At TFLI, we have been teaching languages since 1986 and we have developed a lot of expertise in the best approach to different languages and their special features and challenges. Most recently, we’ve put our heads together to work out the best ways of teaching Chinese – a language that can be daunting due to several factors.
Script: there is no alphabet and one has to learn hundreds of 汉字, or Chinese characters.
Transcription: a phonetic system called Pinyin that uses the Latin alphabet and makes you feel like you are learning yet another writing system, but it helps you remember pronunciation of the characters. For example,the two characters above would be transcribed as hànzì (each syllable corresponds to one character).
Tones: each syllable can have a different meaning depending on the pitch with which you pronounce it. Take the first character of these two: 汉字:.It must be pronounced with the falling tone so it is understood to mean (roughly) “Chinese. “If you pronounce it with the rising tone, it will be understood as 韩 (completely different from 汉, right?), which means “Korea”. To cite one of the most famous examples of this type of confusion, if you mispronounce the syllable ma, you might be saying “your horse” instead of “your mom.”
The good news is that at TFLI we know how to help students with the peculiarities of the Chinese language. We are innovative in balancing reading, writing and speaking so the frustrations of writing can be avoided, but students still develop familiarity with characters and can read and pronounce them. We emphasize character recognition (being able to read the character and know its meaning)rather than writing the character by hand. Does it make a difference? It does.
Writing or Recognizing and Typing?
Look again at the characters above. There is 汉 and 韩, one roughly meaning “Chinese” and the other “Korea”. If you turn away from this page, and I show you these two characters, then ask which one is Korea, you will be able to point to the right one. Will you know how to write it? No, not unless you spend a few minutes copying the character 20 times. Do you need to know how to write it? No, not as long as you can type it.
Let’s face the reality: most of us don’t write by hand these days in any language. We use computers and phones, and these help us with spelling, punctuation or grammar. Your tablet or phone can help you write Chinese too! As long as you know the transcription system called Pinyin, and can recognize the character you need, you can type anything you want in Chinese! So don’t worry about hand-written homework that takes hours to complete and half the characters end up incorrect anyhow (been there, done that). Just use your tablet, phone, laptop, desktop to type it out and let the device be your typing assistant!
If the artistic side of your brain is still interested in writing the characters on paper, you are always welcome to try and the teacher will assist you with issues like stroke order, stroke count and some techniques involved in hand-writing the characters.
Now, you ask, what if you come across a character whose pronunciation and meaning are a mystery? Obviously, you can look it up in a dictionary. But wait: if there is no alphabet, how is the dictionary organized? To use the dictionary, you need to be familiar with the so-called radicals, or individual components of each character, like the 氵in 汉. Knowing these is also the key to recognizing characters and noticing all the small but important differences among them. We make sure students are equipped with this important skill that is vital to success as a Chinese learner.
It’s All About Melody!
And what about the tones? Well, think of them as following the melody of a song. Most of us can do that with no problem, and that’s the key to learning the tones: sing them. In Mandarin Chinese there are only 4 tones, which make it much more user-friendly than Thai with 5 tones or Vietnamese with 6!
There are challenges to learning any language, but at the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute, we teach languages in a way that everyone can learn them! If you don’t believe us, try a class for yourself!
What Can You Learn in One Term?
The first term covers the first 3 chapters of the Integrated Chinese textbook. At the end of the course, students are able to do the following:
1) Ask and answer personal questions: name, family members, occupations, age, country of origin;
2) Ask and tell time, the day of the week and the date;
3) Issue/accept invitations for dinner with friends and talk about their favorite cuisine. Chinese of course!