As a child, when I started to learn English in Mexico, I thought that words in English would be formed in the same way that they are formed in Spanish: just by joining sounds. And there I was thinking that in English I only had to sound the alphabet letters in English. If we followed my rule, therefore, ‘whale’ would be pronounced as follows ‘dableueicheieli’ (sounding phonemes in Spanish, evidently). Very soon after that I learned the hard truth about English and understood the meaning of ‘doing gymnastics’ with a language. I recall this moment with a smile on my face, and have tried to bring back the power I felt every time I learned a new language, most recently 8 years ago, when I started to learn Chinese.
My first experience as a teacher in China occurred 8 years ago. I was not even in my 30’s, and I had elevated the level of challenges I wanted in my life – or so I told myself. Residing in Wenzhou, a city in China in which I could count the amount of foreigners with the fingers of my hands (and I would have fingers left at that time), I decided that I wouldn’t live lost in translation and, for this reason, started to learn Mandarin. Very few experiences in my life have taught me so much about the way I learn and the way I see learning. Learning Chinese ranks in my top 3.
If I once thought that we could just jam sounds together to form words, at nearly 30, when I started to learn Chinese, I was left speechless. Before I knew what Pinyin was, I wondered how Chinese people sounded words, as they didn’t have an alphabet. I wondered how they organized them in a dictionary. I also wondered what their typewriters were like, among many other questions. In a few words, my initial attempts to learn Chinese caused me to revisit every learning strategy that I had collected along my life as a learner.
I am back in China, after 8 years. I am able to speak decent Chinese to get me around; and while I keep on learning the language, what this new experience is teaching me now is how to teach and learn with students of Chinese background. This new experience has opened my mind to a dimension of learning that is fascinating, complex, and indescribable.
Teaching EAL and English B in MYP has allowed me to see the struggles Chinese background students undergo, and what many foreign teachers ignore. While the solution to the issue is to learn Chinese, I know that some people will prefer to remain monolingual, and monocultural; and this would even rise a Knowledge Claim in TOK as to how internationally minded are teacher who teach abroad and never try to learn about the ways in which learning occurs in that culture.
One of the most frequent comments I hear about Chinese students who move from a traditional Chinese setting into an international education one is: “Chinese children can’t read” or “they do not know how to put sounds together” or they do not know how to generate ‘fancy’ ideas. The answer for this is quite simple: Chinese students, when they learn characters, know that each character has a syllabic sound that conveys a meaning. Thus, when they come across words in Roman alphabet languages, they tend to memorize the word as a whole, and will be able to sound those words that they know when they see them together, but might not be able to appreciate and decode the phonemes in each word. One of he strategies I tried was quite simple. I just told a student: English doesn’t have ‘Hanzi’; it works as Pinyin. Eureka!
Another struggle I hear is the difficulty students face when pronouncing long words in English. The sense of length in a word is quite relative for speakers of different languages, so I use a strategy that I employ as I learn languages: I build sound blocks in a phonetic system I know. The strategy I used does require knowledge of Chinese; its effect is strong and it empowers students in a wonderful way. I basically write basic sounds in Chinese for students to read. Thus, a word like ‘Martin’ may be troublesome for some students as the two-consonant cluster ‘rt’ presents a problem, but if we know the characters that can emulate those sounds and stress them accordingly, we will find that that students will develop their own system: 吗二听 [(horse, 2, listen) Ma-r-tin]. I am aware that this will not allow students to develop pristine pronunciation, but I have come to see how this encourages students to become more courageous and free when speaking, and this is when we can work on pronunciation. Moreover, my focus as a teacher is always in meaning and empowering students to share their thoughts.
Many foreign teachers get irritated when Chinese students tell them they (teachers) ‘make mistakes when writing’. These teachers read and read and they cannot seem to find the error, so when they ask students to come to the board and point at it, they are surprised to see that Chinese students think that an ‘i’ without the dot on top is not an ‘i’; that a stylized ‘g’ or ‘j’ or ‘q’ is a letter they hadn’t seen before. Yet, if we consider that for a foreigner, learning how to read in Chinese sometimes feels like spot-the-difference, then it is clear why an ‘i’ without a dot on top is not an ‘i’. This is my justification: take the character for “special” (特) and the one for “grasp” (持), for example, which are the same apart from a small extra stroke on the left hand side of the former and a tiny upward tick at the bottom of the long vertical stroke of the latter.
One strength that Chinese learners have is their ability to observe and identify patterns. They are so sensitized about roots and additional components of a word, that teachers can just indulge in presenting them with all the word forms for a vocabulary item (happy, unhappy, happiness, unhappiness, for example) and, as long as students see them in a sentence and understand their meaning, they will automatically use them all. This capability comes from the singularity that Chinese characters have as they a basic character can change meaning (while still pronounced the same) by turning it into a compound one. For example, the character 包 sounding like ‘pao’ or ‘bao’ services as a side of the character combined with a radical that indicates what meaning the word may convey: 包 抱 鲍 饱 胞 苞 雹 孢 刨 炮 跑 泡 刨. This analogy can be used when asking students to understand the role of prefixes and suffixes.
When someone’s Chinese brain processes information a, b, z, ñ, q, n, s, l, c, y, r, f, s represent empty symbols which are difficult to understand for very few of them represent an ‘image’ on their own. Chinese is ideograhic and pictographic, and big ideas are formulated with the aid of very few characters. Thus, when Chinese students are expected to stretch sentences, connect ideas and understand the logic in a language system, it is hard for them to understand why they need more words. While in English we could say: I was looking for you but I could not find you (11 words), in Chinese this idea can be expressed with 3 characters, 3 morphemes (找不到－zhao bu dao).
Possibly, one of the most unexpected tools that I have added to my repertoire is learning to visualize elements of the written language. Learning to “spell” words in Chinese (there is no such a thing!) is like doing mathematics. Each character represents an opportunity to review. For instance, the word for ‘cover your mouth with your hand’ 捂 [wu]= 手 ＋五＋口 (shou + wu + kou). Learning to read is fundamentally metalinguistic, and while it is constantly said that ‘there is little thinking about the way one thinks’ in Chinese students with a traditional education background, it is such an interesting experience to share this observation with them when looking at phrasal verbs or compound words.
Taking advantage of the tetris-like approach to building sentences in Chinese, and their incredible strong ability to memorize, I have experimented adding creativity and spontaneity by using word-dice and encouraged students to take challenges depending on the complexity of the sentences they want to build using super diluted generative grammar patters.
A lot is said about the way students with Chinese background (many times even generalized as Asian) learn, and I always appreciate the insights people share in their experience. Yet, I feel that we have done that for decades, and I think this is a good time to look at the other side of the coin and wonder what we have learned from it, what opportunities there are still to continue learning from this scenario. After all, as lifelong learners it should be the pursuit of new ideas and ways of learning what should interest us.
In 2006, I wrote this reflection about PYP students learning Chinese in Mexico: 我喜欢中文。