I’ve got two posters on the wall that I use every time we hold class:
I’ve also given handouts of the posters.
Tips and Strategies for Learning to Speak Mandarin Chinese
I’ve got two posters on the wall that I use every time we hold class:
I’ve also given handouts of the posters.
This semester I’ll be doing something new here at Peizheng College: I’ll be teaching Beginning Chinese to foreign teachers. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of designing an actual Chinese curriculum for expats living in China and I’m excited to finally get the chance to try out some of my ideas.
As I go through the semester, I’ll be posting the materials that I develop for my classes so that other Chinese teachers in the world (but especially in China) can use them too. Even if you’re not a Chinese teacher, you might find the process interesting.
There are plenty of examples of non-native speakers teaching foreign languages. The entire English department here at the college is full of Chinese teachers giving English instruction. I’ve always held them in such high esteem because it’s hard to teach a language that’s not your own. Now I’m sure I’ll gain an even greater appreciation for what they do every day.
Of course, the big question on my mind these days is: with so many Chinese people all over the place,
Why should I (an American) teach Chinese in China?
I still believe that highly qualified native speakers of Chinese like Yangyang (whom I work with at Yoyo Chinese) do the best job. But she has lots of experience explaining things to English speakers and has figured out what they can understand and what works best. Simply put, there’s a difference between a great speaker of Chinese and a great teacher of Chinese (the same could be said of any skill such as piano playing and piano teaching). Just because the country is full of Chinese speakers, it doesn’t mean they’d be great Chinese teachers. Yangyang and others like her happen to be both.
So what do I bring to the table? It’s certainly not native-level Mandarin. But I offer the following three advantages (in order of importance) that native Chinese teachers may struggle to provide.
Even the most gifted native Chinese teacher can not honestly say, “I remember when I didn’t understand the tones.” Just like I’ve never been baffled by when to use the past tense in English, native speakers of Chinese have grown up automatically doing lots of things correctly that learners can’t do at first.
As a non-native speaker, I can constantly:
That final point is a new one to me. I’ve found when working with Yangyang that she’ll sometimes want to spend time explaining something in great detail and I’ll say something like, “Actually, this is pretty easy for English speakers to grasp. I think we only need one example and then we can move on.” It doesn’t mean her explanation was bad, just unnecessary because she didn’t know what it’s like to be an English speaker learning Chinese.
All of the above insights and sympathy I provide can help boost students’ confidence.
But there’s a sort of gestalt effect as well: no matter how discouraged students of Chinese may feel, standing before them is a real, live, Western-looking lǎowài 老外 speaking Chinese. And he started learning the language when he was 24 years old and can now communicate easily in Mandarin. It’s possible!
Of course, this confidence boost for the students will fade over time (unlike my sympathy for the learners, which is eternal). But it prevents the students’ thinking: “Well she’s Chinese. Of course she can speak the language.” Students may come up with other excuses why their non-native teacher is “special,” but really it just comes down to hard work. Seeing the lǎowài 老外 actually speaking Chinese serves as constant subliminal (and superliminal) proof that you don’t have to be born into the language.
I’ve noticed a related, and bizarre, phenomenon in my English classes. Most Chinese students have some pronunciation problems. Let’s take, for example, not closing their mouths for final /m/ so “some” sounds like “sun.” When I sit down and show them patiently and methodically how the lips must touch to get an /m/ sound, many times they persist in saying /n/ instead. I’ve been quite literally at my wits end in these situations when suddenly a neighboring student explains in exactly the same way what I just said and demonstrates exactly the same thing and voila! Magically, the erstwhile “m”-a-phobe is saying “some” for the first time (perhaps in their life)!
What happened? I can’t say for sure, but I think part of the problem is the thinking that a foreigner speaking English is somehow fundamentally different than another Chinese person speaking English. It’s probably a complex psychological issue. But the point is: the reverse may be true of learners of Chinese who see a Chinese person speaking Mandarin. At least at the initial stages, a non-native teacher can eliminate any doubts as to whether speaking Chinese is possible for the students.
As I have already outlined in the second part of the much-discussed post “Gaps in Current Chinese Teaching Materials and Methods“, many traditional methods of teaching Chinese are misguided, at least for Western learners.
Of course, there are many excellent native Chinese teachers who are doing a great job. But I propose they are doing so by not using the traditional methods.
Most native Chinese teachers have grown up in the Chinese education system. It’s no secret that Chinese education emphasizes standardized testing, lecturing, and rote memorization. These are not the best methods to teach a communicative skill like a foreign language.
In addition to the problems with the general education philosophy, the specific traditional approaches to teaching pronunciation, tones, hanzi, vocabulary, and grammar are often inefficient at best and misleading at worst (for example, the idea that the 5th tone is “neutral” and “has no tone” is the traditional wisdom yet is unhelpful and wrong).
It’s probably in this third category of methodology (and also materials) that I’ll be posting most often as I go through the semester. There are already some great materials out there that I’ll be compiling for my students. As I do so, I’ll put them here on this blog for everyone else to use as well.
Even if I do a great job because of the above listed advantages, there are some things I can’t do that native speakers can:
However, I don’t think those are reasons that I shouldn’t teach Beginning Chinese. My pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar are good enough to teach the basics of Chinese. As for hanzi, I won’t be emphasizing handwriting from day 1 so it won’t be an issue. As for the culture, I’ll share what I know, but I admit I’ll never know as much as a native speaker.
But of course my class does not rule out the students’ contact with native speakers. In fact, I’m going to require it (more on this next time).
In this post I offer some data, a little rant, and then three stories all meant to encourage us lǎowài-s 老外 not to give up on listening comprehension.
I’m often asked, “Is it harder for you to learn Chinese or for a Chinese person to learn English?” Short answer: I don’t know. It’s tough to say because it involves a lot of opinions and complicated factors. But here’s a fact that cannot be ignored about Chinese:
Now let’s compare that with English. Chris Barker searched a British English dictionary and found 15,831 different syllables (and he admits that number isn’t 100% accurate). But that’s only unique syllables used in the dictionary. So there are lot’s of other syllables are possible in English (like “foob”) which don’t get counted because there are no words that use them (yet). Just to clarify: “too” and “two” and “to” would still just count as one syllable in that list because it’s about pronunciation not writing.
Not Chinese. 409 syllables. That’s it. That’s all that are allowed. (Which is why it’s so easy to rhyme in Chinese.)
So who cares? Well, I do. It means that listening comprehension is really hard for me because so many words sound the same in Chinese because they only have 409 “building blocks” to make them. Yes we’ve got words like “too / two / to” and “pair / pare / pear” in English, but the homonym minefield seems to be way more difficult in Chinese. That’s why context (and multi-syllable words count as context) is so important when listening to Chinese. If you have little to no context, accurate listening comprehension becomes virtually impossible.
So here’s the encouraging thing: if you don’t have enough context to understand something, just give up! Don’t be too hard on yourself for not understanding words that fly at you “out of the blue”. Don’t fall for the trap and feel like, “I should have understood that.” No you shouldn’t have. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it! Let me give you some examples I’ve witnessed.
My English students often ask “How do you say (some Chinese word) in English?” Talk about zero context. They’re sitting there speaking English to each other and BOOM! Chinese syllables flying at my out of the blue. Many times I can figure out the context because we probably have a topic that day in class that gives me a clue. Not so the other day when the topic was “Beggars.”
A student raised his hand and said, “How do you say xianjin in English?” You may notice I’ve omitted the tones from his question. That’s because I wasn’t exactly sure what they were because they came at me so fast. But it didn’t matter. The students around him all chimed in with a unanimous “cash.” He thanked them and the class when on. A few seconds later he raised his hand and said, “Not cash. I mean xianjing.”
The class erupted into confusion. Some students were confirming that indeed “cash” was the word he wanted. Some were saying “trap”. Some were criticizing his Mandarin and not answering his question. And some were asking their neighbors what was going on.
Here are the two words in question:
He really did mean “trap,” and wanted to talk about some sort of trick that beggars use to get money. The class, however, when they heard his (rather unclear and fast) Mandarin utterance assumed he must have wanted to say something about the cash beggars get.
Those two words aren’t even minimal pairs, but because the vocab was out of the blue, and the students didn’t have enough context, they guessed wrong.
I was listening to two Chinese girls talking about their recent lives. One confided in us that she’d been depressed lately but that she was hoping her mood would improve soon.
The other girl listened and then nodded in support saying only two syllables: “kuàile.”
“Yes,” the first girl continued, “I want to be happy.”
“No, I meant ‘soon’ things will get better,” the second girl said.
Here’s the confusion:
So that’s the old “Second 4th tone in a row is lower than the first one so it might sound like it’s a 5th tone” trap. It tricked a Chinese girl without enough context. So it can certainly get me.
A student was telling me about her father’s business She wanted to tell me something that had happened with one of his business partners but didn’t know how to say bào lì in English. I suggested “violent” and she said, “No! Not that bào lì.” I didn’t know what to say then and the conversation came to a halt.
Here’s the problem:
I didn’t know the second definition of “bào lì” at the time. But I was actually right: bào lì really does mean violent. It just also means something else.
So here’s the bottom line: it can be very frustrating when you don’t understand Chinese words because they often sound like a bunch of other words. But don’t blame yourself. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it, so of course we won’t be able to. Don’t fall for the cash… I mean trap of thinking you should always be able to understand everything, even if you’re at a pretty high level with the language.
Just get more context, clarification, or if worst comes to worst, you can use that time-honored tradition of letting them write the hanzi in the air with their finger. Then take a picture of the air-shape with your smart phone and check the dictionary for it. I’m sure, by now, that’s a feature that Plecco offers, right?
I know, I know. This is (once again) a post NOT about learning Chinese. But it was too cool not to post. I’ll just let my own words from the other website talk for me:
“The Kindle thing I’m enrolled in allows me to give the Kindle edition of my novel away for up to 5 days every quarter (not the paperback version, sadly). So as soon as I figured out how to do it (yesterday), I decided to fire it up!
So if you, or anyone you know, has a Kindle and wants a free book, please pass the word along. Thanks!”
Ok. Now that I’ve done two book news posts in a row, I promise starting today I’ll begin thinking about intending to consider the possibility of getting some of those draft posts about ACTUAL Chinese language learning ready for blog publication.
Besides various little typo corrections, “real page numbers” (based on the print book), and a new link to this very website, the biggest change is that it is now enrolled in KDP Select which places the book in the Kindle Lending Library. I think you have to be an Amazon Prime member to borrow it, but I’m really not sure how it all works yet.
I enrolled the book in KDP Select at the recommendation of a friend and I’m interested to see exactly what happens next.
Maybe now that we’re on Chūnjié 春节 break I can get to some of those 87 draft posts that have been sitting there wondering if I’ve forgotten about them.