First Year of Mandarin at St. Michael’s: A Reflection (by Dr. CJ Chiang, with students' input)

Austin is one of the most well-known and popular cities in the US among immigrants and companies of Asia. The transformation of the Asian region into the economic and technology powerhouse of the world has been noticeable in Austin, even though geographically it is not a coastal city. To develop an ability to communicate effectively with people of different ethnicities and language backgrounds, Mandarin has attracted much global interest and become the second most important language in the world after English. In addition, Mandarin skills are a key resume-builder. Knowing Mandarin may give job seekers an edge in competing for employment in many fields. On the other hand, teaching English in China or Taiwan is a wonderful career for English speakers, because salaries for teachers there are much higher relatively than in the US.
Unfortunately, most Westerners seem to view Mandarin as the most difficult language in the world, when comparing it with western languages. When a student does not have a preference or interest in one particular foreign language, Mandarin is usually not considered. However, based on my current students’ feedback, they indicated that learning Mandarin is not too difficult after a year of learning with me. Instead, learning Mandarin is exactly like learning any other second language. (FYI, this year my class includes two juniors who had taken several years of Spanish prior to Mandarin, so we should give them much credit.) Of course, they all expressed in the beginning that it was not easy, but after the first several weeks, Mandarin no longer seemed too difficult for them to learn. My students started from learning Pinyin and tones; they quickly got to know how to say their names and count numbers by Week 1. To learn how to “speak” Mandarin, you simply read alphabetical combinations and sound them out—just like a young child learning to read English.
Throughout the first semester, the students got to play all kinds of fun games or took part in one-to-one drills to help them master basic vocabulary and short sentences easily. Each week the students were given a quiz, which was stressful for some. But most of the grades are based on in-class participation, homework, and group/individual projects. I kept telling my students that quizzing them aims to help them understand how much they have retained. Personally I value effort more than intelligence, so they are sometimes allowed to retake the quizzes and always able to earn bonus grades by watching movies spoken in Mandarin, writing pages of Chinese characters, composing a Chinese letter to students in Taiwan, and/or eating and cooking Asian foods. In addition, my students got to learn how to make moon cakes and Chinese dumplings that are prepared on traditional Chinese holidays, in addition to learning about the Chinese culture and customs, on Fridays. Also, the students got to practice Chinese calligraphy and Chinese Yo-yo, and to taste snacks imported from overseas. Most importantly, we are fortunate to have a group of Chinese international students studying with us on campus; daily in-class interaction and lunch dates with these Chinese students, and potentially hosting an international student, greatly expand and enhance learning Mandarin beyond the classroom.

Believe it or not, learning vocabulary in Mandarin is actually much easier than in some commonly used western languages. That’s because Mandarin words are much shorter and more logically based on the component characters, and there are no verb conjugations (no need to memorize verb tenses) and no noun declension (e.g., no gender or number distinctions). From the perspective of learning characteristics, especially among students with different learning styles, Mandarin seems easier for some students to pick up, compared to Western languages. Learning Mandarin significantly empowers some students and boosts their confidence as well. The students felt that they didn’t have to carry the negative English learning experiences from the past when learning a completely unfamiliar language. In addition, a student shared that it is simply a strategic decision to choose Mandarin, because it has a fairly small population of learners in Texas. Although there is very limited research on foreign language learning and students with different learning styles, I would like to share some of my intuitive opinions here to explain why learning Mandarin may be much easier for some people. First, Mandarin in each word/character has only one syllable, which makes it easier for individuals who have trouble with differentiating, articulating, and/or memorizing “long/big” vocabulary words. Second, every Chinese character is “restrained” to a box-like format, and most of the characters are actually categorized into three main types: pictograms (e,g., 山 means “mountain” ), ideograms (e.g., 三 means number “3”), and radical-phonetic compounds (e.g., 妈 means “mother”). Therefore, recognizing Chinese characters is not to memorize random scribbles or strokes, but to make connections with the resemblance to the images of objects, to the ideas, or to the phonetic elements in the characters.
Looking back at how I taught and my students learned Mandarin during this school year, I learned that my students all loved taking Mandarin. They appreciated that our class size was small, so everyone enjoyed a lot of teacher’s attention. One of them doesn’t like to speak Chinese, but I always “force” and patiently wait for the student to utter Mandarin. In return, I allow my students to correct my English pronunciation, if they feel badly after being corrected constantly by me in class. Teaching and learning are actually occurring for both parties—the students and me. When teaching Confucianism, I expressed that my teaching philosophy is to love, to motivate, and then to teach them. Why does “teaching” come last if my job title is teacher? I don’t see myself as a teacher, but a mentor. As a teacher, I believe the greatest joy is to see students becoming productive members of our society. I don’t know everything about Mandarin, because I don’t have a PhD in Chinese Literature. However, I know how to teach. I can say confidently that I am good at meeting individual students’ learning needs. Confucius and his philosophy taught me that learning is an endless journey, so motivating students to learn does not limit their learning to class or school only.  For those who are not able to continue taking Mandarin next school year, I encouraged them to pick up Mandarin after going to college, if possible. My students did complain about too many new vocabulary words to learn every week, but still they accomplished what was expected and didn’t lose interest in learning Mandarin. For next year, I should “require” my students to perform their Children Book Play at the school talent show. Also, I know that I have to improve the flow of using the classroom projector during class, so my students won’t need to look at the small screen of my school laptop. Last but not least, I would use one main textbook for my students next year, so they won’t have any excuses for not bringing their handouts or packs that I spent much effort in putting together.

So, who now thinks Mandarin is not too difficult and wants to learn Mandarin during the next school year—or over the next 5 to 10 years?  Please let me know!

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