A Mandarin Curriculum – From The Viewpoint of Total Beginner.

20 May

How a total newbie was shown what goes on behind the scenes when a leading Mandarin School formed the next generation of their mandarin language curriculum.

I work for a Chinese language school and I am extremely passionate about my job. It is a job that is quite unlike any other that I have had. It is hard to give you it in a short job description, never mind a job title. Perhaps you could say I am consultant on everything western.

When I do marketing, I rewrite the stuff they give me so that it (a) is spelled correctly and but more importantly (b) makes sense in western way. When I perform my duties as a “student support coordinator”, which is what I was hired as, I make sure that the schools western students are happy, safe and generally satisfied.

Everything in business is about sales, right? So I did see the marketing angle come around the corner before they actually handed me that workload. What I did not see creeping up behind be, however, was the opportunity to advice on the Mandarin curriculum when the school was starting to form the new generation of teacher training manuals, slide shows, text book, and general lesson plans. What do I know of teaching Chinese Mandarin?

The answer to that question is exactly nothing. What they argued I that I did know was how to learn it. Makes sense, I have learned to speak and write English and a fair amount of Chinese. But to advice on the formation of a curriculum – I felt out of my depth – to say the least. However they insisted and off I went to the planning sessions.

To form a curriculum is not small process and the insight that the sessions gave me made me respect my primary and secondary school teachers a lot more. This stuff was for adults – a much simpler task, I am told, but the level of complex planning that goes into this exercise is astounding. On the committee that made the final decisions there was one professor, Mrs. Wang, who worked on pretty cutting edge behavioral science and charged a pretty penny for putting all suggestions into the context of primary and secondary memory retention (whatever that really means I am not sure) in order to asses at what stage of the “induction cycle” the content should.

That boiled down to making sure that the student was never overwhelmed by new content (so as to avoid people getting left behind in their mandarin studies), never short of real life examples (that applied the content in relevant ways in order to cement it) and most importantly that the content was rehashed time and time again (in order to make it stick). The danger here, that needs to be avoided, is that the content that time and time again is introduced in different way avoids boring students. Boredom is the number killer of motivation, in the words of Mrs. Wang. The content must therefore, and this is the tricky kicker – the task that made their work so extremely difficult and so interesting to follow, be subtly introduced. How to you make verb subtle? It is apparently about diversions.

Step one of induction cycles is to introduce a new aspect of the language (duh). Step two is to highlight the difficult parts through an exercise, so that the student analyzes the critical aspects without really being aware of how hard they actually are (that way they are not actually hard). Step three is to put he difficult bits into real life examples. Step four is a memorization exercise that people take home and do. This takes the learning through primary to deep storage, once there it stays for a few weeks. Before those weeks are up it is again brought to surface at least twice, through the step 1 of next two or three cycles. Students don’t notice that they do the work three or four times, but in winding mazes of their minds the knowledge is stored for a long time once the process is complete.

From the viewpoint of a complete beginner to this stuff – I can only say that it is amazing how complicated a study plan is.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language Academy in Beijing that is a great option for those that want to learn to speak Mandarin. If you are interested in more information about the best way to learn Chinese, please see his summary of the key ideas involved.

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