Preparing American Students to Learn Chinese

Eric Shepherd (谢博德)
Assistant Professor of Chinese
Department of World Languages
University of South Florida

It Is About the Learner, Not the Teacher

We currently find ourselves at a critical stage in the development of Chinese language in the United States. It is an exciting time because the field is expanding rapidly and the number of people learning Chinese has increased exponentially over the past few years.(1) Unfortunately, innovations in teaching methodologies have not kept pace with the demand. The reality is that the majority of K-16 Chinese programs are not preparing American learners to reach sophisticated levels of proficiency in Chinese.

There are many reasons for this slow progress, including 1) low expectations for learners; 2) failure to demand learners take responsibility for their learning; and 3) fundamental misconceptions about how Americans best learn Chinese. Teachers are concerned with issues, such as "What content should I teach?", "How many characters should I teach?", "How should I teach that content?"

The learner is absent from the equation. We lose sight of the fact that "the actual learning takes place down there in the brain and body of the learner." Learning and teaching are, without question, intertwined as part of the same complex set of processes, but if we are to be successful teachers, we must understand things from both ends. We cannot do service to learner-centered activities without a deeply rooted understanding of how American students best learn Chinese.

If educators approach teaching from the angle of how Chinese is most efficiently and effectively learned, our entire profession looks radically different! We begin with a different set of questions: How does an American effectively and efficiently learn Chinese? What does the learner want and need to be able to do in Chinese? What do I want the learner to be able to do in Chinese? How do I structure things so that the learner develops the ability to do those things? What is the learner doing inside and outside of the classroom? Once this perspective becomes centrally ingrained in the teacher’s mind, the approach, execution, and learning results shift dramatically.

American Students Want, Need and Expect to Do Things in Chinese

The practice of language teachers using English in the classroom continues to be prevalent in our education system. To be frank, it is holding American learners back. In most Chinese programs in the U.S., the time spent in classroom is the only chance students have to experience Chinese language and culture. Learners want and look forward to opportunities to engage in authentic language environments. For example, students at the University of South Florida (USF) expressed the following sentiments about a favorite teacher: "She always speaks in Chinese. She speaks really quickly so I don’t always understand every word, but we’re really talking to a Chinese person. It’s fun. We really have to know the homework, and we have no choice but to speak in Chinese. It’s hard and all, but I really feel like I know how to use the new patterns and words after her classes. She’s the best."

These students summed up a fundamental aspect of learning Chinese from the learner perspective that seems to go unnoticed by many teachers. They want to do it in Chinese.(2) Students can see measureable progress and gain a sense of accomplishment when they test their Chinese skills and are successful. Student motivation is critical and will increase the likelihood that students will become life-long learners of Chinese. When teachers structure classes so that each class students are given multiple chances to be successful doing something in Chinese, students will change in their level of engagement and preparation.

Make the Target Language Your Primary Mode of Communication

Using the target language holds the students’ attention. If you want your students to listen, make your class a different learning experience; make them communicate with you in Chinese! The role of the Chinese instructor is to create a linguistic and cultural learning environment. This can be accomplished by fostering a community of Chinese users within your school, even if it is only among you and your students. These communities offer students access to authentic Chinese behavior and repeated opportunities to use Chinese skills with others.

The types of learning experiences teachers create in the classroom are critical. By encouraging students to learn to communicate with you in Chinese, teachers are initiating fundamental learning processes necessary for students to develop new linguistic skills. As a result, learners will be on the road to using Chinese as a channel to communicate, opening up a whole new world for them.

Remember that there are opportunities for learning outside of your classroom as well as within. Make Chinese your primary mode of communication with your students all of the time. As teachers, if we do not enforce this policy the message we send to our students is, "We use Chinese for drills but English for real communication."

Learners Need a Model

To achieve an advanced level in Category IV languages such as Chinese, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) estimates that at least 1,320 hours of training are required.(3) One year of college instruction typically totals around 150 hours, which means that to reach the advanced level, it should take 8.8 years (Christensen and Warnick, 2006).

Keeping that in mind, educators need to approach language classes with these three points in mind;1) traditional approaches to learning Chinese need to become more efficient to achieve higher proficiency levels; 2) students need as many hours of exposure to authentic language as possible, and 3) ultimate success will be determined by what the learner does outside of class. For students to develop the ability to comprehend Chinese, they need to hear natural Chinese as often as possible. They need thousands of hours of practice listening to authentic Chinese both to develop accurate pronunciation and to lay a foundation for successful interaction.

For students to develop the ability to use Chinese in sophisticated ways, they also need opportunities to use Chinese as often as possible. Thus, laying a solid linguistic and cultural foundation while simultaneously coaching effective approaches to autonomous learning will equip students to continue learning beyond the very short period of time they spend in formal learning settings. Helping students develop a consistent routine that involves practicing Chinese language skills daily is one of the most important things a teachers can do. It will help students attain high levels of language proficiency and lead to a learner’s ultimate success!

Orchestrating Chinese Experiences

If your students spend their time listening to, reading, or discussing descriptions of grammar and explanations of Chinese in English, they will develop memories of those descriptions and explanations. The problem with this is that they may remember a certain amount of declarative knowledge about Chinese along the way but will they know how to use Chinese when they need it? The learner has to have the experience of doing it themselves. Skill-learning originates in concrete experience - in the process of doing things in Chinese.

Thus a great deal of teaching becomes creating the real world contexts (4) in the classroom where students perform (5) using the Chinese they know but also encounter variations in those contexts that require manipulations of the knowledge in new ways. During these experiences, students have opportunities to try out what they have learned in multiple settings, to personalize what they have learned. The act of performing solidifies the new knowledge in memory and deepens the learner’s understanding of how to apply what he is learning, which leads to the internalization of knowledge. Build the context with props, audio-visual aids, speech, and behavior. Then, step back and allow the student time to recognize the context so that they can produce the target language independently.


(1) For these same reasons, it is also a troublesome period for many of us as. The field is expanding so rapidly that our ranks have ballooned at a rate that training and research has not kept pace with. We now have a critical need for high quality teacher training and development programs that address the specific needs of Chinese language teachers—as opposed to simply forcing the proverbial square peg into the round hole. "Best practices" we are bombarded with come from teachers of European languages without consideration for or understanding of how Americans learn Chinese. "Theoretical" writings we turn to are translated (and applied) directly from SLA theories based on how English/European languages are learned even when they claim to be based on Chinese. Whether they are science teachers forced in to double duty as Chinese language teachers simply because they are Chinese or non-native speakers who have yet to develop sufficient language skills but find themselves already teaching others, many in our ranks want and need help.

(2) The USF Chinese Language Corner is an extracurricular activity organized two days per week during which anywhere from eight to twenty students voluntarily show up to practice their Chinese spoken language skills in a casual setting. It generally lasts for an hour or hour and a half although the participants frequently organize spontaneous activities such as trips to local Chinese restaurants.

(3) This particular group of students had a reference point. They had been exposed to a teaching model in which the sole mode of instruction was Chinese so they could feel the difference themselves. This differs from many K-12 and small college settings where there is only one instructor and only one mode of teaching. In those situations, the students know nothing else. Ignorance is bliss.

(4) Contexts found in Chinese culture, not those found in American culture.

(5) I use Galal Walker’s (2000) notion that to perform is to complete an act that puts a recognized and culturally-coded pattern of behavior on display for an informed audience. In simple terms, it is doing things in context. All performances have five basic elements: 1) a specified place, 2) time, 3) roles, 4) script, and 5) audience. See Carlson (1996) and Bauman (1977) for more on performance theory. See Walker (2000), Walker and Noda (2000), Shepherd (2005), and Christensen and Warnick (2006) for more on the application of performance theory to the teaching of East Asian languages.