Learning Mandarin – An Interconnected Learning Process

When discussing mandarin studies I often focus on the holistic nature of a good curriculum. Learning Mandarin can be very difficult if the learning process lack one of three key aspects. Studying something as complicated and the Standard Mandarin language must be interesting, it must be efficient and it must be focused. I consider this to be a holistic approach because there is a great deal of synergy inherent in each of these qualities. For something to be interesting it should be focused on what you are interested in and it must be dealt with in an efficient manner, or you will loose motivation before you reached the target of your studies. Conversely, for something to be efficient it must be targeted, almost per definition. There simply is no point in pursuing a target of little concern to you. As a parallel argument, for something to be efficient, it needs to be target, as I just noted, and if it is targeted. Lastly, and for the same reason, for mandarin language studies to become targeted they must be interesting and furthermore, the language studies are then, per definition, efficient.

So, the holistic approach is really just common sense. To make learning interesting, efficient and targeted is not exactly a Nobel Prize winning theory. However, it is my opinion that most schools still manage to evade on corner of this triangle. I think that this is the reason that learning mandarin has a reputation as very difficult. I remember a fire safety seminar back in Pre School where a really cool fireman came in and explained to us what fire really is. The exothermal process needs three elements: fuel, air and heat. Take out one and you kill the fire. The same applies to the triangle I just discussed, remove one of these components and a student’s motivation just dies.

So: how do we make sure that the necessary ingredients for superb mandarin studies are all there? Because they are all interlinked, the solution to this conundrum is also interlinked. It begins with a reasonable class size. I don’t really know what a principal is thinking when he decides that 1 teacher can simultaneously teach 30 students Mandarin. Standard Mandarin pronunciation is less complicated than Chinese Cantonese, for example, but it is still complicated and it is initially difficult for students to wrap the tongues around the tones. However, putting students and teachers in a situation where individual pointers are just not feasible, as they are not in a classroom with 30 students per teacher, one makes learning mandarin a insurmountable task.

This pronunciation issue highlights the holistic nature of language studies. With out being able to properly speak people are handicapped in every way. The studies are not, therefore, efficient; they are also not interesting as they are only about reading about the language, not about using it. Furthermore, as students are unable to speak independently, in their life outside school, there is no room for targeting the things that matter most to them. That makes the language student completely unable to control and focus their efforts in the direction of their own aims.

The pronunciation alone is not the whole issue with large class sizes either. There are many ways in which Chinese language studies become very difficult without individual attention and personal interaction between teacher and students. However, these reasons are not either the entire issue here. On an interpersonal level it is very hard for students to feel that they are being helped when the teacher don’t know ones full name. The lack of sense of personal attention also kills motivation as progress cannot be commented on or even encouraged effectively.

In the end, a small class size is not going to lead to a perfect environment alone, other facets are without a doubt key points to consider when aiming for an optimal service. It is however the area in which most schools fail atrociously and it is therefore an area that is easiest to fix.
Rui Ming works for a Mandarin language Academy in Beijing that is a great option for those that want to learn Standard Mandarin. If you are interested in more information about learning Mandarin in Beijing, please consult the website of Beijing Gateway Academy.