Teaching Spanish in China

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.

Chinese Currency: A Lesson

Why Chinese Currency?

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.

back of the 1 RMB note (Chinese currency) with a photo of the West Lake scene it is based on
back of the 1RMB notes

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.

Back of 5 RMB note (Chinese currency)
View of Mount Tai
Back of 10 RMB note (Chinese currency)
View of the Three Gorges

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.

back of 20 RMB (Chinese currency)
View of Guilin Scenery
back of 50 RMB notes (Chinese currency)
View of Potala Palace
Back of 100 RMB note (Chinese currency)
The Great Hall of the People

 

More on learning about Chinese culture through language classes:

Is it Chinese Food?

MovieTalk: Bao

 

Food and Flags Revisited

What’s Wrong with Food and Flags?

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.

What’s Important?

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.”

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Is this 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.

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This is what I like to call “Mall Chicken.” Is it Chinese food?

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?

naang
Is bread Chinese food?

More on teaching Chinese culture:

Chinese Paper Cutting

Chinese New Year

Movietalk with Bao

For anyone who is interested, here are some photos of flags made out of their nation’s famous foods.

What Does it Cost in China?

Immersion-Style Classes for Adults

Is it possible to have a basic Mandarin Chinese class that uses very little English? Yes! For whatever reason, no one bats an eye when we do immersion-style classes with the little kids, but when adults hear the class will only be in Chinese, they get nervous! Most of my adult students are interested in traveling to China, or have done some traveling there already. It is actually possible to help students prepare for a trip to China by talking about how much things cost there, all in Chinese!

Introducing Numbers in Chinese

One lesson that works for adult students (delivered almost entirely in Mandarin Chinese) is to talk about the prices of things in China. Usually, the students will already be familiar with the numbers. I like to do a warm-up that involves using chopsticks to move coffee beans around. I give the students one or two minutes (depending on how generous I am feeling :)) to move a small pile of coffee beans from one side of the desk to the other. Then we count together to see who moved the most. In a group of ten students, they will hear me count from one to ten close to ten times. There is no point in having the students struggle over trying to remember the numbers, so I also write them on the board. The added bonus is that some students will realize that they need to practice their chopsticks skills.

picture of person holding a pair of chopsticks
How well can you use these?

 

Guessing Costs

Once we have finished the chopsticks activity, we look at a slideshow of things that people often buy in China. These include a coffee, tea, beer, a bowl of noodles, and bottled water. In Chinese, with translation as needed, I ask the students to guess how much each thing costs in China. As the students make their guesses, I write down the numbers and repeat them in Chinese. This way, the students hear the structure over and over again. After collecting all the guesses, I reveal the correct answer and we see who got the closest.

We stay in Mandarin Chinese throughout the activity, so that the students get plenty of input in that language. If the students make their guesses about prices in English, it is no big deal. They are still active and engaged in the class. They just don’t have the language yet to use it. I simply repeat their guess in Chinese so that the students can hear it.

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Takeaways

The content is interesting to the students because it is useful. Since we look at the costs of coffee, water, food and beer, they can get an idea of how much they would spend on a typical day traveling through China. They can also get an interesting insight into simple economic differences between the US and China. Many students are surprised to learn that a cup of coffee often costs twice as much as lunch!

*With the little kids we talk about pets, transportation, food, etc., but those are all topics that are more kid-friendly

Learn more about classes for adult students here.

More on doing business in China.

Task: How Well Do you Know African Animals?

Why Tasks?

Tasks are a great tool for the language learning classroom. A task is different from an activity in that we are actually doing something that has a purpose other than just using the language. More posts about tasks in Chinese language class are here and here. This week I have been doing different versions of a task about African animals with my lower elementary students.

Reading as Task Warm Up

First, we look at the book Draw! by Raul Colon. It is a wordless picture book, so the teacher can talk as much or as little about the pictures as she likes. It is the story of a boy who travels to Africa through his drawings. The book features an elephant, giraffes, gorillas, monkeys and a rhino. While we read the book, I like to talk about what the animals are doing, and what they are eating. It could also work to talk about how they look and their different body parts.

IMG_0838

Completing the Task

The next step after the book is the quiz, “Is this Animal from Africa?” I have pictures of different animals on a Powerpoint presentation. We click through about ten different animals and write down the students’ guesses about whether the animal is from Africa or not. Some they are get, like knowing the lion is from Africa and the polar bear isn’t. There are a few that stump the kids, though. So far, no one has know that there are penguins from Africa!

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