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The necessary Chinese teacher’s skill set

Chinese is a difficult language. It is a challenge for Chinese learners. It is an even bigger challenge for Chinese teachers. To become a good Chinese teacher, the following skill set is necessary. 

This compilation is based on my experience, observations, and readings.

#1 To develop students’ integrated Chinese skills

Chinese language is a complex system. Chinese teachers must first of all appreciate the complexity of Chinese, and resist the temptations of reducing it.

I’ve seen a number of reductions happened to learning Chinese, such as, learning Chinese is to learn four tones, or learning Chinese is to learn 2000 Chinese characters, or learning pinyin is to learn Chinese, or learning Chinese writing is to follow the prescribed stroke orders. Such reductions all have an element of truth. But at the best, they are traces of Chinese language, and they do not provide any guidance helping students learn with ease. In fact, they only make learning Chinese dry, mechanic and boring.

To have a fun and stimulating teaching and learning experience, both teachers and students need to embrace the fact that Chinese is a complex system and to focus on developing integrated Chinese skills, that students are able to speak, to write, to read and to listen Chinese in a coherent manner, regardless of their levels. Advanced students can do it, so do beginner students, just at a lower stage.

Therefore, the first skill of Chinese teachers is to learn how to develop students’ integrated Chinese skills. 

#2 To teach pronunciation

Many students say that they want to speak fluent Chinese. What they are really saying is that they want other people to understand them when they speak Chinese. Good and clear pronunciation plays a key role in this process. 

Pinyin is a handy tool to teach pronunciation, as long as teachers understand that teaching pinyin and teaching pronunciation are two different things. Helping students get their pronunciation right is a long term job. There is no short cut to get it done once and for all.

Therefore, the second skill of Chinese teachers is to learn how to help students gradually gain awareness of Chinese as a tonal language and to help them gradually improve their pronunciation.

#3 To teach grammar

Chinese is a language with thousands of years of history. Naturally, Chinese grammar, that how linguistic pieces are put together to create meanings, have also evolved for thousands of years. To understand and to appreciate this fact means we need to examine Chinese grammar as it is, not to adopt a set of grammatical system derived from other linguistically irrelevant languages. 

Unfortunately, the current practice is to use English grammatical concepts to explain Chinese, which is really a mistake. Many times, Chinese grammar books are really confusing.

Therefore, the third skill of Chinese teachers is to think about Chinese grammar, and to find a clearer and more suitable way to teach Chinese grammar.

#4 To teach Chinese characters

One of the uniquenesses of Chinese language is Chinese characters. For students to gain integrated Chinese language skills at a higher level necessarily involves learning and using Chinese characters to generate meanings.

Teaching Chinese characters which students know how to use in a meaningful way is a top priority. Also, teachers need to point out some false assumptions when they see them, such as, after learning 2000 Chinese characters students can read Chinese newspapers.  

Therefore, how to teach Chinese characters and to teach which characters is the fourth skill of Chinese teachers.

#5 To teach social, cultural and political competence

When learning Chinese, students always learn more than just Chinese language. They also gain insights into China’s social, cultural and political practices and history. These insights are priceless.

With these insights, students will be better informed and be better equipped to function in a Chinese speaking environment, to understand China-related news, to know why Chinese people do what they do, or to do a China related job.

Therefore, it is the fifth skill of Chinese teachers to present China’s social, cultural and political knowledge appropriately when possible.

#6 To give instructions in Chinese

Giving instructions is an important way to communicate with students in a Chinese class. Given the fact that most students and Chinese teachers speak English, it is quite common for teachers to give instructions in English. But why? Aren’t we in a Chinese class?

For zero beginner students, while using English in the first few classes is perhaps unavoidable, Chinese teachers should try to reduce the usage of English as quickly as possible, and to give instructions in Chinese as much as possible. Responding to instructions in Chinese constitutes the first authentic communication experience that students have. 

Therefore, the sixth skill of Chinese teachers is to learn how to give instructions in Chinese.

#7 To manage students’ behavioural issues

When students sign up for a Chinese course willingly, study Chinese diligently, and support fellow classmates wholeheartedly, there will be no or very few behavioural issues that teachers need to worry about. 

I am fortunate that my students fall in this category. However, for Chinese teachers who work with students who are forced into learning Chinese, things might be quite different.

Troublesome behaviours include: students don’t listen, or don’t want to answer questions, or laugh at others, or ignore teachers completely.  

When facing such issues, Chinese teachers must learn to manage their emotions first and then learn to manage students’ problematic behaviours with the ultimate goal of building trust between teachers and students.

This is a difficult job. Some suggestions are given here: Top ten ways students can make a Chinese teacher mad.

This is the seventh skill of Chinese teachers.

#8 To use technology in teaching

In the past, the only things that Chinese teachers needed were chalks and a blackboard to conduct a lesson. Now, technology has become an integrated part of teaching and learning tools, online settings, video and audio assists, Apps, VR, AR and AI. There are so many opportunities to have fantastic lessons. There are also so many possible distractions.

It is important for teachers to stay on top of this trend, to recognise which tools can generate what effects, and to decide what technology is to use and what not to use.

Therefore, the eighth skill of Chinese teachers is to learn how to use technology in teaching.

#9 To deal with mistakes

Students are human beings. Human beings learn the best through experience.

One of the most certain things for any Chinese learners is that they will make mistakes, many mistakes. Chinese teachers must make ample room for mistakes to happen. Precision, rigour and consistency don’t come easily.

Some mistakes can be ignored for the time being, some mistakes students can correct themselves, some mistakes can be grouped together as one, only a small part of mistakes deserve some special treatment individually.

When it’s time for teachers to address these mistakes, it is also an opportunity to provide feedbacks. When teachers do not have answers, tell students.

Therefore, the ninth skill of Chinese teachers is to learn to give room for mistakes and to practice how to deal with mistakes.

#10 To assess students fairly

Some Chinese teachers are mean. They are never happy with students’ achievements. They always measure students against someone better. This way of assessing students’ progress is stressful and unfair, even though that’s what teachers do in most schools. 

It is a mistake. There is always someone better or someone perfect. That someone else is an unreachable moving target.

The point of reference should be students’ past. Where were they six months ago? What have they learned? What is improved? What has stood in the way?

These questions are fundamental for Chinese teachers to assess students’ progress with a focus on gains and improvements.

Therefore, the tenth skill of Chinese teachers is to learn how to assess students fairly.

#11 To use Chinese fluently, appropriately and effectively

I used to be an English teacher. That was a fun job. And I’m glad to see and welcome the fact that many non-native Chinese speakers have chosen to become Chinese teachers.

Unfortunately, these teachers often carry some unnecessary burden that they are not “native Chinese speakers”, especially when advertisements, such as “all native speaking Chinese teachers”, are so pervasive on the internet. 

To be a native Chinese speaker does not automatically qualify anyone to become a Chinese teacher. What really matters is the teaching skills, as long as teachers can use Chinese fluently, appropriately and effectively. 

Therefore, the last skill of Chinese teachers is their own integrated Chinese skills.

With all the necessary skills spelled out, I hope all current Chinese teachers and soon-to-be Chinese teachers find this article useful.