My First Experience in Teaching Chinese

Chen Hong

Chinese is my mother tongue. As is known to all, Chinese is the language that is spoken by the largest number of people in the world. Therefore, I’m often proud that I am one of the people who speak this language. I have also been an English learner for over thirty years and an English teacher for over twenty years back in China. Therefore, I assume that I am bilingually fluent and can serve as a good bridge to connect Chinese and Americans through this precious chance of being a Chinese instructor in a Confucius Institute in the United States. However, my self-professed pride and superiority are being tested after I came to the United States to teach Chinese for one and half months.

Prior to all other issues, I have found that my American students are very serious with their Chinese study. As an instructor, I must provide them with very detailed syllabus before they decide to take this course. The syllabus must contain almost everything related to this course, including the teaching content of each week, even each period, the grading system, the attendance check system, the exact dates of the quizzes, the mid-term exam, the final term exam, etc. More importantly, I should strictly abide by the syllabus which I formulate. This is somewhat different from what I have been accustomed to in China, where I seldom provide the students with such a detailed syllabus in advance. Instead, I do provide the students with an outline syllabus which is just a guideline of the course and may be adjusted all through the whole semester according to the students’ feedbacks. Though I had anticipated some changes and challenges before I came to the United States, the pressure I have encountered thus far has been overwhelming. Consequently, I need to adjust what I have been used to in China to prepare everything in advance, which turns out to be a big challenge to my habitual procrastination. Of course, I believe I will benefit from this challenge and change.

As for the Chinese teaching itself, I have come across many problems as well. The biggest problem that tears me apart is that I do not know how to help my students memorize the Chinese characters. My students are eager to learn more spoken Chinese and they are really making progress in terms of this aspect, but they are afraid to write and memorize the characters. I once assigned my students to recap the dialogue we learned in a piece of narration in class the next day and it turned out they did a great job in writing down the main idea with Chinese Pinyin. Encouraged by their good performance, I asked them to write down what they had written in Pinyin with Chinese characters in class. Nonetheless, the students were reluctant to cooperate and the work they turned in was totally different from what they had done before. I just asked them why and one student responded, “Pinyin is similar to English. It has syllables that can help us memorize, but characters do not have anything similar to our mother tongue. The strokes just do not make any sense to me and I do not know how to put them together and memorizing the sequence of the strokes of each character is just beyond my reach.” It seems that the students need an effective mnemonic to facilitate their Chinese characters’ memorization and use. Where is that mnemonic? I am struggling to find it out.

Grammar is always a big issue in teaching and learning a foreign language. Compared with English grammar, which is relatively simple because most of its grammar items are regular. Grammatical exceptions are rare. However, Chinese does not have many big grammatical rules. Rather, Chinese grammar seems to be very detailed and specific. It seems that many characters themselves are several items of grammatical points. For instance, the characters “会”,“好”,“了”,etc. are independent grammatical items. Their usages are divided into several units in different books. It is hard for the students to grasp their usages and become competent in using these characters correctly in their written and oral work. They need to familiarize both the characters and their grammatical function and usage. To these elementary Chinese learners, it seems that the Chinese grammar is adding insult to injury.

Contrary to the above-mentioned, I have found that my students are keen on understanding more about Chinese language and culture. For example, there is a unit which is about dinning in our textbook. Besides learning the regular dialogues in the textbook, I showed the students part of the popular document in China A Bite of China to my students, they got so thrilled that one student even announced in class “I miss China even though I have never been to China.” The students are very eager to know about the different Chinese local cuisines and low specialties throughout China even though their Chinese proficiency still prevents them from expressing more about their curiosity about China and their desire for more knowledge about China. In order to show my gratitude to my students’ strong enthusiasm for Chinese food and Chinese culture, I even cooked some Sichuan cuisine I am adept at to treat them. After all, I believe their desire for Chinese culture is a good propellant for their Chinese language learning. On the other hand, their Chinese language learning will surely promote their better understanding of Chinese culture.

In a nutshell, my Chinese teaching career has just begun and there is a long way to go in front of me. Nevertheless, I believe in this ancient Chinese saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with single step.” I have already made my first step, what I need to do is to get myself more adjusted and more adaptive to the brand-new environment and try my best to improve my effectiveness, efficiency and efficacy in teaching Chinese. I believe God will never disappoint those who help themselves. You see, Chinese and English are so similar, one can easily find a proverb which has the same counterpart in both languages!

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