Students’ needs and the vertical depth of learning Chinese
Learning Chinese is a complex activity, and we deeply appreciate this complexity, which is intrinsically connected with students’ learning needs. Along with students progressing from knowing nothing to becoming fluent Mandarin Chinese speakers, their needs will change from requiring simple language input and output to complex language input and output, which correspond to a gradual change of the texture of the Chinese language.
Chinese courses are normally structured to reflect this complexity, guiding students to perceive and to enjoy the gradual changes in the texture of the Chinese language which they are exposed to and as they make progress from one level to the next.
Of all the needs students have, the size of their vocabulary is often considered an imperative to expand. It is definitely true that the longer students learn Chinese, the more words they know, and the size of their vocabulary does affect their abilities of communicating in Chinese. Even though it is an obvious need which both students and teachers must pay attention to, it is not the only one.
Other equally important needs, sometimes more important, include learning Chinese sentence patterns (structures and grammars), pronunciations, improving Chinese listening and speaking abilities, connecting the Chinese characters with their sounds, developing Chinese writing abilities and reading comprehensions, and so on.
A vertical dimension of the Chinese language
And every need has a vertical dimension to it. Lower level students are exposed to fewer new words, fairly simple Chinese sentence structures, straightforward questions and answers, a small number of Chinese characters, and strictly controlled listening exercises. And higher level students are exposed to a large amount of new words, more complicated sentence structures, open ended questions, a large number of Chinese characters, and authentic Chinese listening exercises.
This vertical dimension of students’ needs are essentially related to the difference of the Chinese language which students are exposed to, and are expected to learn. Although everything is capped as “learning Chinese”, it is really learning different versions of Chinese, like layers of a vertical entity. In other words, learning Chinese at different levels is, in its essence, to learn the Chinese language with a gradual change of texture. The vocabulary gradually changes from daily objects to more abstract concepts, and the texts change from straightforward questions and answers to more elaborate analyses. Without these subtle and gradual changes, students will not achieve meaningful progression. For example, if the vocabulary is the major focus of Chinese lessons, students can be stalled at a beginner’s level for a very long time. The other extreme is that the changes from one level to the next are too abrupt and big, students will not be able to move on.
The Content and the Structure of MSL Master Chinese Courses
When designing the content and structuring Chinese courses, I took great consideration of students’ needs and the vertical dimension of the Chinese language.
The aim is to present Chinese texts which gradually become more and more complex, and to define the areas of study to small chunks, and providing sufficient opportunities for listening and speaking practice.
The two series of Chinese textbooks, Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series, work remarkably well to constitute an effective learning path for students to progress steadily from one level to the next.
Learning Chinese is lots of fun and brings a tremendous sense of achievement, especially when students are conscious of this vertical depth of the dynamics in teaching and learning.
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