The Chinese language learning curve

Introduction, Foundation, Development and Acculturation, these are the four stages that students go through when they follow the curriculum comprised of Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series, which will transform students from beginners to fluent Mandarin speakers with substantial cultural knowledge.

These four stages do not constitute a linear learning curve that students feel lessons are getting harder and harder as they move along, or easier and easier. Instead, they experience a mixture of small curves, that sometimes they feel lessons are hard, while other times quite easy.

Chinese Learning Curve

Introduction

This stage includes: 

At the beginning of this stage, students feel that Chinese is kind of difficult, but not that difficult. At the end of this stage, students feel that Chinese is quite manageable.

The difficulty is primarily about pronunciation. When students, who have no prior learning experience, first start learning Chinese, they always feel that they could not grasp the sounds of Chinese. They are not sure whether they can say the words right or not, nor can they tell the difference when they hear others speaking Chinese. Many students feel uncertain when it comes to the four tones. 

This hurdle is real, but also can be easily overcome. Pinyin is the first tool for students to “see” the different sounds. The second tool is numerous small and short drills scattered around the Student’s Book and the Work Book, where students can concentrate on a few words at a time. The third tool, also the most important one, is the adequate opportunities for students to practice listening and speaking. 

As students making progress, they feel more and more comfortable with Chinese pronunciation. It is especially so towards the end of this stage, when students are quite good at carrying some social conversations, that they feel Chinese is really quite manageable.

Foundation

This stage includes:

At the beginning of this stage, students feel that Chinese is hard again. Towards the end of this stage, students feel that Chinese is easy enough for them to have a good grasp.

The difficulty is primarily centred around Chinese characters and Chinese texts. Chinese characters are so fascinatingly different, and reading Chinese texts is nothing like reading an European language. Unlike any European languages, Chinese texts do not give word boundaries, which students have to pick out.

To mitigate this challenge, a super tight control is placed on the total number of Chinese characters taught at this stage. This small number of Chinese characters (320 to be exact) allows students to develop their Chinese reading and writing abilities without feeling being overwhelmed.

Towards the end of this stage, students can communicate well in daily life and work, read and write long Chinese texts, and they feel Chinese is rather easy. 

Development

This stage includes: 

At the beginning of this stage, students feel Chinese is really hard. At the end of this stage, they feel that Chinese is easy again.

The difficulty is primarily due to the large volume of new Chinese characters taught at this stage, particularly in Lesson 1, 2 and 5. Although the 320 Chinese characters students have learned previously cover more than 50-60% of the Chinese texts, there are still lots of new ones for them to learn. In order to mitigate the initial impact, the texts are divided into many short stories, with each one containing fewer new characters.

Once students expand their character base, they will feel quite comfortable to read slightly longer texts, and Chinese becomes easier to learn.

Acculturation

This stage includes:

Each book has its own mini learning curve. 

At the beginning of Mandarin Express Intermediate Level A, students feel that Chinese is really hard, harder than they have ever experienced. At the end of it, they feel that Chinese is challenging, but not that hard any more. 

The hard part of this first mini curve is the length of the articles, the vast number of new combinations, including many idioms, and the formal written style which is so different from the daily spoken Chinese. Moreover, students have to deal with many synonyms with subtle differences.

Once students have expanded their vocabulary considerably and are comfortable with long and formal Chinese written texts, they will no longer feel that Chinese is that hard. 

At the beginning of Mandarin Express Intermediate Level B, students feel that Chinese is really really extremely hard, harder than they have ever imagined. But at the second half of the book, Chinese is really really easy to understand. 

This really really extremely hard part of this second mini curve is classical Chinese. In terms of meaning interpretation, what students have learned before seems not to matter much. Classical Chinese is so terse and concise, and each single character can carry so many different meanings. Every lesson is difficult during the first half of the book. However, students gain such invaluable training that they feel the second half of the book, which includes some of the most famous writings in modern Chinese, is incredibly easy to understand!

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