Students’ needs and the vertical depth of learning Chinese

Along with students progressing from knowing nothing to becoming fluent Mandarin Chinese speakers, they go through different levels. And their needs will change from level to level. In order to meet these needs, both students and their Chinese teachers must, first of all, be aware of what these needs are, so that they can work on more targeted exercises. 

Of all the needs students have, the size of their vocabulary is often considered an imperative to expand. It is definitely true that the longer students learn Chinese, the more words they know, and the size of their vocabulary does affect their abilities of communicating in Chinese. Even though it is an obvious need which both students and teachers must pay attention to, it is not the only one. Other equally important, sometimes more important, needs include learning Chinese sentence patterns (structures and grammars), pronunciations, improving Chinese listening and speaking abilities, connecting the Chinese characters with their sounds, developing Chinese writing abilities and reading comprehensions, and so on. 

And every need has a vertical dimension to it. Lower level students are exposed to fewer new words, fairly simple Chinese sentence structures, straightforward questions and answers, a small number of Chinese characters, and strictly controlled listening exercises. And higher level students are exposed to a large amount of new words, more complicated sentence structures, open ended questions, a large number of Chinese characters, and authentic Chinese listening exercises.

This vertical dimension of students’ needs are essentially related to the difference of the Chinese language which students are exposed to, and are expected to learn. Although everything is capped as “learning Chinese”, it is really learning different versions of Chinese, like layers of a vertical entity. In other words, learning Chinese at different levels is, in its essence, to learn the Chinese language with a gradual change of texture. The vocabulary gradually changes from daily objects to more abstract concepts, and the texts change from straightforward questions and answers to more elaborate analyses. Without these subtle and gradual changes, students will not achieve meaningful progression. For example, if the vocabulary is the major focus of Chinese lessons, students can be stalled at a beginner’s level for a very long time. The other extreme is that the changes from one level to the next are too abrupt and big, students will not be able to move on. 

Well designed Chinese textbooks help greatly in presenting different Chinese texts which gradually become more and more complex, defining the areas of study to small chunks, and providing sufficient opportunities for listening and speaking practice. This is the reason that MSL Master publishes two series of Chinese textbooks, Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series, which constitute an effective learning path for students to progress steadily from one level to the next.

However, good Chinese textbooks are not enough. They are only the beginning. Students are different. The same material can be easy for one students, but difficult for another. The same practice takes ten minutes for one student to complete, but thirty for another. There are many factors working at the same time. Indeed, the successful learning largely depends on the effort made by students and the Chinese teacher both inside and outside of the classroom. 

Chinese teachers need to adjust their language to the needs of students, and to pay attention to the dynamics in the classroom. Students need to take responsibilities for their own learning, and if they find the content or the structure of their Chinese lessons boring, they should do something.

It sounds like a cliche when we conclude that, learning Chinese is lots of fun and brings a tremendous sense of achievement when everything is right, that students are willing to learn, that Chinese teachers know how to manage themselves, and that Chinese textbooks are interesting and level appropriate. But we know there is a vertical depth to this conclusion.

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