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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 .
- 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.
- 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).