Do you have two and a half minutes? Do you want to understand why Lotus Chinese Learning (and other high-quality programs) do not use textbooks? We don’t spend a lot of class time teaching grammar rules or encourage our students to memorize new vocabulary words (aka teaching using traditional methods). Watch this short video to learn why it is okay to ditch the textbook.
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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?”
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.
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.
*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.
Chinese currency is an easy way to talk about not only money and numbers but also to look at the geography and history of China. For a class with adults, I look at the backs of the Chinese RMB 1, RMB5, RMB 10, RMB 20, RMB 50 and RMB 100 notes. As anyone who has been to China knows, the front of most Chinese paper currency all feature the same guy, Mao Zedong. The backs, however, are all different.
How it Works
My class based on Chinese currency is geared for beginner adult students, but could be modified for different groups. At the end of the day it is a content class about different places in China, so it could be fine for a group with different ability levels. I start by showing the class a photo of the 1 RMB note and then ask, “what is it in Chinese.” It is very simple language for the students to follow.
Then I show the back of the bill. I ask the students, “what is this?” or “what place is this?” The students can respond in English. Responding to the question in English shows that they at least understand the question. For a typical class, it is not likely that they know exactly the place in China that is pictured on the bill. But they might have a few good guesses. All of the scenes are of very famous places in China.
To go through the RMB 1-100 notes and show the students on the map of China where all the locations are, takes about 30-40 minutes. The class may take longer, depending on whether we have a big group or not. In case you are wondering, the places pictured on the backs of the Chinese bills from 1-100 are West Lake, Mount Tai, the Three Gorges, Guilin scenery, Potala Palace and the Great Hall of the People.
Relating the Money to Something Bigger
These are famous places from all over China. West Lake and Mount Tai are both near the eastern coast. The Three Gorges are in the heart of China. Guilin is in the south. Potala is in Tibet. The Great Hall of the People is in the north, in Beijing. They represent the history, geography and the political ambitions of China. One of the great projects of the Chinese civilization is to stitch together a nation from peoples spread over a large area. The currency in a person’s pocket seem mundane, but it hints at the larger project of Chinese civilization.
More on learning about Chinese culture through language classes:
When it comes to language learning and intercultural communication, “food and flags” have a pretty bad reputation. The thinking goes that talking about food or the flags of countries is too shallow. Treating food and flags as sufficient representations for cultures is just not enough to do any place justice. While I support wanting more rigor for language and cultural education, I think that maybe food has gotten short-changed as a topic for the classroom (I’ll leave flags for another time). Students can definitely learn something about a culture through food, while learning the language at the same time.
Teachers who are not from the cultures that they teach about have to admit that we are not in charge of what that culture thinks is important. Even if you are from a culture whose language you teach, you have to admit that not everyone has to agree with you about what is important :). Food is a huge part of Chinese culture. It’s integral to the major holidays. It is medicine. It is how friends and family members show affection. To say that food is a shallow topic for China rather misses the point.
An Example of Food and Flags Done Better
“Is this Chinese food?” is a lesson that I have done with adult students. I would also do a version with kids, but perhaps a shorter version. In this class, I show the students photos of different foods and ask, is this Chinese food? Most of the photos are in fact, photos of foods that you can easily find in China. Many of them, however, are not foods that come to mind when students think of “Chinese food.”
The language used in this class is very basic. There are only a few phrases and words that the students need for the whole hour-long class. This is really great for beginner/novice students because they only need to know how to say “是” or “不是” in order to participate. They could also just nod their heads or do a thumbs up or a thumbs down too.
The class also works for students who have more knowledge of Chinese. The class, like any good immersion-style class, is really about the content. Just because a student has a good knowledge about the Chinese language does not mean that they know everything about the country or the culture. It is also a good chance for those who may not have strong language skills, but know a lot about the place, to show off what they know.
Food as a Gateway to More
The slides that I show the students are mostly of foods that are commonly found in China. The takeaway of the lesson is that there are many foods in China, such as corn on the cob, egg tarts, kebabs, that students might not think of as Chinese food, but actually are. Their presence and popularity in China alludes to stories from history, trade and the Chinese multi-ethic state. Not too shallow, right?
One of the challenges of planning my classes is integrating what I know many parents want their children to learn, with what I know about how students learn. Many parents want to make sure that their children are learning the “basics” of Chinese, especially if their kids are young. This usually means things like numbers, colors, body parts, and food.
Learning Chinese with Games
Anyone who has watched this video knows that Lotus Chinese Learning classes are not about memorizing lists of vocabulary words. You also know that I’m a big believer in making sure that students are having fun in Chinese class. There is good evidence that students learn more easily when they are relaxed and having fun. In other words, learning Chinese can be all fun and games. Luckily, there are ways to integrate what parents want their kids to learn with an input-based curriculum.
How to Use Twister in Chinese Class
The game of Twister is a fun game that almost everyone knows how to play. This saves time in class since we do not have to spend that much time explaining the rules to the students. The game is all about colors and body parts, with right and left thrown in. When playing Twister for the first time or with a group of novices, I will write out the English translations of the words that we are using on the board. If the students already know they their colors pretty well, then all I have to write is hand, foot, left and right.
If you have not played Twister since childhood, let me warn you that the mats have gotten tiny now! Just kidding, of course it is us who have gotten bigger J. If you have more than a few kids per class, you might need more than one mat so the kids have enough room.
By playing Twister, the kids will hear the words for colors, hand, foot, and right and left over and over again. It is this type of input that will help them acquire these words in the long run. Additionally, by watching the students, the teacher will also be able to see if the students understand these words.
Learning how to write Chinese is intimidating to many students, especially if they start learning the language later on in life. Most students find the prospect of learning how to correctly write several thousand Chinese characters extremely daunting. Like language itself, writing is highly complex. Learning how to write in another language is not just a process of learning how to write words and then stringing them together on a page. In order to understand how to best learn how to write in Chinese, we should take a look at the different types of writing that we need to do.
Everyday Writing Purposes
What kind of writing do you do every day? Be honest. Texting, emails, maybe a grocery list, a to-do list? That is pretty much it, right? This type of writing is pretty straightforward. To do this kind of writing in Chinese requires knowledge of how to input Chinese in a phone or computer (i.e. pinyin). You could do this type of writing without even knowing how to form characters, especially if you use an app on your phone for things like lists.
Writing emails and texts doesn’t come with high standards for beauty and a clever turn of phrase. Writing emails for business has a little more pressure than writing emails to friends, but generally you don’t have to be Hemingway or Yu Hua to write a good one.
Writing and Register
Writing for work is more demanding than writing for everyday purposes. Writers need not only to know how to convey their meaning, but also the knowledge of how to do so in a way that it is appropriate for work. The technical word for this is register. In a nutshell, we use different registers for different types of communication. It is generally accepted that different registers coordinate with different levels of formality.
Like writing for work, writing for academic purposes also requires a different level of formality than writing a text to a friend. Academic writing is probably more formal than writing for business. Writing for art, that is writing something like a novel or a poem is probably the most demanding type of writing. Very few people are good at it in their first language, and even fewer can write beautifully in their second language. Vladimir Nobokov comes to mind as a great writer of English, although it was not his first language. He might be the exception that proves the rule.
What does this all mean for language instruction? Many language classes have writing for academic purposed as one of the goals and requirements. There is nothing wrong with wanting students to be able to write a good research paper in the target language. Most of the writing that people do however, is the simple stuff, like texts, emails and grocery lists.
This is good news for a proficiency-oriented curriculum. While I do think it is important for students to be able to properly handwrite characters, that skill is not necessary for 95% of the writing that most people do. Academic writing is pretty difficult, but it is just not something that the vast majority of language students will be expected to do. A better use of students’ time is focusing on the everyday types of writing they will actually need.