Is teaching Mandarin Chinese as daunting as it sounds? The British Council's Charlotte Ogilvie hears from a few UK teachers, and shares some useful resources for teaching the language to primary school children.
You don’t need to be an expert to teach Chinese
China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and its language is well worth learning from a young age. But as a teacher you could be forgiven for finding a language without an alphabet – where the same syllable can mean ‘mother’, ‘horse’ or ‘curse’, depending on how you say it – just a little bit scary.
Rebecca Crovetti, teacher at Wardie Primary School, Edinburgh, was initially apprehensive about teaching Mandarin as she had no training in the pronunciation. As an experienced linguist with a background in Romance languages, she had little knowledge of Mandarin. ‘I had learned about Chinese New Year and watched ‘The Lingo Show’ with my son on CBeebies', she says. 'I could say the greeting 'nĭ hăo' but that was it.’ Fortunately, there are many more sources teachers can draw from. ‘I have often taught topics that I have had to research before because I didn’t know much about them, so Mandarin isn’t so different. There are a lot of resources available’ [see below].
Children are good at picking up the language
‘Children are very receptive towards language and can retain the sounds very well at a young age’, say Gemma Squires and Hannah Mortimer, class teachers at Dane Royd Infant and Junior School, Wakefield. ‘They remember sounds and words through actions, chants and rhymes.’
This doesn't mean it's too late for adults, of course, but youth definitely seems to have an advantage. Deirdre Downey, teacher at St Joseph’s Primary, explains: ‘The children love teaching Chinese to me when I can’t remember the words or the pronunciation. I think it's easier for them to copy sounds, speak confidently and soak it all up. I hope that some of them will continue learning it after primary school’.
There are clear benefits to learning Mandarin from a young age. Often, even if the language skills remain untouched for a few years, the lessons learned previously can be accessed again with surprising facility. Lisa Williams, a language teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni, Blackwood, was impressed that her students had this ability. Some of her Year 7 and 8 pupils from a mixed-level special needs class started singing in Mandarin when beginning a unit of work on China. ‘They remembered their Chinese lessons from primary school perfectly,’ she says.
Chinese pronunciation isn't as hard as you think
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. There are four basic tones and a fifth neutral tone. This is enough to scare a lot of adults. However, Rebecca Crovetti suggests that children are not so afraid and do not really see the tonal nature of Chinese as a problem: ‘They don’t realise that there is a difficulty and just try to repeat what they hear'.
As teachers, however, you might be wondering how to get to grips with the tones. BBC Languages offers a mini-guide to Mandarin tones and might be a good place to start. It offers practical advice that helps you remember which tone is which and how to say it:
- First tone (high-level) - This is high and remains level. Think of saying ‘yikes!’ in alarm. The important thing is that you start at the highest part of your natural register and sustain a single note.
- Second tone (rising) - This goes up and is abrupt (try raising your eyebrows while practising). It is usually thought of as the questioning tone.
- Third tone (falling-rising) - This falls in pitch and then goes up again (try dropping your chin onto your neck and raising it again when practising).
- Fourth tone (falling) - This falls in pitch from a high to a low level (try stomping your foot gently when practising).
Yangyang Cheng’s YouTube channel, Yoyo Chinese, also comes highly recommended by non-native speakers of Mandarin. In a series of video tutorials, she explains the tones very clearly, relating them to sounds in English using a technique called tone-pairing. Watch this tutorial to find out how you already use Chinese tones in English without realising it.
If you have a Chinese language assistant, they will be able to teach pronunciation to the children, and you can learn from them too. Lisa Williams explains that her language assistant is offering a Mandarin class to the staff at lunchtime and has also set up a Chinese lunchtime club for the students, which is proving to be a success.
You don’t have to teach Chinese characters
Currently there is no consensus on a method to teach Chinese writing in primary schools. Pinyin is the most widely used system of Mandarin Chinese that uses the Latin alphabet. It is a great tool to help you learn the accurate pronunciation of Mandarin words. Many teachers use a combination of pinyin, pinyin and characters or just characters when teaching Chinese.
If you choose to teach mostly using pinyin you can still show your pupils a few of the basic characters, as children tend to enjoy practising calligraphy.
BBC Languages offers a mini-guide to pinyin that will help you with pronunciation.
Learning Chinese script can be fun
Lisa Williams has noticed that pupils who are visual learners tend to adapt more quickly to learning characters, and she encourages her students to practise writing the characters alongside their oral work. At Dane Royd Junior and Infant school, they have adopted the traditional calligraphic approach to writing, using Chinese characters. Pinyin is also used as a tool to help the children learn the accurate pronunciation of the Mandarin words. Head teacher Clare Kelly encourages others to adopt this approach. She highlights the success of playing games where the children have to draw a character as a response to a question, and playing matching games. The children enjoy doing calligraphy with ink, brushes and paper, and it is exciting for them to learn non-European characters.
If you want to try teaching some Chinese characters you may find BBC Schools helpful as it has a section on writing, lots of visual aids, vocabulary, pronunciation tools and interactive games for primary school children. The British Council’s 'Year of the Sheep’ Education Pack will also teach you simple characters and has calligraphy sheets available to download.
You could also have a look at BBC Languages, as it offers a mini-guide to characters to teach you the basics.
Cultural references and visual aids make learning Chinese more accessible
‘Language learning at a primary level should get children’s attention and trigger curiosity, as opposed to demanding advanced linguistic skills’, says Clare Kelly. Sometimes very young learners can be overwhelmed by the language aspect of Mandarin, as the phonetics they learn in English can’t be applied to it. A way to ease them in can be to focus on Chinese culture in Key Stage 1, when they are still becoming more comfortable in English. ‘By the time pupils enter Key Stage 2, they have acquired their own language to a secure level, so linguistic lessons in Mandarin have more of an impact’, she says.
Deirdre Downey has used Chinese culture as a way to introduce Mandarin to her students. Her Chinese language assistant, Zhang Hai Yang, has been an asset in promoting Chinese culture in the classroom. She has worn traditional Chinese dress, shown the children how to use chopsticks, and taught them how to say all of the names of the animals of the zodiac. The local Chinese Welfare Association performed a lion dance to celebrate Chinese New Year. ‘It has been a great opportunity to bring Chinese culture to life in the classroom in Crumlin’, says Deirdre.
Chinese New Year, though a highlight of the year, can be complemented with other Chinese festivals such as the Mid-Autumn Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, and timeless things such as food and cookery, arts and crafts, and sports activities such as Chinese-style morning assemblies. Some of Lisa Williams’ pupils have tried out their new skills at the local Chinese restaurant.
Twinkl has a set of lesson, activity and assembly plans to help you celebrate Chinese New Year at your school. Have a closer look around to find other resources to use for the rest of the year.
Children are less inhibited than adults and learn quickly from mistakes
‘I think adults are more conscious of Mandarin as a mysterious and difficult language’, says Deirdre Downey. She has observed that children approach learning Mandarin in the same way as any other language: ‘It is fascinating and has characters with special meanings, but they respond easily to the new words and vocabulary'.
Children are notoriously uninhibited. This is a clear advantage they have over adults when it comes to language learning. ‘Adults tend to be more self-conscious, whereas children are used to making mistakes and learning from them’, says Rebecca Crovetti.
A Chinese language assistant works together with the class teacher at Dane Royd, who is learning at the same time as the pupils. ‘For children who may be a little fearful, inhibited, or less eager, seeing their teachers learning it at the same time helped them understand that it's OK to try something different and new’, say Gemma Squires and Hannah Mortimer. However, most of your students will be so used to learning new facts and expanding their knowledge that they simply don’t seem to possess the fear factor and are happy to embrace new and exciting things. You should be too.
There is support from the British Council
‘Having a Chinese language assistant is a great way to introduce Mandarin to your school and develop a stockpile of resources. The children are embracing it and understanding more and more about Chinese culture and developing their language skills without even having to leave the classroom’, says Deirdre Downey. Chinese language assistants are native speakers of Mandarin and are qualified and experienced teachers in their home country.
The staff at Dane Royd had no prior knowledge of Mandarin before Chinese language assistants came to teach at the school. ‘Through their support, we have all acquired some basic vocabulary and phrases’, say Gemma Squires and Hannah Mortimer. ‘The Chinese language assistant discusses her objectives with us and then we help to organise a learning sequence for progression with appropriate and engaging activities.’ Ultimately, ‘having the support of a Chinese language assistant is exceptionally valuable, not only for the pronunciation, vocabulary and subject knowledge, but more so for the children’s engagement. A ‘real’ Chinese person gives them a context and triggers their interest.’
Updated: UK schools, find out how you can apply for a Language Assistant who is a native speaker of French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian, Russian or Irish. Applications are still open.