MSL Master shares some handy resources and teaching and learning tips with Mandarin teachers and students. These free resources can be applied easily into Chinese classes or practice routines. Topics include class activities, Chinese reading and writing, Chinese grammar, Chinese cultural insights, and more!
Articles Written by April Zhang for in-depth Chinese Teaching & Learning
Learning pinyin has great advantages. But it is not without its problems. Find out the real issues about pinyin and how to overcome them.
Chinese characters are visual, like paintings. They can make an immediate impact upon people, even if they can not read Chinese.
For non-Chinese speakers, who start learning Chinese in their teens or adulthood, the difficulty inherent in the process of memorising Chinese characters is very real. It is something they have to overcome.
For students who want to have a meaningful grasp of Mandarin, they must look beyond pinyin, as pinyin will confuse the hell out of them!
Stroke order is not the most important thing in learning Chinese reading and writing. Find out what really is.
In the context of speaking and listening, we discuss how the input and output take place in learning Chinese.
There are several ways to start learning Chinese characters. A list of most frequently used characters is one of them.
Engage students' attention, give them opportunities to move around, and get some competitive spirit going on! Use these activities to bring your Chinese classes to life. And there are more practical and handy activities available in Teacher's Manuals.
There have been numerous times that someone pointed out to April Zhang that both the Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series should have English translations. After hearing it for so many times, she suspected that she has turned a deaf ear to sound advice.
Many teachers and administrators believe that English (or other language) translations should be provided to beginner students in their Chinese textbooks. They thought the translations will make learning easier. If students don't understand the Chinese text, they will if they read the translations. And quite often we see three different scripts in Chinese textbooks, Chinese characters, Pinyin, and English translation.
Our opinion is that, translations laid side by side with the Chinese texts often have the following undesirable effects: (1) students often compare the Chinese texts word by word with the English translation. When a Chinese character carries multiple meanings, translations often give a false sense of one fixed meaning; (2) Chinese structures can not be translated well into English. Thus the English translations makes it hard for students to fully appreciate the Chinese texts; (3) when English translations are as prominent as the Chinese texts, students' attention is often drawn to a much more familiar language, the English translations. Thus students are not as focused as teachers would like them to be; (4) the most undesirable one is that translations prevent students from thinking in the targeted language - Chinese. The answers are right there, why try to work out the meaning by themselves. Therefore, a crucial phrase of learning is lost in translations.
It is often claimed that, students should learn radicals to get to the roots of all characters. Radicals show connections between characters and their meanings, and help students understand and remember characters in an efficient way. And a very small number of radicals (about 30 of them) are used again and again to demonstrate this point.
We believe this argument on learning Chinese radicals is misleading.
The chief function of radicals is to index characters in traditional dictionaries. This index system had been very effective for a very long time. In order to index thousands of Chinese characters, those learned scholars devised around 200 or so (exact number to be debated) radicals to do the job. If we take a look at the radical page of a standard dictionary, we see a small portion of radicals which, to a limited extent, have some connections to the meanings of characters. Many radicals have nothing to do with the meanings of characters. They do what they are supposed to do, to index the characters.
Fast forward to our modern age, characterised by the ubiquitous appearance of smart phones, learning radicals for the purpose of learning characters no longer makes any sense. Students can well adapt without learning any radicals. They can scan the unknown Chinese characters, or they can copy them into an App. There are many ways for them to learn new characters without even thinking about consulting a traditional dictionary. There is no reason to force radicals down their throats.
This is the reason that we don't teach radicals in Chinese Reading and Writing series. But it does not mean we don't talk about them in the class. We recommend other Chinese teachers do the same, spend a few minutes introducing radicals, presenting a historical view on radicals. and how they functioned before.
For any phonetic languages, "listening, speaking, reading and writing" are definitely the four basic language skills. But for Chinese, they are not enough.
In a phonetic language, the connection between the spelling and the sound is so strong that one can be easily translated into the other. A good example is the movie The Reader (2008). One major reason for Hanna to be able to teach herself reading and writing was that she was learning / reading English texts. She would have had no chance if she was learning / reading Chinese texts.
In Chinese, the connection between the writing form and the sound is close to zero. Besides the four usual basic skills, we must add the fifth one: recognising. Students must go through a process which they connect the characters with their sounds.
Teachers really should control their impulse of correcting pronunciation errors whenever they hear one. It is annoying.
Students who are most vulnerable to pronunciation over correction are beginner students. They often find Chinese sounds strange and also difficult. It is hard for them to distinguish similar sounds, and also hard to distinguish the same sound uttered by different people. They often feel uncertain whether or not they have produced correct sound.
To address this issue, students must go through numerous repetitions. However, if a teacher corrects too often and too much, students will suffer serious stress. Over-correction of pronunciations disrupts the flow of learning, and puts too much emphasis on pronunciation and too little time for everything else. It also makes a class boring.
Moreover, there are so many different accents out there in the real world, why not tolerate that students also have their own accents!
Ideally, teachers spend 5 to 10 minutes maximum for pronunciations in each class, and concentrate a pattern. Therefore, the best way is to after "progress", not "perfection". Small and miniature pronunciation drills targeting a special form or pattern, mixed with some fun, work really well.
Gradually, students will be able to distinguish different sounds and their pronunciation will improve steadily.
Movies are fun to watch. But using movies in Chinese classes with the expectation that they can improve students' listening skills is to be carefully thought out. At MSL Master, we do not use any Chinese movies or YouTube clips until students get to Mandarin Express Intermediate Level A.
We believe a good practice of improving students' listening skills is to listen level-appropriate materials. And beginner students have a different need from high level students.
For beginner students who just start out their Chinese classes, we recommend the following: (1) listening exercises which come with the textbooks and work books; (2) moderated and authentic communications between students and teachers; (3) communication oriented exercises among peer students.
As students make progress, Chinese teachers can ponder how to use the following resources, which can be information overload and produce unwanted results: (1) field trip to a Chinese speaking environment; (2) communicate with Chinese friends; (3) YouTube clips in Chinese; (4) Chinese movies and TV dramas; (5) Chinese news and other TV variety shows.
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