Part 2 in our 4 part series - How to choose a Chinese teacher - What really matters when choosing a teacher or school? A balanced review of factors that impact your learning experience.
What to look for in a teacher
How do I find a teacher to help my child learn Mandarin?
This is a challenging topic that defies one simple answer. The selection of a teacher and school for yourself or your child is a highly personal quest; one that must take into consideration your individual goals, needs, and background. Therein lies the rub. When you talk with a school administrator or teacher, are they asking about your goals, needs and background? Or, are they telling you about their individual skills, methodology, track record or materials?
Your needs are central
In order to choose the best program to meet your needs, you must first examine what those needs are and recognize that they will change over time. Some of the most important questions to ask yourself:
- Where will you use Mandarin; in which social, academic or professional circumstance and environment?
- Where will your children use Mandarin?
- Are your goals for yourself and your children age and developmentally appropriate?
- Finally, are those goals realistic?
Be an active learner
In order to learn a language you need to be more than a passive learner in the process. You need to take an active role in determining what you will learn, when you will learn it, and if you are satisfied with the progress you are making. The burden for accomplishing those goals lies not only with the instructor, but with you. Have you chosen the environment that is best suited to help you meet those goals? If not, you have the opportunity and the right to seek a different environment and or teacher. Use the goal setting process to identify not only your goals but to think about your strengths and weaknesses. What do you know about the way you learn? If you have never studies another language you can still identify how you learn most effectively. Do you learn by listening (an auditory learner), by reading or seeing pictures (a visual learner), by moving and acting out (a kinesthetic learner). Knowing the learning styles that help you process new information can allow you to work toward your strengths and your teacher to deliver content in a way that best works for you. There are many different learning style inventories available; the most basic divide the process of learning into the 3 categories listed above (auditory, visual, kinesthetic). Other inventories (multiple intelligences) broaden the categories to include music, environment, interpersonal/social learning among the styles. It is helpful to understand your personal or child’s learning styles. The balance between the different styles will change over time as a student matures and succeeds in different challenges. Young children will shift from functioning as predominantly auditory learners to a blend of two or more dominant styles. Repeat the learning style inventories every few years to help tune your learning and keep your teachers informed.
Making contact with a teacher and school
After you identify how you learn and set medium and long term goals, it is time to make initial calls and email a teacher or school. Ask about the teaching philosophy and methods. Is instruction conducted with immersion, partial immersion, or English/translation techniques? What is the emphasis of the class – developing listing and speaking or reading and writing skills?
Next, set up a time to visit class and talk with a teacher in person. It is important to see a teacher and the students while a class is in session. It will give you an opportunity to see how the teacher interacts with students, what the norms of the classroom are, if the environment is welcoming and suitable to the student’s developmental level. It will also provide an opportunity to ask the teacher to outline the program goals and see how they fit with yours. A good program and teacher should have more than a text book at the center of the program; the program should be built around objectives that are easy to explain and understand. Ask about the rationale for the objectives. Good programs are both progressive and spiral allowing for a review of previously learned material while introducing new content. No matter what the program, there will be some rationale behind what is taught, the sequence, and the evaluation methods – even if these issues are dictated at the administrative level.
The classroom setting
The classroom will give you a good indication of the age group and developmental level best suited to the environment. Young children (preschool-elementary) will learn more effectively in an environment that provides room to move and play, carpets and child size tables and chairs rather than adult desks, visual aids and toys, inviting colors. Junior High/Middle School and High School students are more comfortable in a traditional classroom setting with tables, chairs and desks. Adults respond well to seminar settings.
Many weekend language schools rent university facilities or classroom style rooms designed for adult learning. The physical environment can and will dictate how the teacher engages with students. For a high school or adult student, a classroom full of desks creates a physical separation and is the most comfortable and inviting setting. For a preschool and elementary age children, the opposite is true. Young children learn by interacting with their environment.
When seeking a program for young children, look for a teacher who has experience with the age group in both personal and professional settings. Imagine taking your 2 year old to a teacher who has never taught or raised a 2 year old child. Will he or she understand the behavior and interests of a child that age? Will the teacher have a methodology that accommodates the learning styles and speed of a young toddler? Likewise when teaching teenagers, will the teacher be able to handle typical behavioral challenges posed by teens when they are bored because a class that is too easy, overwhelmed because they don’t understand, or just disinterested?
What skills matter?
You will find that many programs emphasize on one or two skills over the others (listening, speaking, reading and writing). How are the goals for each skill determined at different ages and levels? Is there a different program for native speaking children versus Chinese-as-second-language children? How do these instructional priorities fit with your goals? Is there flexibility in the program to meet your needs?
Learning the writing system is typically emphasized sometimes to the exclusion of other skills. It should be questioned in Chinese-as-second-language (CSL) programs. Although all four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing need to be taught, the last two will take significantly more time to develop. Depending on the age and language background of your child, he or she may not be developmentally ready to start work on literacy before learning to think and speak in the language. A heritage learner who has significant language exposure at home can begin literacy work much earlier while acquiring new vocabulary. For older students and adults, an emphasis on writing will prepare the student to take standardized exams to demonstrate proficiency. Ask about how the methodological emphasis aligns with standardized exams. Will you be prepared to take the exam(s) you wish to take? Tackling all four skills at the same time is a complex task in any language. In Mandarin, it is a particular challenge given the time needed to learn to read and write characters.
A second concern is the use of phonetic systems to teach pronunciation. There are two main systems in use – pinyin 拼音and zhuyinfuhao 注音符號/注音符号 (aka Bopomofo). Both phonetic systems have advantages and disadvantages. All Mandarin students should eventually learn pinyin but not necessarily as the first step. For young CSL children, it is important to develop strong phonemic awareness in their first language (English or other language using the Roman alphabet) before adapting the same alphabet as an aid to learn another language. A good benchmark is to teach pinyin after a student reads at the 3rd grade level in English (or other language using the Roman alphabet). Otherwise, pinyin can and does cause phonemic confusion. Therefore, children below this age should only be taught characters or the zhuyinfuhao system rather than the pinyin system.
For those asking “why should I learn pinyin,” the answer is primarily applicable to students above the beginning level or older students (above 3rd grade). Pinyin is the most widely accepted system for transliterating Mandarin Chinese worldwide. It is also one of the easiest to use in typing Mandarin on an electronic device (computer, cell phone or other devices). All these factors do not mean that pinyin is an efficient or even useful system for learning to pronounce or read Mandarin Chinese. There are multiple ways to teach Mandarin pronunciation, pinyin is only one of these. However, when it comes to input for electronic devices, pinyin is a clear leader in terms of ease, frequency of use among devices and programs, and world-wide standardization.
Simplified or Traditional characters
What is better Simplified or Traditional characters? There is no correct answer to the question. Starting with either is fine. Many teachers will have adamant views on this question but in reality if you and your child study Chinese for an extended period, you will be exposed to both and will need to develop some proficiency with both character sets. Is one really easier than the other? Yes and no. Traditional characters are easier to see the history and understand their development over time which can be an aid in learning to recognize them. Simplified characters are easier to learn to write. Both require substantial time to learn to read, type and more time to write from memory by hand. The time required to learn to read and/or write Chinese characters is substantially longer than that required to learn to comprehend and to correctly use words in conversation. Depending on your personal goals, the choice of characters with either matter or make no difference. It should not typically be the criteria for selecting a teacher or school.
Handwriting versus typing
Do you need to learn to write or to type characters? Again instructors will have strong views on this question. The answer goes back to your personal goals. What do you need to do? Write letters or type and text? If you live in the U.S., the Advanced Placement Chinese exam may provide an answer – it is a typewritten exam and students must know how to type in Chinese to sit for the exam. If you live in Australia, handwriting is required as part of the national curriculum and associated exams. If you want to take the HSK exams, handwriting will be required.
Online versus in-person classes
Your needs will change over time. You will find that in-person instruction is essential for young children. Online classrooms will not provide the essential environment and interaction needed for a pre-school to elementary age child. For older children and adult students online teachers may provide the best option to meet your individual goals. However, online one-to-one instruction will not provide group learning opportunities. Social/interpersonal learners need group interaction in order to learn more effectively. Many families attend language school in order to establish cultural connections with a community, to make friends with other families, and spend social time with those who share a language and culture. These factors are also important but may impact the achievement of language learning goals. If the program or teachers in a school do not fit your personal learning goals but the social goals are important, you may be able to remain in that program for extra-curricular programs and pursue language instruction online or with a private teacher.
Native versus non-native teachers
A non-native teacher can be more effective than native speakers at the beginning and intermediate levels. Unlike native speakers, teachers who have been second language learners understand the process and particular challenges their students face. One of the most important criteria for selecting beginning or intermediate level teacher is teacher training. Is the teacher familiar with the American Council for Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL) standards and current research on teaching and assessment methodologies? If you plan to take the U.S. AP Chinese exam, is your teacher trained by the College Board and intimately familiar with the exam? If the HSK is a goal, is your teacher familiar with the structure of this exam and how to prepare you for it?
For high intermediate and advanced learners, working with multiple native-speakers is essential. Mandarin Chinese is characterized by significant regional pronunciation differences, an expansive literary tradition that infuses all advanced written material, and multiple cultural centers of learning. One instructor, particularly a non-native teacher cannot address these complexities. At the advanced level, you may have highly specific needs and goals. You can work with native speakers who are not trained teachers but have specialized knowledge. If you understand your needs in a sophisticated way, you can help non-teachers provide they type of instruction that will benefit you. Therefore, working with multiple instructors over the course of learning is important.
Finally, go with your gut. If you don’t feel right about a teacher, program or product, don’t buy it. Try something else. It may take a while to find the right fit, but in the end it will be worth it. Remember, no teacher, program or product is right for every student. You will need a mix of resources to meet your goals. You will also need to change direction throughout your learning journey.