The taste of Mandarin is sweeter when the teaching methods are informed by research


Katharine Carruthers

It is now possible to do predictive texting in Chinese. British Ambassador to China, Dame Barbara Woodward said:  “I can bash things into my phone and know I’m broadly getting it right. So it (Chinese) has become much easier to learn. It does have to be well taught… and it is definitely worth starting young.”

As if to prove the point, a cold day this past winter saw more than 100 Year 8 pupils in the Foreign Office’s Durbar Court, taking part in what must surely have been the UK’s largest ever Chinese lesson; the participants are part of the DFE’s Mandarin Excellence Programme, which is being led by UCL Institute of Education’s Confucius Institute for Schools. These pupils all have qualified teachers and are learning Chinese as part of the mainstream school curriculum; they have 4 taught hours and 4 hours of self-study a week, so are making phenomenal progress.

But what of other young pupils in Key Stage 3 who have a more standard offering of 2 hours of Chinese per week or more likely 3 hours per fortnight? How different is learning Chinese to learning French, German or Spanish? In broad terms, Chinese has characters, a miniscule number of cognates (words similar to the English) and is tonal. A Chinese character has some phonetic clues, but does not tell the learner how to pronounce it; students need to learn both the character and its romanised form (with tone markers) eg = qiú = ball; this is clearly more of a cognitive challenge than just learning ballon in French. Chinese vocabulary needs students to think about word building in a different, albeit exciting, way eg (fire)+ (mountain) =火山(volcano), (person) + (mouth) =人口= population.

Looking at the recommendations of the Teaching Schools Council’s Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review, the teaching of Chinese is sufficiently mainstreamed to be broadly in line with them. However, we are doing a disservice to learners if we do not approach the teaching of Chinese in a way which takes account of its differences too. UCL IOE Confucius Institute (IOE CI) has been working on this with schools across England over the last 10 years.

In recent years, IOE’s PGCE Languages has also been involved in its own 改革开放 (Reform and Opening Up) with considerable effort from a large number of people – not least the PGCE Languages team, the IOE CI team and the School Placements team. Together we have been delivering generic and specialist input for Chinese + a European language and Chinese + EAL PGCE pathways since 2011 and the impact has been significant. There are 15 students being trained to be teachers of Mandarin Chinese at the IOE this year – a combination of those who have learned Chinese as a foreign language themselves and native speakers from China and the Chinese diaspora.

Mandarin Chinese Teacher Education, edited by Fotini Diamantidaki, Lin Pan and Katharine Carruthers, was published last month. It is the first book to draw on classroom-based research to investigate the impact of existing and new approaches to teaching Mandarin in English-speaking schools. It reflects the work of IOE CI to integrate Mandarin Chinese with UCL’s PGCE Languages course and its commitment to enabling teachers to conduct research.

To whet your appetites, this blog will look at just one of the chapters. Rob Neal’s chapter on ‘investigating intelligibility of young Anglophone beginner learners of Chinese’ focuses on research within the context of learners of Chinese at a north of England secondary school. It stems from Rob’s own doubts about whether focussing on learners’ tonal awareness might cause them to lose confidence. In his own words, ‘Traipsing around the streets of Beijing on my way to and from Chinese lessons, I would listen to recorded conversations repeatedly and commit them to memory blissfully unaware of how the Mandarin tonal system actually worked’. He subsequently discovered that this approach, focussing on short tonal chunks, lessens the cognitive overload associated with having to concentrate on the tone of every single character/syllable. His action research intervention showed, perhaps counter-intuitively, that teachers need to work with learners more on the pronunciation of initials and finals rather than obsess over tones to improve intelligibility. Rob’s chapter, like others, is a call to colleagues to engage in action research and the collective development of a CFL pedagogy in order to ensure the effective teaching of Chinese in our schools.

Mandarin Chinese Teacher Education is the first in the Teaching Chinese series, edited by Katharine Carruthers and Lin Pan. The Chinese version of the book will be published by Peking University Press and is part of the ongoing collaboration between UCL and Peking University in the field of Chinese teaching and learning. In the words of IOE’s Professor LI Wei, the book ‘offers real practical solutions to the challenges of teaching Chinese in schools’; it is another useful step forward towards mainstreaming Mandarin Chinese in this country’s schools.

Theresa May talks of the ‘golden era of UK-China relations’. This era needs bilateral engagement with language learning alongside all the other strands of the multi-faceted bilateral relationship.

Another blog about the book to come next month looking at character-writing and the use of target language in the classroom, when the language being taught has no cognates. By then, some of you may be interested enough to attend the IOE CI Annual Chinese Teaching Conference on 15/16th June!

Photo credit: Confucius Institute


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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

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