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!

一转眼,来爱达荷大学执教已经一年多了,每天忙忙碌碌,好似都没时间静下心来回顾往事。今天,偶有闲暇,就天马行空的回忆一下我在美国的工作点滴吧! 记得去年来莫斯科是秋季,和现在一样,秋高气爽,处处都是美景。只是已经开学,大堆工作等着去做,因此第二天就投入工作, 都没来得及倒时差。 第一次课是早上6点的太极拳课程,天蒙蒙亮,空气里已经有了冬天寒冷的意味。闻鸡起舞是中国习武者的习惯,但不知美国学生是否也习惯早起?到了上课地点,陆续有学生睡眼朦胧的进来。互相认识、介绍项目、开始练功、、、我的爱达荷大学执。 教生涯就这样有条不紊的开始了! 从8岁就开始习练的武术是我的挚爱,几十年来我一直恪守习武者“侠、义、礼、信、勇”的准则。来到爱达荷大学,也希望能将这项中国传统体育项目介绍给美国学生们。 来美国之前,听说美国学生课堂上较为活泼,而我对学生要求很严格,练武术是非常消耗体力的;并且学习基本动作时还比较乏味。因此,刚开始我还有点担心中国武术课能否在爱达荷大学顺利进行。一段时间后,我发现只要能调动起学生的积极性,让学生真正理解这门课的功能,美国学生会不怕苦也不怕累!有的学生还非常刻苦,每次下了课,还坚持自己多练习一会儿。 目前,爱达荷大学孔子学院已经开设了武术、剑术、太极拳课程。经过一年多的学习,有些学生已经可以演练几套拳术或者剑术;有的学生还参加了一些表演活动。学习武术可以锻炼体魄,修身养性,增强自信心;同时还可以了解和理解中国文化。我想这可能就是支撑他们一直坚持跟着我练下去的原因吧! 而作为老师的我呢,也在教学相长中不断提高自己。“文以评心,武以观德”,武德的修养极为重要。可以说,习武的过程就是一个不断提高修养的过程,无论你的武学修为达到何种境界,这个过程都是对自己的不断完善。 请让我们共同进步吧!

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.

Post by Jianhong Lu

梦想在远方 ——记我的盲人学生Alana M. Leonhardy Alana在春晚上朗诵诗歌 2014年春季开学前几天,我接到了一封特殊的电子邮件。发信人是爱达荷大学的一名本科生,叫Alana。她在信中说,她是盲人,但是很想学习汉语,能否注册孔子学院开设的汉语课。她的请求让我有点为难,教书这么多年,还是头一次碰到这样特殊的学生。经过与学校残疾学生管理办公室和系主管领导的具体协商,我收下了这个学生。 上课第一天,我见到了Alana。她身材娇小,声音甜美,人也长得漂亮,是她妈妈陪着她一起来的。从那一天起,妈妈每天接送她上下课,从不缺席、也不迟到,风雨无阻。她上课非常认真,发音准确,对学过的内容掌握熟练,也能应用自如,很快就成为班里的佼佼者。这让其他学生对她的学习态度肃然起敬。 经过一年零两个月的学习,她在听力和汉语口语表达上有很大进步。2015年爱达荷大学羊年春节联欢晚会上,她的一首配乐诗朗诵《梦想在远方》以其流利的语言、充沛的情感感动了在场观众,成为整场晚会的亮点。为了准备这个节目,我和她在课余排练了多次。因为她无法阅读,我把朗诵内容先录好音,让她反复听记,再一遍遍带她朗读,感受其中诗的节奏和韵律。她没有学过汉语的盲文,所以就利用字母代替声韵母、数字代替声调创造了“自己的文字”来加以辅助练习。以下是她在2015年春节晚会上的中英文朗诵稿,与大家共赏。 大家好! 我叫Alana M. Leonhardy,中文名字叫李莲娜。我是大学四年级学生,我的专业是心理学。 Good evening friends. I am Alana M. Leonhardy. I have a Chinese name: Li Lianna. I am a senior student of psychology of University of Idaho. 2014年1月,我报名参加爱达荷大学孔子学院的汉语课程,到现在已经学了一年汉语,我很喜欢学汉语。可能你们会问,你觉得汉语难不难?你为什么要学汉语? I like studying Chinese language. I … Continue reading Post by Jianhong Lu

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.