and the other she went back to japan but i got a few chances to talk about japanese,etc,etc. But if i guess if you can’t really live in a fully japanese enivorment i.e. food,people,living japanese,etc,etc. Create you’re own enivorment!!! That’s what i’m trying to do and good so far. So far 2400 sentences.

  5. November 12, 2009 at 06:38

    Great post. I’m actually going to pay money for some ‘private’ lessons this week simply because I have run out of native Japanese people to talk with on a daily basis (since I’m currently not *in* Japan, and there are surprisingly few Japanese in the desert of Arizona).

    I find that I learn so much more just by listening and asking questions, farking up my response, searching for the right word, missing and then recovering, than any other type of speaking practice. I make sure the teacher/mother/friend/surrogate I’m speaking with knows before even starting 😉

  6. Jonathan Mahoney
    November 12, 2009 at 07:32

    Wow, brilliant post. Great idea. “Jason”s got a huge advantage being in the country of the native speakers of his L2. Go outside! Haha. I hope I can apply this idea soon.

  7. Griff
    November 12, 2009 at 08:39

    Hey Khatz,

    Sounds like you have a breakthrough idea! Patten it! XD

  8. Shea
    November 12, 2009 at 09:26

    This is why having a Japanese mate is not good for your language learning UNTIL you get good enough to converse comfortably. At least in my case. With my fiance (her English is MUCH better than my Japanese) it feels like a mother/son relationship when I try to use Japanese. That makes both of us feel weird. So I’m looking for other people to get better with (especially guys) and so when I can comfortably converse we can be an aid to each other. I do correct her mistakes when she wants me too but it isn’t the leading someone by the hand method described here. I need a surrogate Japanese father/senpai basically haha.

  9. November 12, 2009 at 13:49

    @Shea I know *precisely* how you feel. In fact, I just had a fight with my girlfriend over the exact same thing a few hours ago (she won’t even let me speak Japanese with her until it is Above her level of English) 🙂

  10. John K
    November 12, 2009 at 20:51

    I think this is one of my favorite posts to date. FANTASTIC ideas within. どうもありがとうございます、Khatzumotoさん。

  11. Tommy Newbhall
    November 12, 2009 at 22:49





  12. captal
    November 13, 2009 at 08:45

    I know you said she’s cute, but whatever you do, don’t make her your girlfriend. You’ll learn far less having a girlfriend than you will a teacher/mother. Paying $10 an hour for lessons like that is great- and it puts the focus where it should be- on you learning Korean. If she becomes your girlfriend you save $60 a week, but you’ll stop learning Korean near as fast.

    I speak from experience- I love my Japanese girlfriend to death, but she’s done very little in the last year to teach me Japanese- she’s great to speak with, awful to learn from. It’s the same from her perspective too, I’m a sucky English teacher but good language partner.

  13. Miles
    November 13, 2009 at 11:33

    This post makes all kinds of good sense.
    Language student as ethnographer.
    Thanks Khatz.

  14. Jes
    November 14, 2009 at 11:27


    I think there is more to said about being a good ‘son’/’daughter’ too. Because, if you match the state your in you’ll be more successful growing from there.

    That state is childishness, being eager about what you do not know.

    I’ve found that by putting myself in a childlike mode I’ve turned a seemingly barren-of-Japanese-people life into one full of them. I’m learning Japanese after decades of anime watching with basically no language skill acquired. I didn’t start with any Japanese people around.

    This part is redundant cause it’s mentioned in the article already, but first thing is of course go to where the Japanese is and ninja/pirate (legally of course) what you can and keep it close to you. As for people…

    They are harder fish to catch…I thought. But I’m finding if I repeat what I hear; bring what I read or write show Japanese people they brighten up and just open up the floodgates. I make mistakes….I didn’t know “お前たち” would be a bad thing to say to people I just met…(thank you years of anime watching…*grumble grumble*) but after I used it they politely told me , “that’s bad” like kind polite parents. It’s like everyone wants their own foreign kid to mentor; To share what they have an abundance of. Everyone wants that feeling.

    So, I go find them not really expecting anything, other than I might get to hear Japanese, and make the most of it.

    I’ve been ”ちょっとごめんね”’d few times. Cause the grown ups (people who are fluent) need to talk. It’s all amusing to me so I play along, so to speak. But my results have been….well, lots of opportunities and people.  And fun!

    So, to reiterate, be a kid. Eagerness is the signature as well as mindlessness.

    Also, I’ve had the most fun being in groups of Japanese. I don’t know that I learned a whole lot, but I certainly had quite a lot of fun every time. So, Jason as much as you’re able recruit other Koreans during your class time and do stuff or just go to where more Koreans are being Korean.

    The only thing that’s really at work here is Play. Since I really can’t put a meter on my skill level after every event, I don’t know how well I’m doing…but I know I’m doing well because I pick up a manga or watch a drama or hear a line in a song that suddenly I got…for the first time. (^.^) And this happens daily, now.

    Awe is made by people for kids. If you’re gonna be a kid go for the ‘aww’s.

  15. Maya
    November 15, 2009 at 00:01

    Speaking of re-creating childhood in another language, I just found this site and bookmarked it instantly:

    Yahoo Kids, Japanese version. It was everything, in simple words 😀 Can’t praise it enough.

  16. Maya
    November 16, 2009 at 09:10

    I just got back from my first meeting with the Japanese girl I mentioned above.

    It was really amazing! In a number of ways:

    1) It`s live speaking practice.
    2) My friend helped me write down words I didn`t know, so now I have several pages of notes that I can put into Mnemosyne.
    3) I got complimented a lot – it was probably done mostly out of politeness, but it was still extremely motivating.
    4) I actually realized that my listening and speaking are both better than I had thought = even more motivation.

    There are prolly more benefits to this than I care to think of right now. I really recommend this type of thing to anyone who gets the chance to do it. =D Brilliant idea, khatz.

  17. Jes
    November 17, 2009 at 12:29

    Wow, thank you for that kids yahoo page link Maya. I was looking for something just like that.

  18. マッカ
    November 29, 2009 at 16:38


  19. マッカ
    November 29, 2009 at 16:47


  20. The "Jason"
    December 22, 2009 at 21:29

    Thanks so much for the blog post, I had no idea you would put so much time into my email… My butter-up campaign worked I guess…

    Its been a bit over a month since the blog post and I wanted to update a little bit…

    What you are recommending here is really great, it really is. Sincerely, thank you for taking the time to address my questions. But unfortunately, because this class is through a private academy (even though it is one on one), my teacher can’t really take me into the real world beyond the class room, which really limits almost all you suggested, unfortunately.

    I have managed to make my class much more effective though. We switched textbooks, from a crappy overly-colorful piece of TP, to a speaking-centric book that is regarded as the best in Korea for learning to speak. As verbal communication is my priority, it seemed to fit best…. and it has worked out really well. I enjoy my classes more, my teacher is more confident in the material, and I’m more confident in the value of what I’m learning. Confidence all around.

    Side bar:
    One thing I really have noticed about my learning — When I understand the material, I REALLY enjoy learning and I’m a really fun and enthusiastic student. But as soon as I run into something very difficult or confusing (my teacher can’t explain everything as she doesn’t speak english 100%, which is good because it keeps the class in Korean mode), I kind of “turn off” for a while, my momentum is killed. I think this means I need to pass through crappy parts more quickly and come back to them later so as not to kill my momentum while learning because I find momentum, especially in a 3 hour class, is really important.

    I also snagged a Korean girlfriend, so that is where I get a lot of these “mommy” type questions and real life usage benefits… but I’m trying a bit to separate the relationship a bit from the mommy analogy as my Oedipus complex needs no more fuel on the fire~^^

    My skills are improving a lot, but I’m a little worried I’m going to hit a wall in 6 weeks when I stop the lessons ($$$)… That is when I’m really going to switch to your method much more religiously and amp up my sentence practice and media consumption.

    Anyway, things are great and I’m trucking along… thanks again. Will continue to be a dedicated reader (and learner and self-developer)…


  21. Alyson
    April 21, 2010 at 10:31

    This method definitely works! I used this while with a host family in Germany and picked up a lot more than my other classmates. Hmm… I always figured that my lack of vocabulary converted me to a six year old or that I just didn’t have any shame…

  22. Jing
    February 23, 2013 at 22:07

    I would like to point out one thing. My real mum used to sit me and forced me to do my English homework, gave me assignments, made me watch the news and etc. Of course we went out together as well. That was how I studied when I was a kid.

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