Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My humble opinion regarding a major issue we have had in the past with ethnically Chinese beginning Mandarin I students...

Hello Gang,

If the following email offends, GOOD! It is the truth as I see it about this issue which has wasted a lot of time in my Mandarin I classes over the past 3 years AND IT NEEDS TO STOP. As I tell all of my beginning Chinese students (Cantonese and Mandarin):


This is a class in SPEAKING basic Mandarin Chinese. Unlike other teachers in our program, I do not and will not teach characters, because it has been proven time and time again through extensive linguistic research that learning to SPEAK a foreign language with a complicated writing system will come much faster and much more effectively in a shorter period of time if the learner focuses on getting THE SOUNDS right first (pronunciation and tones in the case of Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese) AND THEN begins to learn an entirely new writing system with thousands of characters TO SUPPORT the basic knowledge of the new language already gained through initial efforts to understand and speak the oral version of the language.

So, here is my diatribe about a very annoying issue that has pervaded my beginning Mandarin classes for the past 3 years. THIS HAS TO STOP, AND I PLAN TO PUT A STOP TO IT THIS ACADEMIC YEAR:

Here is my humble opinion about a slightly different and larger issue behind the notion of teaching Chinese characters to beginning students who meet for an hour once a week in a free program with very little accountability and where many students do not do any work or studying outside of class:

In my experience with ALESN (and only with ALESN, because I do not have the benefit of having attended a dedicated university Chinese program as a non-Chinese person like two of our other Mandarin instructors), absolute beginner students who try to learn to read characters at the same time that they try to learn to speak Chinese from zero make their lives harder and set themselves up for extra work. It has been proven over and over again through linguistic research that non-native speakers can learn to SPEAK Chinese faster and more effectively if they focus on pronunciation and learning concepts and sentences first -- and then add reading and writing later on, some months or years later. Of course, there are exceptions to this notion, but not in our specific ALESN program with classes that meet once a week for just over an hour each time, I think.

My real concern, and this has been true in my own classes as well as in every other teacher's beginning Mandarin classes that I have sat in on at ALESN, is this: ethnically Chinese students in our program who can already read characters and who already speak a different Chinese dialect, who have insisted on only reading characters in Mandarin I class instead of learning pinyin. These students have consistently butchered their pronunciation of Mandarin and set a horrible example for non-ethnically Chinese beginner students in our program, who see and hear these ethnically Chinese students with horrible pronunciation and subconsciously assume that these students must be correct BECAUSE THEY ARE CHINESE.

This is especially bad in a class with, say, I don't know, A WHITE TEACHER, because subconsciously every non-ethnically Chinese student in the class will expect the ethnically Chinese students to speak Mandarin more accurately than a white person. This phenomenon has also been proven through psycho-linguistic research. I challenge the other teachers in our program to point out even one example from last year of an absolute beginner Mandarin student who came to class already reading characters and already speaking another Chinese dialect, who insisted on only reading the characters and not ever learning pinyin, who produced anything even remotely sounding like standard spoken Mandarin by the end of the year. It is simply not possible because of a well-documented phenomenon known as interference. Our ethnically Chinese beginner Mandarin students need all the pronunciation help they can get, and forcing them to learn pinyin is the better option of the two when teaching from the first textbook.

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