Learning Mandarin, what method is best?

Thursday, February 27, 2020

I studied in a sort of Chinese school for 13 years.
So that "sort of' means, I SHOULD know how to speak basic Mandarin right?


I studied in a Chinese school where we only get less than an hour of Chinese class daily.  When you think about it, well - one hour a day, should be okay - but the problem is, at that time - it was pure memorization.  The books that we used, were those traditional books that I honestly have no idea what is written in them.  I see Chinese characters and they're just that - Chinese characters without meaning, nothing.  It was not practical if you ask me.  The words we were taught were not used in everyday conversation

It was only during my 3rd or 4th year of high school that I realized how important knowing how to speak Chinese was.  It was during a trip to the Chinese border from Hong Kong that while I was going around the mall, I was having a hard time communicating with people who looked like me.  I was so frustrated that after that trip, I swore to myself that I would go to China and learn the language.  I owed it to myself.

So when an opportunity came, I went and I studied.  It was such a memorable half a year of my life that I wouldn't trade for anything.  I studied hard - the hardest I have studied in my life.  It was at that time that I really grew up and matured.  I was in a foreign country that spoke little english, I was without parents, there was no driver, no helpers to help me.  I was something I never thought I'd ever do.

At the start, everyday was a struggle to me.  I had to adjust what I learned for 13 years to a new system.  I did the work, I made worksheets, I bought books, I put in extra time learning the language.  We had quizzes, midterms and finals.  We even have a report card to show our progress.  All in all it was a half day meant for just learning the Chinese language.  It was that intense.  Imagine the hours you spend daily just to learn ONE language.  I had a class in comprehension, and then another class for listening.  They really chop it up so that foreigners can really learn the language.  But of course the best 'learning' was, you can get to practice it everyday since you are in China.  Everywhere you can see Chinese words and you hear people speaking in Chinese.  I was forced to adapt, to learn and to speak.  So by the end of my studying, I was already arguing with the locals in Chinese!

When I got back, it was an adjustment again - less Chinese words seen and spoken.  So what is the effect?  Well, many words forgotten.  My Chinese became kulang sa practice.

So what did I learn and realize during my half a year in Beijing? I realized:

  • -  Immersion is the best teacher.  Being in a place where people know little english, you will be forced to adapt, to learn and to do what is NECESSARY to survive.
  • -  The hours I spent learning the language was important.  Imagine 4-5 hours of learning just Chinese and spread that out 5 days a week for almost 6 months.
  • -  The lessons we were taught were brought down to a level of a child.  I felt this was the best strategy of Beijing Language and Culture University.  I was 22 at that time, and the lessons I learned were really basic - food, people, days of the week, directions, fruits, colors, places, animals.  They made grown adults learn very basic words that can be used in everyday life.  And from there they built a vocabulary that is added per lesson.  It seemed really funny and a but insulting - BUT man I can attest to it's effectivity.

When my kids started big school, I thought it would be easier.  I expected the school to teach them the basics and to make sure that they have a solid foundation on the basics.  I had this expectation that the school would have a better Chinese program compared to what I had during my time.  You can say that I expected the curriculum to evolve to a more modern effective technique.  To be honest, in my alma matter - my daughter had no problems with Chinese, she gets by with just studying by herself.  Because of how her grades are in Chinese, I assumed all is well.  But with Connor, my gosh - it was very different.

His lessons, were basic I guess.  They send out course outlines every quarter, and when you see the pages you'll be surprised on the load.  These are not just 2 pages worth, it's about 6 or more - back and forth.  I am no teacher, but I trusted the system enough because they should know best, right?  I would review Connor here and there when needed.

First and Second quarter were okay, his quiz results were satisfactory.  I was happy with them.  I think because they established simpler lessons.  But when I received the Third quarter report card, I was surprised with his grade.  Normally, I would just shrug it off.  But I was curious.  So I went to the PTC and met with his Chinese teacher.

I was very VERY surprised to learn that Grade 1 boys are expected to sight read Chinese words AND sentences.  They are expected to recognize words, re-arrange and correct erroneous sentences.  Mind you, Chinese word characters are not in the form of simple shapes.  I mean in all seriousness the words/characters look really foreign.  I was in shock, I think my mouth was gaping after meeting with the teacher and I think hours after that - I was in disbelief.

I was given these advice:

  1. -  Follow up and teach our sons at home (there is NO need for a tutor, but follow up is important.
  2. -  Practice writing
  3. - Try to interject Chinese words in everyday conversations

Here are my reactions to the advice:

  1. -  I expect my child to learn in school.  I expect the school to teach and equip him with the proper knowledge.  The school can give homework to follow up, but I don't think it's our duty as parents to follow up and teach our kids.  I remember the teacher telling me to 'help us' by reviewing our kids.  To be honest, I wanted to say - 'Bakit pa kami magbabayad ng tuition if kami rin magtuturo?' but I had to keep my cool.
  2. -  Practice writing is okay.  I would prefer that the school impose a Chinese writing homework everyday than blindly expecting the parents to do this activity voluntarily.  We parents WILL NOT voluntary do this because as I said - I personally expect the school to do this.  
  3. -  This I have to say is the funniest thing I have ever heard.  I am quite controlled with the words that I use, but to be honest - I have stronger words in my head, but I choose not to use them here.  Let's be honest.  Chinese is not a second language in the country.  We are learning this language to be competitive in the future.  We always say that Chinese/Mandarin will be beneficial in the future - but what is it without practice?  What is leaning 30 minutes a day without practice and immersion? Can you believe that our kids are learning three (3) different languages?  Three!  Not one, but three!

Thinking back, I asked myself - how did I learn the language at age 22?  How did I come to love and appreciate the language?  I had to think back and dig deep.  What method worked on me?  I know I am not a teacher, but what I have is EXPERIENCE.  I was a 22 year old equip with very little Chinese (Imagine my Chinese was the Taiwan style old characters), but I left the BLCU with so much new words, knowledge and appreciation of the language.  I HOPED that the method I was taught would be used by my high school because when they do, Chinese subject will not be something dreadful and will be enjoyable.

So what method was that?  IT WAS DUMBED DOWN for us adults.  Yes, it's as simple as that.  We were given lessons for young children and we were all grown adults in class!  You see what I mean?  There is NO SHAME in giving lessons that is not in the same level.  The school has to adapt and adjust to the capabilities of the kids.  Not because the books says Level 1 means that Grade 1 kids should learn that.  I personally feel that basics should be instilled and mastered.  And when they have REALLY masted that skill, then it's on to the next level.

I'm sure I would be questioned with how come for other subjects, it's different.  Of course it's different!  English is a language we are exposed to day in day out, 24/7 - we read english books, we watch and listen to english cartoons and TV shows, we speak english most of the time.  Filipino is the same way, we're more exposed to English and Filipino.  So how about Math, math is something we do repetitively - we gain skill because there is practice and we use it everyday.  How about SS?  Well, it's basic human behavior, right?  Most of them we use in our everyday lives.

So, what is my advice?  As a person who had to go to Beijing to learn the language.  I feel that the basics should be given first.  Personally, I think for the younger levels that they be taught the old Chinese Taiwan style alphabets.  This is to make the pronunciation better.  Fill up these young brains with vocabulary via listening - just like how we teach kids to talk.  No need to recognize words yet because let's face it - we don't want to confuse the kids with visuals.  Teach them all the colors, members of the family, parts of the body, food, fruits, animals, types of vehicles, school furnitures and fixtures - dumb it down!  When they've had enough of hearing all these words and can recognize it when they hear it - then you expose them to the sight words.  When they have masted the sight words, then you introduce the proper sentence construction and grammar.  Make it practical, so they can remember it and use it in everyday life.

But hey, this is just me.  I am not a teacher and what do I know right?  Hahaha..

What I know is 30 minutes a day is NOT ENOUGH to learn another language.

(I'm sure you can sense my frustration because I really really really am)

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