Why teach Spanish in China?

So calling in teaching Spanish in China might be a bit of an exaggeration. I did a bit of teacher training during my last trip to China. The teachers over there teach English to Chinese kids, of course. My purpose was to talk about best practices for language teaching in general. Most people think it sounds a little crazy to tell American language teachers that they don’t need a textbook or to teach grammar rules. Well, to most Chinese teachers it sounds certifiably insane.

It was going to be a challenge to explain what I do here in the United States to a group of highly skeptical teachers in China. I decided to do what I usually do, which is to show and not tell. That is where the idea to teach Spanish* came in. I could explain that you don’t need to teach a grammar word and show the kids a list of words all day long, but seeing is believing. The idea was to teach the teachers a class in Spanish and show them that they could understand everything without a chart that starts with “yo soy.”

What Happened During the Lesson

I did a 20 minute “mini lesson” about my family with the Chinese teachers. This was similar to what I usually do with my students here in the US when we talk about family. I taught the class pretty much the same way I normally do, except instead of me talking in Chinese with English translations on the board, I spoke Spanish while pointing at Chinese translations. I told the students the simple story of my family. Basically: I am from a family of three daughters, my husband is from a family of three boys, we got married, the end. The students demonstrated their comprehension by answering questions about my story. Some examples of questions are: “Who is David?” “Do I have a brother?” “Does Teresa have a daughter?”

photo of Spanish lesson in China
Teaching Spanish in China

It worked. By the end of the 20 minutes, the students answered my questions with ease. They could tell that they understood everything that was in the story. I never explained anything about Spanish grammar. They did not look at a list of vocabulary words before the lesson. I did not quiz them on how to conjugate the verb “tener” (to have) in Spanish. I asked instead comprehension questions about the story that I told them. They got all the questions right.

teacher showing student a picture while teaching Spanish
They’re getting it!

Important Points

Sometimes the students responded to me in English or Chinese, instead of Spanish. They also pointed at names instead of saying them. This is all perfectly fine. It is completely unreasonable to expect students to speak in the target language after only a few minutes of instruction. Honestly, it is unreasonable to expect students to speak in the target language after only a few hours of instruction, too.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to talk to Chinese teachers of English about what I do here in the United States. There is plenty of room to improve the quality of language teaching all over the world. Below is a summary of what I think are the most important things for language teachers to remember.

1. Go slow. If you do nothing else, going slowly will help the students understand what the teacher is saying. When the students understand the teacher, they can acquire the language.

2. Use lots of repetition. Studies show that students may need to hear a word 50-100 times before they truly can remember it.

3. Teach content, not language. The lesson should be about an interesting topic that will hold everyone’s attention. The students will learn about the topic and through the topic, they will learn the language.

4. Maintain communication throughout the class. We learn language through communication. Talk with the students, not at the students.

5. Keep checking comprehension. The students need to understand what they are hearing in order to learn.

teacher with students
Hanging out with the kids at the center

*I’m not proficient in Spanish (yet) but I can certainly talk simply and slowly about my family in Spanish.

NB- I got the idea to teach a Spanish lesson from the training that I did with Blaine Ray, in which he taught us German through TPRS.

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