Why Non-Chinese Make Good Chinese Teachers

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.

1. Sympathy for the Learner

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:

  • Give insight into how I mastered various tricky parts of the language (tones, particles, etc.).
  • Commiserate about listening comprehension (when I didn’t understand what the taxi driver said and how I dealt with it).
  • Tell anecdotes about major and minor gaffs I’ve committed in the language and culture.
  • Skip over or spend little time on things that are easy for English-speakers to grasp.

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.

2. Confidence Boost

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.

3. Superior Teaching Methodology

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.

Limitations of a Non-Native Teacher

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:

  1. Give a perfect pronunciation model. Even though I’ve been mistaken on the phone for a native speaker of Chinese, after a while (sometimes a very short while) my pronunciation will “give me away” as a non-native speaker. Most often this occurs with tone mistakes (because they’re so hard to keep track of, especially in combination). Native speakers usually will not make pronunciation or tone mistakes (especially if they speak good Mandarin).
  2. Say definitely whether grammar or word usage is “wrong.” I often encounter uncertainties as to whether an utterance would be deemed “correct” by a native speaker. When learners make common mistakes, I confidently label them as “incorrect.” But when learners’ produce language that goes beyond the well-trodden path of what I know is definitely correct or incorrect, I have to consult a native speaker. I can call such utterances “uncommon,” but that may be as far as I can go.
  3. Produce immediate and unlimited sentence examples. When I teach spoken English, I can give as many examples of correct usage as the students want. And I know all my sentences are correct. Often, students will ask about some English grammar that I’ve never thought about before and I’ll just start filling the board with examples until I see a pattern emerge. Then I can explain the rule. But in Chinese I can’t do that as easily.
  4. Translate anything into native Chinese. It’s easy for me to be stumped by the question “How do you say such-and-such in Chinese?” I can probably “get the point across” in Mandarin, but it may not be what a native speaker would say in that situation. Appropriate idioms and expressions for every situation that I may not be familiar with come readily to mind for native speakers .
  5. Write anything in Hanzi. My handwriting is woefully beneath my reading level which is way below my speaking level. Native speakers can usually write everything they can read and say. But even native speakers forget how to write infrequent characters, so there’s no way I’ll ever be able to keep up with them.
  6. Give vast cultural insights. It’s a good thing I know that calling a girl a “chicken” in Chinese is the same as calling her a prostitute. But what about all that cultural stuff I don’t know? Native speakers can give so many more cultural insights and anecdotes than non-native speakers. (For example, what do the words “snap, crackle, pop” mean to you?)

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).


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  1. 16 Responses to “Why Non-Chinese Make Good Chinese Teachers”

  2. Olle Linge said:

    Hi Albert,

    Great article as usual. I think that people in general overestimate the role of native speakers in (adult) language education. The perfect situation would be to have both kinds of teachers available, although that’s very impractical and the fact that very few foreigners have learnt Chinese to a level where they can teach it makes it even harder.

    I want to add some comments to your list at the bottom of things that native speakers do well. First, I have had enough grammar/linguistics lessons with native speakers to know that they can’t “say definitely whether grammar or word usage is wrong”. Native speakers disagree a lot, native speakers sometimes consider example sentences in grammar books to be wrong, native speakers often overestimate how well they know their own language. This is of course true for any language, but Chinese in particular because it’s a vast language with much variety between different regions, social classes and generations.

    Sure, native teachers can tell whether something is correct or not more often than I can, but it’s simply not true that they are even close to perfect understanding of Chinese. Note that I’m talking about normal teachers here, not professors who have spent most of their lives studying grammar and vocabulary use across space and time.

    Second, native speakers seldom have perfect pronunciation. I’ve met many teachers who have problems that some non-native speakers would never encounter (such as not being able to separate l/n or l/r for instance). Of course, you’re still right in a more general sense, especially when it comes to tones and intonation, but I just want to point out that perfect pronunciation isn’t something all (most?) native speaking teachers have.

    Comment date: Feb 24, 2013

  3. Margaret GERMANY said:

    All very true. I am looking forward to reading more.
    I have been trying to learn Chinese on my own, with a variety of books, but also going to a 90-minute class once a week with a teacher originally from Beijing. I don’t expect this to be enough, but it’s good to have some feedback. In this connection, we use Conversation Chinese 301, German edition, and are at about chapter 27. I hate this book! It’s what you said about communicative: Chinese publishers have realized that language has to be taught in a communicative way, but the way it is implemented in this book is really awful. Every chapter is about something like ‘I’m sorry’ (I broke your vase), ‘Please don’t smoke’ (it’s bad for your health), ‘I can’t come’ (because I have planned something else). The explanations of grammar make it more confusing than before you read the explanation. I understand that you need some standard sentences to hold a conversation, but the idea of making the book communicative has made it harder to learn grammar and writing. We get no chance to talk about ourselves, which I think is communicative, we are constantly apologizing and telling each other not to smoke.

    So the publisher/authors have taken the idea of communicative teaching and ruined it (fortunately we do other things in class too, but they don’t fit into the book).

    Comment date: Feb 24, 2013

  4. Rick UNITED STATES said:

    Very interesting piece, and I look forward to further installments. I think that your points are entirely valid, but depend so much on the individual teacher that it really is hard to generalize.

    Here at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), I’ve been a professor and an Academic Dean for many years. I’ve also studied 4 or 5 languages, a point which I will get back to.

    The majority of the students I’ve dealt with over the years, both as a professor and a Dean, have been native speakers of English. Very few of them could have taught English, however, and the vast majority have had to sit through the standard College English class for freshman. The reasons for this are varied, but generally center around improper grammar, and the inability to string thoughts together in a coherent manner (usually with regard to writing). In addition, virtually none of these students know and can identify basic parts of speech. All of these problems stem from “knowing” English intuitively, but not explicitly, and not being interested in looking into this further. By contrast, my brother-in-law, from Hunan, has taken great pride in explicitly mastering English and Spanish (the latter because he lives in California).

    So, my brother-in-law would make a great English teacher (and in fact resigned from his position as a Dean at one of the UC campuses in order to teach essay-writing to high-school students preparing to apply to Universities and Colleges). Most native English speakers, in my experience, would not, and I include myself in this assessment.

    In my studies of various languages, I had native speakers in all but one, Latin, since “native speakers” of this do not exist. My Latin study consisted of a two-year (four-term) course of study. The first year was conducted by an instructor who was, presumably (we as students couldn’t tell), fluent in the language, and it was two terms of hell. I passed, barely. I heard later that this instructor was not trained as a teacher, was marketing a novel, and took this teaching job just to make ends meet.

    The second year of the course was run by a graduate student of Latin, and was Heaven on Earth for everyone in the class. To this day, over 30 years later, I remember her name (although I won’t, of course, mention it here). She loved Latin, and loved teaching it.

    The consistently best introductory language instruction I received here at the University has been in Mandarin, and I understand that all of our intro Mandarin instructors are graduates of a teaching College on Taiwan, which focuses on teaching Chinese to non-native speakers. The absolutely worst language instruction I’ve received is in Spanish, because the classes are conducted by native speakers who are hired for that reason, and that reason alone: I.e., no training in or understanding of teaching their own language.

    And speaking of languages, mathematics is truly a language, and I spent some years studying it (I was at one point seriously considering astrophysics as a career). I was very, very good at math. I don’t think there is another field which better reveals good and bad teaching than math (and perhaps logic, which I studied for my Philosophy degree). I’ve had horrible teachers in math, and some good ones, and one that I would have to consider a “genius” as a teacher. She taught my differential equations course. She was Chinese. She could not speak a single intelligible word in English. But, she used a piece of chalk on a chalkboard like a magic wand.

    So, in my rambling way, I’m agreeing with you about the advantages and disadvantages of non-native speakers as teachers, but it also is really a matter of enthusiasm and commitment.

    Comment date: Feb 24, 2013

  5. Albert CHINA said:

    @Olle Linge,

    Glad you liked it. And you’re right, of course, that not all native speakers of Mandarin have great pronunciation. But at least it’s POSSIBLE that they could be perfect, whereas for me, I don’t really have a chance :-)

    @Margaret,

    I’m sorry you hate your book. I’ve heard so many stories like that. Those chapter titles are really funny! “we are constantly apologizing and telling each other not to smoke”. Hahaha!

    @Rick,

    We’re in total agreement: “A native speaker does not a teacher make.”

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Comment date: Feb 24, 2013

  6. Manu COLOMBIA said:

    That’s a super interesting article. Out of the three Chinese teachers I’ve had two have been technically non-native Chinese speakers. My first year Chinese teacher was a korean man who had moved to china when he was 18 and he speaks Chinese and writes Chinese even better than native speakers. I think he’s one of the best teachers for new learners because he’s not Chinese and yet has mastered it (there was a lot of emphasis on tones and pronunciation). My second year Chinese teacher is from the US but lived in China and Taiwan for a long time. He’s a classical chinese scholar and probably the best teacher I’ve had. It’s so true that having a non-native Chinese speaker really does motivate you, though we also had him on a pedestal. So good luck to you on your teaching, I’m sure you’ll be great.

    Comment date: Feb 25, 2013

  7. Meiqi GERMANY said:

    I’m teaching Mandarin myself and I completely agree with everything you’ve said. Also, I got a lot of positive feedback from my students saying that they were at first reluctant to accept a “foreigner” teaching them Chinese, but then came to realize that it offers a lot of advantages. I’m also aware of the drawbacks of a foreign teacher (although the writing part is not an issue for me, I’m often worried that my tones might slightly differ or I may be to lenient on their pronounciation) but I think I’ll print your piece and read it every time I get doubts about me teaching ;-)

    Comment date: Feb 25, 2013

  8. Michael said:

    Congrats on the gig, actually my first teacher was a 老外, maaaaaany years ago. He was a freaking language genius who went to China in the 80’s and wound up in Taiwan, married with a beautiful family. He’s now living in Switzerland I believe, he translates legal contracts, etc and is doing very well.

    It’s ironic, because I was going to say the biggest ‘weakness’ with a white teacher would be ‘lack of buy in’ (your students aren’t fully convinced your Chinese is that great, cuz you’re not Chinese)… but actually the most I think of it, the most I think you can get MASSIVE buy-in, because you’re exactly what they want to be doing! Perhaps subconsciously that’s what made my first teacher so great. We kind of idolized him and wanted to be like him… he had this amazing talent, and we figured we could actually, with enough work, pull it off.

    There’s nothing ‘impressive’ about a Chinese person speaking perfect Chinese, but for you to speak fluent Mandarin in front of a class of newbies, is bound to blow them away.

    And FYI, i’m pretty sure there is NO QUESTION they’ll have to ask that you won’t be able to answer.

    Comment date: Feb 26, 2013

  9. Yangyang UNITED STATES said:

    Congratulations, Albert! I think you are going to be a great Chinese teacher given that you were born with the natural talent to teach and explain things. Also, thanks for the nice words. It’s greatly appreciated.

    Comment date: Feb 27, 2013

  10. Matt said:

    Look forward to checking out your material and reading about your experience teaching Chinese. Good luck.

    Comment date: Feb 27, 2013

  11. Albert CHINA said:

    @Manu,

    Thanks very much for the vote of confidence. We’ll see :-)

    @Meiqi,

    If you encounter reluctant students again, feel free to print this and give it to THEM to read too :-)

    @Michael,

    Yes. “Buy in” is what I’m after. It’s an issue native speakers don’t face. But, like you said, they may face a different sort of problem. The more I teach and live in China the more convinced I am of the importance of the affective aspects of language learning.

    @Yangyang,

    Thank YOU for the nice words!

    @Matt,

    I’m looking forward to seeing what I do myself. I’ll keep you posted.

    Comment date: Feb 28, 2013

  12. Leandra AUSTRALIA said:

    Coming from a country (The Netherlands) where we usually are not taught by a native speaker, but still can speak different languages quite well (as I hear all the time), I didn’t understand all this fuzz about “native speakers”. I lived in China for two years, in Tanchang, Gansu province and was a teacher-adviser with VSO. I tried to explain that I’ve never learnt how to speak English from a native speaker but that my teachers were all Dutch! I think what you mention in your article is right: sometimes a non-native speaker knows better how to explain the language, because to native speakers some things are “just because…”…
    Fortunately, China starts to understand that it’s the different way around as well: that you have blue eyes and blond hair and come from America or the UK (or wherever English is the native language) doesn’t mean you can teach the langauge. Teaching is difficult job – as we probably all know – and I think I might be able to teach English better than many of the back packers coming to South-East Asia now, although I’m not a native speaker. At least you understand the difficulties while trying to grasp the new language.
    Good luck with your lessons and I am looking forward to see more posts about this process.

    Comment date: Mar 1, 2013

  13. tara chen CHINA said:

    Hi Albert,
    Thanks for sharing… It’s very interesting and so useful. I’m thinking, is there any possibility that I can go to your class sometimes and sit at the behind taking notes? Would it against any rules? I think it would be so valuable for me to see how you teach Chinese. As you said, we’re in total agreement: “A native speaker does not a teacher make.” And as you know, I want to teach Chinese as foreign language. I read Olle Linge’s comments, that’s what I was thinking when I was reading your article. However, I would be happy to offer any help you need. But please prepare yourself that I may say a lot of “I don’t know/ I’m not sure either…” The truth is, I barely know any Chinese grammar; my best is my pronunciation and tones. But still, it’s not as good as the north people. (I got an 80 on my mandarin test). So, if you don’t mind, TREAT me like a pronunciation machine and fu du ji (tones: 421)(= repeating machine)! I can also just be an invisible machine… (I would hate to think that I disturb your class or cause you any troubles…) Please let me know if I can go to your class and please tell me the time and place. Thanks!

    Comment date: Mar 3, 2013

  14. Paul Yang AUSTRALIA said:

    Hi Albert, I’m a third generation overseas Chinese and English is my first language. When I was posted to work in China, I started Mandarin lessons with a native speaker and it was a disaster. Later I switched to a non native teacher which was so much better. Non native teachers understand how a non Mandarin speaker thinks and interprets the language. I think non native speakers are absolutely essential for the beginner up to intermediate levels.

    Comment date: Mar 5, 2013

  15. Albert CHINA said:

    @Paul Yang,

    Thanks for the story. It seems that many people have had similar experiences.

    Comment date: Mar 5, 2013

  16. Wolfgang AUSTRALIA said:

    Hi!
    When I was still going to school, I wasn’t interested in languages at all. This did however change with Chinese and since I started studying this language I thought quite a lot about how to make it easier and quicker to learn it.

    I strongly believe that in the beginning, taking classes is quite important, but at a certain point it didn’t help me that much anymore. I found that flashcards started to get a lot more helpful than actually taking classes. As there were no proper HSK flashcards out there, I took a lot of my spare time and created http://www.wohok.com over the last 1,5 years.

    My biggest problem was and is to not forget vocabularies over time and to really sit down and do something. I am a very organised and self-disciplinned person, so this way of studying works very well for me.

    All the materials on my website are free and although I’m not a teacher myself, I hope that there’s maybe some helpful stuff you on it, regardless of whether you’re one of the teachers or ongoing teachers commenting above or still studying.

    Thanks! Great blog btw. Albert

    Comment date: Mar 25, 2013

  17. Sechaba SWEDEN said:

    This is a very informative piece. I am in Lesotho and I am being taught Chinese by a mosotho (a Lesotho national) he speaks good mandarine. Even the representatives from Chinese embassy here found him to very good at it. At times he uses our language (sesotho) to explain some chinese concept which would have been very difficult to do in English. I also agree with you that it boosts students’ self-esteem. My classmates and I always say ” if he can speak this good, one day we will”. Our challenge however is learning Chinese in a different continent, we can’t practice as we would want but thankfully there are good chinese teaching websites out there.

    Thank you for the article.

    Comment date: Mar 30, 2013

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