Category: Language Learning

My Road to Language Learning and Teaching

Jing Tian, Chinese Instructor, University of Idaho Confucius Institute

English was, and is still a compulsory course in schools in China. Many kids hate that. I did. But now, after learning English for 23 years and teaching both English and Chinese for 15 years, my suggestion for my son is still “try to learn at least one foreign language very well”. That makes him hate me for a while, like I hated the president of my middle school.

I started to like learning English since I started to read and watch movies in English in college. I even got to talk with teachers from English-speaking countries. Suddenly I felt I was overblown with how big the world is and how different the peoples are. I laughed a long time when my British teacher told us that she quit smoking because her boyfriend was not willing to kiss an ashtray. I felt sad for a long time because my American teacher refused to use the coat that I offered when she was wearing short sleeves and it turned freezing cold outside after the class. Later I started to understand more. And I found myself more joyful, more understanding and more peaceful. I wanted to spread this feeling. That’s why, in addition to the fact that teaching language is considered a decent job in China, I started teaching languages.

I thought I was good enough in terms of both language and culture, because I was well-received by both my Chinese and foreign students and I could work as an interpreter very efficiently, until I began to teach Chinese here in the US.

Jokes, games, songs, soap plays and famous persons’ pictures were used a lot in my classes. My students loved them. So I tried the same here in the US, but failed, more than once, because the same picture or the same joke triggers different emotions in my American students. I thought a specific combination of materials would be very funny and can stimulate learning, but those materials were unknown to the students, let alone make them laugh. I started to ask around and do more researches. It turned out that I actually don’t know so much about the American culture. I began to change the strategy. I eliminated some pictures and began to ask students to put more funny ideas in the class. And the classroom began to be more harmonious, and I began to know more. It feels much better to see students enjoy the class while learning things.

There are more examples of how the cultural differences shocked me but made me a better person, and how I changed myself and thus influenced others.

I believe it is the same with the world outside the classroom. If we open out hearts, the world around us would be better, and there would be more light into our hearts.

I’d completely stopped hating the president of my middle school, actually I began to appreciate what he did, because without him pushing the students to learn English, I could never be me. And I hope I could also make a difference by teaching languages, even though what I do is just a tiny part of what’s happening in this enormous and diversified world.

Top 5 Chinese Language Learning Apps

Chinese is now the fastest growing language for second language learners, consequently there has been some really incredible learning apps developed for Chinese. Here is a list of 5 can’t-do-without Chinese learning apps. I still highly recommend that language learners consider formal education, learning Chinese is a journey and often requires personal guidance. That being said these apps are a great place to get started, awesome supplements and good way to maintain your Chinese between semesters.

1. MEMRISE, IOS and Android, Free


First on the list is Memrise. This is an awesome app for learners of all levels and introduces words in a very clever way. For each new word and character it introduces several mnemonic devices to help you remember the character, definition, tone and pronunciation. The program builds on itself, first you will learn the radicals that make up Chinese characters, than single character words, and then words made up of the multiple characters. Learning radicals is very important, it has been shown that students that memorize radicals first have a much easier time remembering new characters and words after. Lastly it uses adaptive teaching methods, so you review the words you struggle with more often than the words you learn easily. There are over 100 courses in Chinese, some better than others, from personal experience I can say there are great options for Survival Chinese, HSK of all levels, and courses on specific tasks such as menu reading.

2. PLECO, IOS and Android, Free to $79.99


From what I’ve seen this is the very best Digital Chinese to English dictionary and is totally indispensable for any language learner or expat living in China. The free version comes loaded, including hand writing input, flash cards and audio for pronunciation. You can choose to add-on several features and extra dictionaries individually or as packages. These include live translations with your phone’s camera, a document translator and stroke order diagrams.

3. QUIZLET, IOS and Android, Free


This is a classic and useful for students of any level for nearly any subject. There is a great way to turn Quizlet into powerful Chinese writing learning software. You can create or download one of the many flash card packs with Chinese characters, then test yourself using the Chinese hand writing input on your phone. This is the best resource I’ve found for testing your ability to write characters from memory and is very customizable.

4. CHINESE SKILL, IOS and Android, Free

chinese skill

Do you love immersion learning software like Duo Lingo and Rosetta Stone? Unfortunately Rosetta Stone costs an arm and a leg and Duo Lingo doesn’t support Chinese. This app is very similar to those programs and does a great job teaching introductory Chinese. Chinese Skill uses a variety of techniques that incorporate writing, tones, reading, listening and speaking.

5. FluentU, IOS, 8$ to $18 per month


This is the one app on the list that I haven’t used, but looks seriously cool. The downside is the pay wall, there is some limited free content, but the bulk of it needs to be paid for. FluentU takes their content straight from pop culture on the web, including viral videos, news articles and music. It ranks it by level and turns the them into teaching tools, providing realtime translations with videos, quizzes based on the content and flashcards. It also includes traditional lectures, and is coming to Android soon!

There you have it, my very favorite Chinese learning apps. There is more than one on this list that I find essential for my personal learning. If you are serious about taking your Chinese to the next level, come talk to us at the Confucius Institute. We have tons of classes at all levels, great instructors all of whom are native speakers, and lots of traditional resources in our library.