Learning Chinese? Four signs for you to avoid bad experience

Learning a second language is hard, regardless what people claim. The worst scenario would be, after you spending years of learning a second language, only to find out that you still can not understand what people, who are sitting around you, are talking about. It could happen to anyone, even to Bill Bryson, a super bright literary man, who had his fill of bad learning experience. 

In his Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson talked about his French learning experience. It was sad, but he made it funny.

He was in Wallonia, France. He wrote:

‘...... hardly anyone in Wallonia speaks English. I began to regret that I didn't understand French well enough to eavesdrop. I took three years of French in school, but learned next to nothing. The trouble was that the textbooks were so amazingly useless. ...... at no point did they intersect with the real world. ...... How often on a visit to France do you need to tell someone you want to clean a blackboard? How frequently do you wish to say, “It is winter. Soon it will be spring”? In my experience, people know this already.’

Two unfortunate things happened during Bryson’s French learning days. Firstly, the textbooks were useless. Secondly, his French teacher was not inspiring. 

The textbooks were full of languages used only in a classroom, such as “clean a blackboard” or, very possible, “have a sharper pencil”, and descriptive language, such as “It is winter”, or possibly, “there are leaves on trees”. This kind of textbooks are stale, mind-numbing, and “amazingly useless”.  

The second problem was far more severe than the first one. Bryson’s French teacher was not creative nor inspiring. Bryson was done after three years of learning in school, and did not want to pick up French again after he graduated from all his formal education. The end of the story is that he could not even eavesdrop while he was in France, let alone participating in any conversations in French. 

The same scenario also happens in Chinese classrooms. Useless textbooks, uninspiring Chinese teachers, failed result, and wasted time and energy. 

Fortunately, there are signs for you to tell whether or not you are heading to that direction. Do something if any of the following scenario is playing out in your Chinese classroom. Since normally students don’t get to choose what Chinese textbooks to use, let’s start with teachers.

  • Sign #1.

    Your Chinese teacher says: “This is wrong. I have corrected you many times. When can you learn?” 

    Mistakes, even repeated ones, are part of the learning process. Both Chinese teachers and students need to know how to deal with mistakes.

  • Sign #2.

    You spend most of your class time learning new words and a long list of Chinese grammar points. There is very little time for you to express yourself or to have a genuine conversation in Chinese. 

    Memorising tons of new words won’t automatically make you a fluent Chinese speaker. Too many grammar points are also counterproductive.

  • Sign #3.

    Your teacher insists that you imitate the “right” accent. 

    If you are doing tons of pronunciation drills, repeating after the teacher many times and such, you are wasting time. Accents should not be overly stressed. Everyone has an accent, and it is totally all right to have some of your own.

  • Sign #4.

    You find the your Chinese textbooks don’t teach you the real language which you can use at work or in life. 

    Talk to your teacher and switch to a different Chinese textbook. Or, switch to a different Chinese teacher.

Bland, boring and uninspiring Chinese classes lead to bad learning experience. If you don’t do anything, you will probably end up quitting Chinese. And one day, you’ll be like Bryson, wondering how amazingly useless your whole Chinese learning experience is.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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