Reasons of NOT learning Chinese (Part 3)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

In the previous two posts, we discussed how inadequate Pinyin is, and how three different methods, all with a primary focus on accumulating a number of Chinese characters, lead to poor learning outcomes.

In this post, we will discuss something more intangible and really devastating – anxieties. Moser is the prime example. Throughout his post, I cannot but feel how defeated he was over his Chinese learning results.

Poor results lead to anxieties. If a student works really hard and still gets poor results, which lead to severe anxieties. It is especially true when it comes to students' listening abilities. People always say there are four aspects in learning a language – listening, speaking, reading, and writing (聽說讀寫). "Listening" is always the first one to mention, but the last one to practice. If we take a close look at most Chinese learning materials, we will find scarce level-appropriate materials provided to improve students' listening abilities. This lack of suitable listening materials directly leads to poor listening outcomes. Students are often directed to internet for video clips, to watch Chinese films, or the worst of all, to listen to the Chinese news. Very often, these materials are way above students' levels, and therefore they cannot get much out of it. Students may recognize one or two words in a string of speech utterance and have to let go of everything else. The worst of all is that beginner students are encouraged to practice Chinese with their good-intentioned Chinese friends. All their friends can do is to correct their pronunciations and to teach them loads of new words which they will soon forget. Moser never says anything in his post on how he has improved his listening ability. I suspect that, at the time of writing, he just pained himself with readings at libraries.

Another anxiety provoking factor is the two overlapping sets of systems, the traditional characters and the simplified characters. There are always people asking, "Which system should I learn?" There are on-going debates on which one is better. In this post, I don't argue for one system against the other. Rather, speaking from personal experiences and anecdotal stories, I believe that there is not much of difference in the end. If students stick to one system until they are proficient enough they can adapt to the other without much difficulties. However, there might be students, such as Moser claims, who have to learn both systems at the same time, firstly I offer my sympathy; secondly, I would say to them, "just quit learning Chinese! Obviously you started learning Chinese at a far advanced age than you would like to. Moreover, you must be in an academic position which requires you to roll out research papers like on a conveyor belt. The academic pressure forces you, a newbie in Chinese, to dig into both traditional and simplified character texts to search for arguments. The truth is that nobody is going to read your papers anyway. Why not use the time and energy to do something else!"

Lastly, anxieties come from purely artificial procedures – tons of tests. It has become quite a culture to observe how many tests students have to go through today. Before, I thought it was only a phenomenon in East Asia. But after being to a few book fairs in the US, I realized that, at least in the field of teaching and learning Chinese language, it is the same thing in the US. Nowadays more and more Chinese learning materials are going on line, and they almost always have a test element attached. This test element has become one of the major selling points, that teachers can "evaluate" and "quantify" students' progress at a few clicks. Individual test results can be aggregated over a semester or a year for people to view students' "quantified progress". Learning Chinese is thus turned into a series of tests. I have personally witnessed how dreadful students have become over these online learning exercises. However, some teachers may argue that tests are necessary. I agree. But excessive, non-stopping tests are not. No wonder students are dropping Chinese classes!

So far, I have listed a number of reasons for students not to learn Chinese. But as a teacher, I would rather see the opposite. And I believe that Chinese is really worth learning.

For the next part, I'd like to talk about my experience of teaching and learning Chinese, and discuss how difficult classical texts (wenyanwen) are.

Stay tuned.

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