Wanted: Teachers of Mandarin

Teaching Chinese in prekindergarten through 12th grade is the latest thing in affluent New York districts, reports the NY Times. School are looking for credentialed teachers to meet the demand.

The proliferation of programs has also been stimulated by the availability of federal grant money to encourage Chinese language instruction.

It’s hard enough to learn a European language in school. How many of these kids will learn a useful amount of Mandarin?

In California, Mandarin-English immersion schools are proving popular but most of the parents speak some Chinese at home.

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  1. The tough part here is the credentials: there are more and more native speakers of English who are also proficient in Chinese (I like to think I’m one of them), but the prospect of having to go for an additional M.Ed. on top of the seven or eight years of language study is pretty unappealing given that it’s possible to teach (or assist in teaching) Mandarin at the university level without.

    Meanwhile, anecdotally at least, the majority of Mandarin teachers are Chinese, are accustomed to Chinese pedagogical methods, and are, even with the best will in the world, not accustomed to thinking of their language from the point of view of a second-language learner. Teaching is frequently scattershot and poorly structured; teaching materials are for the most part abysmal, and while the language isn’t nearly as hard as it’s cracked up to be, it still requires a level of engagement and motivation far beyond the “-o/-as/-a/-amos/-ais/-an” required of students learning Spanish.

    I’d love to see more kids learning Chinese – utility aside, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun – but from what I’ve heard, it sounds like most of these programs won’t result in much more than a few dioramas about the Great Wall, some basic phrases, and, in the best case, a sense that China isn’t all that mysterious — which is really not all that bad!

  2. We offer Chinese in our school but only to kids who already speak it.

    How dumb is that?

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    My daughter attended a Spanish Immersion school in an urban district from K-8th grade. It is a sensible approach, beginning with total immersion in kindergarten, adding English increasingly in upper grades (to 50/50 by grade 8). I believe that what contributes to the difficulty of learning a European language in school is that we introduce it too late, and teach primarily by the book–rather than incorporating large amounts of spoken language. I started with French in 4th grade–for a minimal time daily, but it was conversational for the first three years. That was a big boost–and far more interesting than keeping notebooks of irregular verbs.

    Most other countries begin a second language much younger than we do–and make a distinction between verbal fluency and literacy. Many countries expect their students to be trilingual.

  4. Nels Nelson says:

    It’s hard enough to learn a European language in school? It wasn’t that long ago that an affluent, educated adult was expected to at a minimum know English, French, Italian, German, and French.

  5. Andromeda says:

    Well, firstly, the earlier you start with a language, the easier it is. (How hard was it for you to learn English? And yet we have this idea in our country that languages are hard and as such should be reserved for older, more accomplished kids. Crazy.) Second, from what I’m told, given the amount of characters you have to learn to become literate in Chinese, you’d better start it early or you’re doomed.

    I have studied a half-dozen languages; except for the one I’m presently teaching (and thus using all the time), the one I started in kindergarten is far and away the easiest to retain when I don’t use it, even though it is not the one I have studied most recently or in which I attained the highest degree of proficiency. And certainly everything I’ve ever seen about language learning says the young are wired differently and there’s a window of opportunity for relatively painless languag acquisition. (Something which is eerily borne out by my school’s ESL population; you can tell when they moved to the US by the degree of their accent. Those who came in 8th grade never lose it, no matter how fluent they become; those who came in 5th sound like natives.)

  6. The article begins with a song in Mandarin. This reminds me of the extensive use of songs in kids’ English classes in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. The kids may *sing*, but do they *understand*?

    “BOTH girls have studied the language since the seventh grade and can now converse and understand native Chinese speakers.”

    Yes, but at what level? And are they going to remember this when they are adults?

    “On a recent class trip to Chinatown, they bargained over prices of store goods and ordered meals in Chinese.”

    I could do that in Dutch very quickly (and badly) after moving to Holland with no previous training. This isn’t that hard. I’d be really impressed if they could read the Chinese on the menu. No peeking at the English!

    I know I sound very critical, but I laud anyone who does anything in a foreign language. When I was at a Chinese restaurant in Holland, it made me mad to see an American tourist making REALLY LOUD demands in English to the waitress: “I WANT ____!!”. Yeah, like the ‘tude will help. Gee, at least ask, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” or something. I wish more Americans were like those girls. Good for them, and I say that without any sarcasm.

    “To me, the broader goal really has to do with sensitizing students to cultures that are different than their own. Learning the language is important, but understanding how language and culture and politics and personal behavior all interact is also very important.”

    I agree, but I don’t think a foreign language class is necessarily the best means to achieve this end. Someone who only takes French or even Mandarin is not really “multicultural” in any meaningful sense. The (ex-)Francophone world is big – spanning from Quebec to Vietnam – but it’s not *the* world. I enjoyed my German classes in school, but they weren’t as eye-opening as my mandatory classes in Middle Eastern and Asian history.

    NYC Educator wrote,

    “We offer Chinese in our school but only to kids who already speak it.

    How dumb is that?”

    Very. In my experience, heritage language learners have little motivation beyond a little sentiment and a hope for an easy A. No, they’re not all like that, but it is a really sad sight to see kids regard “their” language with apathy. Nearly every expert I know in East Asian languages is either a native speaker or someone who learned the language as an adult, not at home. Given the unfortunate odds, I’d prefer a motivated non-heritage learner. When I studied Korean 19 years ago, the non-heritage learners were far more motivated. The star of my high school’s Mandarin program was non-Chinese. But the reality is that heritage learners are numerous and have to be the backbone of some language programs (French can get along just fine without children of French-speaking parents).

    Also, I bet the kids at your school probably don’t speak standard Mandarin at home. They may be speakers of, say, Cantonese, which is to Mandarin what Spanish is to French. Related, but not the same thing, and not a “dialect” in the normal sense of the word. I took Mandarin with a Cantonese-speaking friend and he had a hard time. Language similarity can even backfire, especially when combined with apathy. I’ve seen Lao-speaking kids try to get away with speaking Lao-like Thai (or should that be the other way around?) in Thai class.


    “I believe that what contributes to the difficulty of learning a European language in school is that we introduce it too late, and teach primarily by the book–rather than incorporating large amounts of spoken language.”

    Fortunately, the book-driven approach to language learning is long obsolete in the US, so I don’t think this criticism is relevant anymore. My Russian professor emphasized speaking to the point where he made us call him up on the phone at home for extra practice. Now that’s dedication! Even my Sanskrit teacher believed in oral Sanskrit, not just silent words on paper. And when I taught Japanese, my philosophy was like my Russian professor’s (minus the phone calls): make the students talk as much as possible in the foreign language in class. Every classroom minute was precious and couldn’t be wasted on reading English explanations that were already in the textbook. (Cf. the discussion-driven AP US history course I mentioned in another comment.)

    Book-driven language learning is still very much alive in Asia, and the attempts to remedy that are half-hearted, but that’s another rant.

    “Most other countries begin a second language much younger than we do–and make a distinction between verbal fluency and literacy.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “make a distinction.” I think it’s pretty unusual to acquire either skill in isolation. There are programs that teach Japanese entirely in romanization without introducing the Japanese writing system, but they are rare. I took a speaking-centered Khmer class in which the alphabet was optional (!) but none of my classes in 16 other languages worked like that.

    “Many countries expect their students to be trilingual.”

    It’s hard to draw comparisons between the US and other countries in terms of language learning because of the unique status of English. In many countries, it’s common to

    – speak one language at home
    – learn the national standard language
    – learn a European language (often of a former European colonizer)

    To state the difference in a blunt manner, people in these countries early in life learn that *nobody cares about their language* (other than the people in their region, of course). A Taiwanese monolingual would be helpless outside Taiwan. (It doesn’t help that Taiwanese has no standard written form.) So such a person learns Mandarin (the standard language of Taiwan which isn’t native to Taiwan) and tries to learn English.

    Someone in the Third World would be even more motivated to learn a European language, since there are no physics books in his native language or even in his country’s standard language, whereas there are such books in, say, Mandarin. In Cambodia after liberation from France, a (the?) medical school was still running in French. I presume nobody was translating French medical books into Khmer. I don’t even know if Khmer medical terminology even exists.


    “It wasn’t that long ago that an affluent, educated adult was expected to at a minimum know English, French, Italian, German, and French.”

    It depends on what “know” means. My guess is that a century ago, elites had solid knowledge of two or three languages and a reading / basic speaking knowledge of a couple of others, not balanced multilingualism. I deal with polyglots every day, and people who really can pull off a linguistic balancing act are rare.


    “Well, firstly, the earlier you start with a language, the easier it is. ”

    Yes. And the better the accent, as you’ve noted.

    But the challenge is to build on that early start. What happens after all the self-congratulation (“woo hoo! Chinese kindergarten classes!”) ends? That’s the real issue.

    “Second, from what I’m told, given the amount of characters you have to learn to become literate in Chinese, you’d better start it early or you’re doomed.”

    It’s possible for motivated adults to master thousands of characters within a few years. Character acquisition can be slow with brute force memory methods, but if one understands how characters are phonetically (yes, phonetically) structured, one has a huge advantage.

    And to end on a positive note, I agree with everything Brendan said!

    It’s funny – when I was in grad school, there were Chinese teachers working on Chinese as a foreign language degrees. It was OK for them to teach university students, but they couldn’t teach in NY schools! I think the Chinese teachers in NY would be better off with CFL degrees than generic education degrees.

  7. Oops, that was ridiculously long. My comment looks so much shorter in the reply box where I can only see a few lines at a time. My apologies to Joanne for taking up so much of her space, and to future commenters for forcing readers to scroll way, way down. Sorry!

  8. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    In HS, my language choices were German, Latin, Spanish, and French. I took German for that was the language I was most familiar with: growing up in Germany as an Army brat didn’t hurt matters there. I didn’t begin learning Russian until college, and I elected to do that on my own out of personal interest.

    If ONLY during my HS days we were able to study Russian, Chinese, or Arabic. I would have been all over that back in the day!!!

  9. Honestly, the hardest part about Mandarin is learning to hear the tones; kids find that much easier than adults.

  10. How about learning English very well before attempting to master a foreign language? Just asking because most of the affluent students I see in my college classes don’t do so well with their own language.

  11. I know where anon is coming from… at advisement for summer classes at my community college, I was assigned a student with an ESL marker. The marker indicated his writing sample indicated non-native speaker errors. When I first saw his paperwork I wondered if he was a native of eastern Europe or Latin America. Then I met him: a tall fair skinned white guy who did not have so much an accent as he had a drawl… yes, that’s right, he was born and raised in Alabama.

    My wife is a high school teacher in our exurban county school district. The school, enrollment just over 1000, will begin their IB program next year. Students have exactly two second language options: Spanish and Chinese. While our county has a massive legal and illegal Hispanic immigrant population, her school is overwhelmingly white and predominantly middle to upper class… and yet the only language besides Spanish offered is Chinese. It’s a changing world.

  12. Amritas – no, I don’t think your comments were a bit too long. You had things to say. That’s what I go to this site for.

    I don’t know much about the teaching and learning of languages, but I have just a bit of personal experience to make me wary of what others say. When I was an undergraduate in the early 60’s I was not into languages. However I did know that there was something wonderful and new in the teaching of languages. Apparently it had been recently discovered that imersion is the way to go in learning a language, and that the young pick up languages very easily. Therefore it was conventional wisdom that in a few years all elementary schools would teaching at least one foreign language to all students just as a matter of course. Now fast forward about 35 years, to the late 90’s. I was driving home and changing stations on the radio when I happened on an interview with an enthusiastic elementary teacher. She had discovered that for language learning, immersion is the way to go, and the young pick up languages very easily. Therefore she was eagerly describing the wonderful things she was doing teaching a foreign language in her elementary school. There seemed to be no doubt that in her mind she was a pioneer. She was doing something new, implementing a new idea that had a lot of promise, and was based on unassailable logic. If I recall right she also was of the opinion that other schools would eventually see the light and do what she was doing.

    Educational fads come and go, but in the 1960’s I did not think teaching a foreign language to the young by immersion was just a fad. I thought it was genuine progress. Why, then, was the idea seen as shiny and new thirty-five years later? What happened to the logic and promise that seemed so compelling in the 60’s?

    How are foreign languages taught in the schools today? I know there are immersion programs. We read about them in the papers now and then. But are they the rule? I took some college german classes in the late 60’s and 70’s, three semesters as I recall, and they were pretty much the standard text based courses that I expected. My youngest daughter took high school German in 1996-2000. She had a good teacher and really enjoyed the experience. Indeed she considered majoring in German in college. So far as I could tell it was taught by the usual, traditional, conventional text-based instruction. She did her written homework faithfully. She studied for tests. That’s not what I would have expected from all the idealistic rhetoric about language instruction that I heard in the 60’s.

    There’s no doubt that there is something to this idea of a “window of opportunity” that closes down at some age. But I wonder if that window applies mainly to the ability to get the pronunciation right. I wonder if the old text-based instruction has remained the rule because it’s the most efficient way for most people to make real progress in a language. “Mastery” of a second language, I think, is rare, by any method. But genuine progress is not terribly difficult. It just comes best by doing your homework.

  13. Tom said, “It’s a changing world.”

    Yes, it is a changing world when native born Americans cannot read, spell, write, and speak their own language very well after 12 years of school. And it’s not changing for the better.

  14. Therese says:

    From what I hear, the majority of the kids in the Chinese 1 high school class already speak Chinese and are just there to get the easy A. The 2 kids that didn’t already speak Chinese, were treated as “bad students” by the teacher and had to sit on the other side of the classroom.

  15. What is strange to me is that here in Hong Kong it seems like despite our geographic and political closeness to China, we’re not much further ahead in the Chinese (putonghua) language acquisition stakes amongst the ‘international’ population than some USA school districts.
    I’m about to put one of my children into a Chinese ‘immersion’ based school, and it’s been a heart-wrenching decision. Mainly because it’s not just about language. It’s about culture, expectations, teaching approach, classroom discipline etc. etc.
    It’s hard to separate language from culture, to have ones cake and to eat it.
    Having said that, I think the greatest gift one can give a child is another language. Any other language.
    And Chinese is a wonderfully fun and interesting language to learn. I know I’m trying!