Mandarin in Schools

Mandarin in schools. Information for school administrators

LEARNING CHINESE. China is expected to become the largest economy in the world during our century, and its impact on the world will increase along with its economic progress. Students who have some exposure to the Chinese language will be at an advantage in this coming world.

TYPES OF CHINESE. Mandarin Chinese is the language that Chinese people of all other dialects use in order to communicate with one another. Even Cantonese speakers of Hong Kong and the Taiwanese speakers in Taiwan are learning Mandarin in order to communicate more widely with Chinese of all regions. The language of choice to be taught in American schools in Mandarin.

FINDING A TEACHER. Should the time come when you want to introduce Mandarin at your school, hopefully you will be fortunate enough to find a native Chinese speaker who is also trained in education. The purpose of this report is to show you what you could do if you are not able to find such a teacher.

LANGUAGE INFORMANT.  You can bring Chinese into your school by making use of a local Chinese person as a “language informant,”  while putting the class planning in the hands of the classroom teacher. The informant would come in for a 20 minute period once a week, and would ordinarily be given a stipend for spending this time.

NATIVE SPEAKERS.  You will not know whether the language informant you have found is speaking standard Mandarin or a local variant, so you need to depend on a Chinese advisor to ascertain whether the informant’s mandarin is close enough to standard to use as a model.

CLASS PLANNING.  In the classroom teacher-based model, the classroom teacher will decide what the topic will be for a given week. When the informant comes in, the informant will  introduce about six words or phrases that enable a person to function in that topic area. The classroom teacher would tape the presentation, and during the rest of the week would use multiple classroom routines to review the material.  When the informant returns a week later, the informant first engages the students using the known vocabulary, and then introduces a new set of words according to a new topic selected by the classroom teacher.

ACTIVITY-CENTERED WORDS.  The vocabulary would not be chosen from a vocabulary list, but would be the words needed to perform a certain action. The actions would ordinarily be those that the children are working on at this point in their school life or in outside activities. Words would be used to “do things,” and phrases will be used in interactive conversation.

TIME ALLOTMENT.  Language learning is best when practiced for a short time each day. A key to language learning is to spend more time on review than on new material. In this approach, ten minutes per day would be enough, as long as it is every day.

PROGRESS. As the weeks go by, students measure their language improvement by the number of things they are able to do. When a new school year begins, the new teacher receives a list of the topic areas that the students have learned to talk about, and begins the year by having them review those. By the third year, the teacher can begin to make use of Chinese textbooks.

WHEN TO BEGIN. This approach allows you to begin at any grade level, and then continue to teach Chinese every year after your starting year, because the classroom teacher will always be free to select the methods that are appropriate to each age level. For example, kindergarten children have not yet learned to read, so the teaching will rely totally on listening and speaking. On the other hand, if you begin in fourth grade, you can undergird the oral learning by also spelling out the Chinese words using English letters.

SPELLING.  There are several ways to write Mandarin using English letters. The way that is most common today and that your students will encounter most frequently is called “pin-yin.”  You can recognize it because it uses q’s and x’s.  I would not use pin-yin to spell the Chinese words until the students are firmly based in reading English – not before third grade.

CHARACTERS.  There are two ways to write Chinese characters: the traditional way, still used on Taiwan, and the simplified characters, used on mainland China. Many characters are the same in both. It is to the American student’s advantage to learn both versions when they differ.

CHARACTER SEQUENCE.  I recommend that the students begin learning characters in their third year of study, and that the character curriculum follow a different track than the oral sequence.  New words should be introduced orally and, if the student is in third grade or higher, supplemented with pin-yin. Learning the characters should proceed using the old words that the students are very familiar with. At first, characters can be used to write signs (like rest room signs), titles (as of pictures, like “the red barn” or to label items in the classroom. When the teacher begins to use Chinese textbooks later in the third year, then characters would be learned with the new vocabulary. Ideally, most of the textbook vocabulary will already be familiar to the students from their oral exposure.

Submitted by Jim Found, May 19, 2009. Email for additional ideas and details.

Here is an alternate approach for classroom use when a Chinese speaker is not available. Every student can learn to read Chinese words written in English in one class session using this activity.

Here is an approach for individual learners.

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