Legacy Methods VS Methods That Work

Since I ditched legacy teaching methods (the old “teach and practice” model*) I have a new challenge every time I begin a Mandarin class for adults. When I step into the classroom, my students are usually at their desks, sitting with notebook out, ready to write down notes like “Mandarin has four tones.” They are ready for the old-school model of a Mandarin class and I have only an hour or two to earn their trust. They are not used to a class that begins with: 我是Mary (I am Mary). When students do not hear what they are expecting, they get nervous. Adults who want to learn Chinese are usually making a big sacrifice of their time. It is important that they trust that Chinese classes are a good use of their time.

Getting to 90%

During a first Mandarin class, it is only reasonable for students for students to learn a few things. For a two-hour group Mandarin Chinese class, my students learn 我是、你是、他是、我喜欢、她喜欢、我有、你有、她有 and a few question words. That is a few pronouns, three verbs (to be, to like, and to have), and three question words at most, maybe ten unique words in total. In this first class, we maybe spend half the time in the target language and half the time in English. We work up to spending about 90% of the class in Chinese by class 4 or 5.

I can tell that students are nervous at the beginning. Within 20 minutes of class however, they are responding to questions like “who are you?” “are you Mary?” “Are you a teacher?” Students are able to do this without a minute of grammar instruction. I’m confident that my students are “getting it” because I ask them regularly. Thanks to a TPRS workshop with Blaine Ray, I started doing a “finger check” with students. When asked, students hold up one finger to show that they totally do not get what is going on, five fingers for “I am so getting this” and two, three and four fingers for everything in between. The finger check is great because it allows the teacher to check-in with all the students quickly, and the individual students are less embarrassed to show that they don’t get it, if that is the case.

Importance of Reading

Back during my legacy-method days, I used to tell adult students that they did not have to learn Chinese characters if they did not want. It is still true that I cannot actually force anyone to learn Chinese characters, but learning Chinese characters is now a large part of my adult Chinese classes. The caveat is that we only learn to read Chinese characters that we have repeated orally many, many times in class. Thanks to the finger check, I can tell that by the end of class, students are “so getting it” when it comes to Chinese characters.

Gaining Confidence in Chinese

It is really hard to conduct a class that is very different to what students are expecting. Often, adult students who have 12+ years of schooling under their belts have a very specific ideas about what a class should look like. They are looking for “Mandarin Chinese has four tones. The first tone is…” In this type of class, the problem is that students are learning ABOUT Chinese and not learning Chinese. After two hours of a class in which we are using Chinese to talk about ourselves and each other, students leave pretty confident. When the students feel confident, I have their trust.

page from Chinese 1 textbook
Page of a text we read during day one of Mandarin Chinese class

*Carol Gaab is quoted in this article from Language Magazine predicts that no one will be doing any professional development based on “teach and practice” by 2025. I think that is a little optimistic, but you never know!

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