Chinese for kids in Western countries is experiencing rapid growth. President Obama has recently touted the importance of learning Mandarin and other nations like Australia and New Zealand are increasing funding and emphasis to learn this important language.
But simply tossing money at a problem doesn’t guarantee the solution is at hand. While English language learning has had since the 1960s to develop resources, Chinese language learning (especially Chinese for kids) is really in its infancy.
Simply, Chinese language learning materials haven’t been adapted well to their audience. Their Chinese language content may be presented correctly, but there’s still significant negligence in understanding the Western learner.
While Western learning likes to emphasise ‘learning while doing’, Chinese learning methodologies are more teacher-centric to transfer information. The teacher telling you information is believed to save a lot more time than granting students space and time to discover it for themselves. Chinese publishers and teachers naturally use this approach when teaching Mandarin to Westerners. But in doing so, they make the mistake of believing Westerners want and enjoy such a passive method of learning. This mistake magnifies itself when teaching Chinese to children. From my experience, Western kids want to be much more involved than a typical Chinese teaching approach allows.
And as a learner myself, having sat in Chinese classes for seven years, two hours a day, I was always struck by something. My Chinese teachers never presented a problem, divided learners into groups then gave students time to come to a solution. Learning was mostly all listen and repeat, spoon fed information which was guided by published content conveyed in the same passive, dry format.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the state of things for now. Mandarin learning is such a recent phenomenon, schools are reasonably desperate for anything to help them along the way. If they can find any content to help them a little bit, they’ll buy it. In a desert, any drink is a good drink, right?
And for most Western educators who don’t speak Mandarin, Chinese further holds a certain mystic. Educators know the content and practices used to teach Chinese aren’t great, but the intimidating aura of Mandarin keeps criticism to a minimum. They’d rather just let those who teach it get on it and not question something that is so left-field and foreign to them.
But it’s not all dim and grim…
It’s also an exciting time for Mandarin education. While there is the great danger students will be easily turned away by boring content, there are exciting opportunities for creative teachers and publishers to invent alternatives. Just as it took time for English language learning content to mature, I see a similar transformation slowly happening in Mandarin. Not just in technical advancement of online platforms but more importantly a change in teaching methodologies used to get Western learners speaking and using Mandarin.
If Western kids and adults are to learn Mandarin, then I believe Mandarin publishers, as well as teachers, will need to understand better their audience’s learning culture. Mandarin is already a challenging language; we don’t need to make it more difficult by using culturally insensitive approaches that further alienate learners!
And for me, the most critical area we need to start with is this: Chinese for kids. If we have materials that excite younger students, we then have a chance to provide a positive learning experience which will later inspire people at an older age. That at least is the hope of Chinese Buddy and our vision for the future.