Teaching Chinese to a group of absolute beginners

Note: This is an odd topic I realize but teaching Chinese and learning Chinese, in my case at least, are not such entirely distinct activities.

I am headed home for a bit and I would like to give my friends and family a Chinese class. Not too many of them are particularly interested but a few already have agreed to suffer my efforts as a favor to me. I told them that want to develop a system for teaching Chinese to adult native speakers of English. I will be able to secure an hour or so with the lot of them, a couple of hours with some others and maybe a bit of time each day with still others

Anyway, I am hoping that I can give them an introduction to Mandarin but more importantly to natural language learning, that is language that is presented in a way that the meanings of the words, expressions, sentences I teach will be obvious from the context (props/ body language) with loads of repetition and some sort of body movement associated with almost every word. At the end of each segment I ask then to translate from Chinese to English, which will be easy hopefully.

That’s basically what I want to do and have a couple of ideas how to start but thought I’d invite suggestions and look at those before commiting myself. Thanks.

Bob, bob, bob. You already know in your heart what to do… :smiley:

Use proper names and brand names to overcome the “we don’t know any words” problem.
Pick five words. Maybe:

HE ‘drink’ (straight, level high gesture like the “drinking problem” joke where you indicate you’re trying to drink through your forehead – it’s 1st tone after all, and this is memorable)

pIjiu ‘beer’ (upward motion of popping the tab top, then a low motion dropping the tab on the ground – not downward, this is 2+3 tones) (and for “standard” Chinese with a neutral tone, the upward tone on the pI is enough really). It’s easy to remember because if you drink too much beer, “you gotta pee, Joe!” :smiley:

Qu ‘go’ (moving one’s hand downward from the nose as though someone has sneezed works well for me – because ‘people always go away when you sneeze!’)

Yao ‘want’ (I always use the “claw hands, palms inward, starting at eye level and drawing straight downward” gesture but that’s just me)

meIyou ‘doesn’t have, there isn’t’ (this gesture is really dumb – it’s an upward scraping in an imaginary mayonnaise jar – get it? meIyou mayo? Have no mayo? I know, I’m killin’ ya…)

You will find that ‘bu4’ or ‘bu2’ for “not” or the negation doesn’t really need to be taught – a big negative shake of the head plus whatever verb you’re pairing it with is just fine.

Find a simple story. Something like:

Bob drinks beer.
Bob wants beer. Bob wants to drink beer in/at [local place]
Bob has no beer.
Bob goes to [local place’s] 7-11.
7-11 has no beer [=“there is no beer in 7-11” pretty much; this is Lesson 1, don’t sweat the locative ‘zai4’ too much, just throw 'er in when needed and usually no one will agonize over it]
Bob wants beer! Bob wants to drink beer!
Bob goes to Paris. In Paris there is a Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart in Paris (“Zai Paris de* Wal-Mart” – slip in those grammatical functions where they’re easy to figure out) has beer.
Bob has beer!
Bob drinks beer in Paris.

Then, of course, milk the story…what brands of beer does Bob drink? Which brands doesn’t he drink? Does he drink in Shanghai? Does he drink in Taibei? Does he drink beer in [local place]…etc. etc. ad nauseum etc. remembering that your listeners find every sentence fascinating (well, at least insofar as they find they can understand Chinese, a fact they never knew about themselves before) and even though you find these sentences amazingly easy, they don’t, and need to hear them over and over and OVER with, of course, minor but fascinating variations.

Then ask the questions…every question you can think of. (OF course for the family class, this may not be necessary or desirable). Be sure to have a fixed gesture for every WH- word – it’s really important for students to nail these early on, and being asked so many questions definitely helps. Anticipate problems with confusing sheI and sheNme (just as ‘quien’ and ‘que’ get confused in Spanish learners.)

I do this story every time I need a quick ‘demo’ type experience. My cousin, who is in his early 60s and has dyslexia, can still remember the word for “beer” immediately when asked, and this is three years later. :smiley:

Rinse, lather and repeat. Many times. :smiley:

bob, be sure to ply them with alcohol in the process, and it should be a lot of fun.

Yes, should have emphasized that the teacher has the responsibility to bring in realia to reinforce concepts. :smiley:

That’s all apart of TRL :laughing:

Commit suicide? :wink:

[quote]Use proper names and brand names to overcome the “we don’t know any words” problem.
Pick five words. Maybe: [/quote]

I like your beer story and might even use it, but as you have perhaps guessed I’m one of those people who has to reinvent the wheel every time. I have A LOT more expressions than you suggested and am only about three quarters into it. Basically what I want to do is work in the top twenty or so.

Thank you
You are welcome.
Just a moment please.
Please give me
Right (correct)/ Wrong
I want…
Do you want…?
Don’t have
I know
I don’t know
Do you know?
I understand.
I don’t understand.
Do you understand?
How do you say…?
One more time please.
More slowly please.
What does ______ mean?
How do you say _____ in Chinese?
Good bye

Quite a few others as well. I know, I know, too many words but I will use the same ones in interaction over the following weeks as well. My “students” range in age from eight months to seventy five years so quite a bit of flexibility will be required. I wrote down every detail in the beginning to remind myself that the people I’m talking to know absolutely nothing about Mandarin. It’s easy to forget that I imagine.

Anyway, here’s what I have. Be gentle… :notworthy:

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent. Sweet pea is bi-lingual.)

Short Story Version

[quote]- “ni” (point) “hao.” (thumbs up, smile).

When somebody guesses “you” or “hello’ (English) respond with quick “Dui” and move on.

  • “ni hao.” (Smile. Wave. Shake hands with each individually.)

“nimen* hao.” (Expansive gesture encompassing group)

  • “wo” (hand on heart, dip head, whole body if energetic for 3rd tone) “Yao” (want expression, clutching gesture, strong 4th tone, scratch tone in the air maybe?) “YIge* piNguo.” (gesture to apple, pick it up)

  • Ask one person “ni Yao YIge* piNguo ma*” (make question mark gesture, adopt questioning facial expression, hold out apple) “yao.” (expression of longing, yes nod) “Bu yao” (no expression, shake head) I ask sweet pea she says “Yao. qing (she does beg gesture) YIge* piNguo. I say “hao.” wo (gesture) gei (gesture) ni (gesture) YIge* (gesture) piNguo (apple). Again jiA LONG says Xie4xie*. Again I say “biE KeQi.”

  • Repeat with keys. (YaoShi) Ask sweet pea only.

  • Repeat with book. (Yi ben SHU) Ask sweet pea only.

Do repetitions with the sweet pea creature. Repeat Yao bU Yao, Yao, bU Yao, qing gei wo, Xiexie* biE KeQi pattern.

  • Ask Yao bU Yao again with each object. Illicit Yao, bU Yao, qing gei wo, Xie4xie* responses. Respond with biE KeQi.

  • Point at one person, ask sweet pea “TA Yao YIge* piNguo ma.*” Illicit Yao/ bU Yao responses.

  • “sheI Yao YIge* piNguo?” Illicit “George Yao/ Lili bU Yao/ Matilda Yao/ bU Yao responses.”

  • “wo Yao YIge* huluOObo*” (Bugs Bunny impersonation” Somebody says “Carrot” I say “Dui, Dui, Dui huluObo*” Ask sweet pea “Zai Zheli you huluObo ma*.” She says “meIyou.”

  • I ask “Zai ZHUOzi* shang* (tap table) you hong2luObo ma*.” Repeat bugs bunny impersonation with each honGluObo. She says “meIyou.” I ask “Zai ZHUOzi* Xiamian* you honGluObo ma*” She says “MeIyou.” I ask “Zai kouDai li (look in pocket) you honGluObo ma*” Sweet Pea says “meIyou.” I ask “Zai BINGXIANG li you honGluObo ma.” She answers “yexu.” I say “yexu. yexu Zai BINGXIANG li you honGluObo. ni Qu Kan, hao bU hao.” She says “hao,” goes and looks in refrigerator. I say “TA Zai Qu Kan BINGXIANG li, ” and then “you ma*” She says “you,” brings them back.

  • I ask each person ni “Yao bU Yao YIge* honGluObo ma. Illicit Yao/ bU Yao, Xiexie, biE KeQi response. [/quote]

Etc. That’s as far as I got and then my computer came out of debug mode, I read your post and realized Damn! that’s a lot of words already and still no “story” …

Yeah, that’s the basic problem. Plus, as usual, pointing upward will make some people think you mean “ceiling” and others think you mean “light” and one dreamer think you mean “sky”.

IMHO you would be far better advised to divide and conquer – work these expressions into the number of lessons they require. If you think you’ll have the attention of these people for 8 weeks, you can make significant progress using a TPRS routine, with a lot of straight TPR in the beginning to help them acquire sets of vocabulary (colors, numbers, etc.) The problem with introducing too much stuff too fast is that they will not internalize it (especially without recourse to written notes, which will then make the likelihood of atrocious foreign accent higher, as well as “their own” spellings, unless you take time to teach Pinyin, which is more time spent that with beginners could be used for the language, etc. etc. etc.)

Also, asking “do you understand” is meaningless. If they do understand, fine; if they don’t understand but believe they do, they’ll still say “yes”. Always check comprehension using WH- questions, not “do you understand”. That is best reserved for dealing with small children who have been issued direct orders. :smiley:

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’m willing to bet that it won’t vary much.

It’s about recognizing that people have limitations isn’t it? Man it took me a long time to internalize that one.

I am thinking that I won’t teach any written system at all but just work with understanding through context and repetition first. Look to see that they understand by asking them to follow instructions and answer questions with short answers. Don’t worry I have been paying attention.

I had another idea today (by god I have a lot of “ideas” don’t I?) that I would explain at the beginning that I would no longer respond to English and that if I did it would be in the form of a translation that they would need to pay 5 cents per English word for. I would teach ci2 and ji ge* and then it would be a simple matter of repeating YI, Er, SAN with each translation. Of course this would also increase the number of words beyond anything reasonable but it might also give them the idea that THEY need to be careful about what they try to learn and that whatever it is they learn will only be remebered anyway “if” they try to use it in a communicative context that we would try to build, and would build in the form of YI Er SAN/ wu shI shIwu etc. of course. If they ask for a translation of something that is too difficult or not likely to be useful I’ll break out of “Chinese only” mode for a moment and say Tai naN “too difficult.” The grammar is the same so no serious risk of confusion there.

My “students” are definitely a mixed bag: a couple of real bright bulbs, a baby, a spunky geriatric, a couple of worse for wear and tear types, inspirable, uninspirable, those that fit into multiple categories simultaneously etc. The thing is that if I have some time with them and focus on just the things we will really have a chance to live with then maybe the things that are not quite internalized in “class” will be outside of it so I can get away with pushing too much initially.

Is this making any sense?

I only have another day or so to get this ready and if I have time I will edit my previous post as this thing gels in my feverish little brain. Thank you so much for your comments, I know I am not the easiest person in the world to try and guide on these things. I agree with what you are saying about breaking it down into more managable chunks initially and if I figure out how to do it I will.

This is fun.

The way to break it down is simply to do the same thing over and over again (yes, after six months, if you do nothing else but tell stories, the class will begin to groan and say “Not another story!”)…pick 5 words or short (short!) expressions, teach them using gestures and chaining, put them into a very simple story, embellish the story, check comprehension, rinse lather and repeat.

I think everyone fantasizes about the perfect no-English classroom, but I have not seen any indication that forbidding the native language helps anyone learn a second language. It’s far more efficient to communcate about grammar in your L1 (although I don’t teach grammar overtly, there are always those short mini-lessons that come up in response to various things). It’s far more efficient to give a definition that’s spot-on in the L1. And, most importantly, I think it intimidates most folks, unless they are super-motivated-super-intense language nerds, to be told that they absolutely have no recourse and cannot use their L1 to learn – even when they are sincerely trying to learn. Remember that their perceptions and expectations of language classes are largely garnered from those past high school experiences, which have told them mainly “I spent three years sitting in Spanish class and today I can’t even say ‘hello’ in Spanish. So obviously I’m not going to achieve anything in eight weeks, especially with a hard language like Chinese.”

Especially for beginners.

Dunno, I don’t like to tell anyone not to innovate and not to try things, but if I were you, I’d put my energies into trying to perfect the actual technique for TPRS teaching if that’s the route you mostly want to take for this experience. If you mix, you dilute. Just concentrate on honing your own craft. Believe me, it is not nearly as easy to make 70 reps of each item in an hour as you would think, especially if you get someone actually counting for you. Try to focus on being satisfied and proud of your students if they can hold a simple conversation in a fairly fluent manner over a limited amount of language at the end of your 8 week course – which they WILL be able to do if you do pure TPRS with them. I don’t think there are many other classes, even at language centers, that can really point to that.

If you need more outlet for your creative powers, try to really super-personalize the stories, the weirder the better. I still laugh inwardly over the George Bush and the National Strategic Rootbeer Reserve stories I had going with one student in Taipei a few years back – complete with his cat Guido who drove a karioke bus, Bush’s buxiban, and assorted other hijinks.

Anyway, you know where I’m coming from. If you want someone to tell you to go for it with other means, you’ll have to get someone else to chime in on this thread. :smiley:

Terry this is just my family. I won’t have them for eight weeks, I’ll have them for two, but for many hours every day. I just want to be able to say ni hao, Xie xie*, wode* YaoSHI Zai nali* etc. in the course of our time together and give them the experience of natural language learning. The “class” thing would be a preamble to that. My older brother is thinking about learning an aboriginal dialect and I thought I could introduce him to these ideas, suggest some methods for creating tapes that are better than the stuff on the internet that starts people off with such useful gems as “Only hunt beaver when your spear is sharp” or whatever.

The strict TPRS thing is something I’ve never seen but can imagine based on what you have explained to me and it makes a lot of sense, absolutely. I won’t be able to organize myself entirely on that principal in the next two days though and anyway I’m just not a “rule” guy. Seventy repetitions might “work” and would certainly be an interesting experiment but it’d kill me to try and do it consistently. I’m a conversation teacher and conversations are spontaneous and unpredictable by nature.

Anyway “conversation” is a more advanced activity of course and for beginners TPRS or some slight variation on it sounds like just what I should be learning. You should have heard the explanation I just gave my wife about what I think is the understanding behind what you do. You would have been proud. Ah heck, I’ll try again…

TPRS is a system that recognizes that language is essentially MEANINGFUL SOUND and tries to create an association between the two at the outset by: 1) Providing a context that makes the meaning obvious. 2) Repeating the sound enough times for it to be actually heard. 3) Providing an opportunity for people to actually communicate using this system of sound symbols.

Most people you meet in Taiwan, for example, struggle with English because they are running the language through too many processes, first of all they don’t think in English, they think in Chinese and translate. Then they analyze everything using grammar paradigms that are frequently false, or worse, use the grammar principle when in fact what is in operation is the idiom principal, but this is getting ahead of ourselves of course. Anyway you know what I mean. Why explain SVO to somebody who can see the difference between “I bit the dog” and “The dog bit me”? Or similarly why try to explain in grammatical terms “put up with.”

Next (this is what I just said to my wife anyway) the correct order to learn a language is by: 1) Developing listening comprehension. 2) Developing some speaking skill. 3) After developing some familiarity and facility with “the actual sounds of the language” start on reading, hopefully with a phonetic system. 4) Finally, starting on writing. 5) Integrating the five skills in an upward spiral of complexity and nuance until you have written the next great novel.

That is the natural, most effective order. With a group like I’m going to face I’ll be lucky to get listening comprehension and reasonable pronunciation of 15 or 20 expressions in two weeks. I’m going to shoot for 40 or so anyway because I’m an old cowboy and that is what old cowboys do, shoot too high.