Two Wishes for Chinese Language Instruction

22 Nov 2010

A while back Albert of Laowai Chinese visited Shanghai. We met up for lunch and had a good chat about our experiences in China learning Chinese. He asked me an interesting question: what did I think was the biggest problem with the field of Chinese language instruction?

I told him that in general, I felt that there was way too much teaching adult foreign learners as if they were Chinese children, and I felt that more (non-Chinese) learner perspectives were needed to improve the situation. (This is one of ChinesePod‘s major strengths.)

He was looking for more specific answers, though. When pressed, I gave him these two areas:

  1. Tones should be taught systematically, long-term. Way too many programs cover the tones in the first few weeks, followed by a few tone change rules, and then basically leave the students to sort the rest out. It’s not enough, and it’s irresponsible. Most students are going to need a good 1-2 years to really get a handle on the tones, so why aren’t educational institutions doing more to guide students through those frustrating times?

    As I’ve said before, tones were the single most difficult part of learning Chinese for me, and I know it’s true for many other students as well. More needs to be done. We make this a major focus at AllSet Learning, but most schools really drop the ball on this one.

  2. Mandarin Chinese needs a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin. There are corpora for Mandarin, but the ones that are public are not spoken Mandarin, and the corpora of spoken Mandarin are kept private and jealously guarded.

    Why does Mandarin need a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Chinese? Because without it, we’re all just taking stabs in the dark as to what “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary is. Yes it is possible to objectively determine what language is high-frequency, but this requires (1) collecting lots of naturally-occurring speech samples in audio form, (2) transcribing it all. Then a proper corpus can be assembled, from which accurate, objective word counts and word frequencies can be derived.

    Once that’s done, we could finally have more of a clue as to what the “high-frequency” spoken vocabulary really is. This method isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step forward from relying on native speaker intuition. And no, the new data obtained are not going to match the HSK word list you’ve got, or the Jun Da list either.

    It would also be great to see a proper large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin, balanced for regional variation. That would turn up all sorts of interesting facts, like proportion of 哪儿 to 哪里 across all regions represented, and virtually any other speech variation you can think of. (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)

What do you think are the biggest problems with Chinese language instruction today?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Great post. Chinese is really funny because of the 2nd one. Isn’t it amazing that, in most languages, if you can read a newspaper, you’ve ‘arrived’ as it were, but in Chinese you never really feel like you’ve made it. It’s a tough mountain to climb. I always tell my friends, ‘how can I tell anyone that I have learned Chinese when I can barely read a Chinese menu?’

    The language is so expansive, that huge chunks of literature are unavailable to all but a few Sinologists (eg. classic chinese). Just as a take-off on number two, I feel like I don’t have an obvious path from ‘hard textbooks’ to ‘simple Chinese novels’ and eventually ‘intellectual Chinese writing’

    I suppose 漫画 are supposed to come in somewhere in the beginning, but they really are for kids, no? People tell me reading magazines like 财经 are a very high level of Chinese, but way too dull to read all the time. I wonder if there’s a reading list of great Chinese novels you could recommend for HSK Students. 🙂

    • In re: to your comment about recommended novels, there was a discussion recently on the MCLC about recommended movies for teaching Chinese. There seemed to be a consensus on a list that went something like this:

      Good films to use:

      Together, dir Chen kaige
      Nuan, dir Huo Jianqi
      Two of Us, dir Ma Liwen

      Films hard to teach:

      Farewell My Concubine, dir Chen Kaige
      To Live, dir Zhang Yimou
      Cell Phone, dir Feng Xiaogang
      A World Without Thieves, dir Feng Xiaogang

      The idea was that films built around a story were easier to teach because they were situational and could even be chopped up into small pieces and taught, while films built around a theme are harder to teach because they use deeper and more abstract concepts/language.

      • Hmmm, I saw “To Live” as a first year student of Chinese (English subtitles on) and felt like I could catch a lot. It has a pretty strong story, no?

      • I’ve started a project where I’m attempting to pinyinize (and analyzing) the subtitles of “Tangshan da di zhen”. It covers a wide range of situations which include kiddie conversations to what to say when trying to avoid a ton of bricks falling on your head. Movies are definitely an under-used learning resource.

  2. I’m with you here. Tones are basically not taught at all, on the assumption — I suspect — that those who are serious about Chinese will eventually rediscover the rules of tone sandhi from first principles a few years down the line, whereas those who aren’t will have washed out by then anyway.

    Another issue, at least for me, is the utter lack of attention paid to writing and composition. This has to do with the general lack of exposure to real writing outside of literature classes anyway, I suppose, but I’m unaware of anything designed to teach students of Chinese to write anything but birthday cards and business letters. Massive gap.

    Re: Beijinghua in textbooks — I think Beijinghua is generally not that heavily represented in textbooks, actually: you never see textbooks teaching “成” instead of “行,” or “拐” instead of “转,” or “颠儿了“ instead of “溜出去,” or that sort of thing. You’ll see 那儿 over 那里 and 点儿 instead of 点, but that’s just because those are standard Putonghua. Not all erization is Beijinghua. Of course, then that gets you to the question of how closely Standard Mandarin resembles Actual Mandarin (not very), and whether textbooks should teach Standard Mandarin instead of Actual Mandarin (debatable, but I’d say yes), and that sort of thing.

    Totally with you on the corpus of spoken Mandarin. I’d love to have something like that. It would have the potential to raise Chinese-language pedagogy above the more or less abysmal level it’s currently at.

    @mike — I always recomment Wang Xiaobo’s (王小波) novell “The Golden Age” (黄金时代) to people asking for a first novel. It’s one of the better novellas written in the last couple of decades, for my money, and it’s got sex, the Cultural Revolution, philosophical disquisitions, and more sex — and a very fine sense of humor, too. There are aspects of Wang’s style that remind me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, so if you like Vonnegut, definitely give Wang a try.

    • Thanks for the tip on the book. I gotta get that! Can’t wait.

      Also, I’ve asked about the written 儿 before. At least one Mainlander (my HSK tutor) has asked me to please not write 儿 in my weekly essays, even though she actually says 儿 all the time, and will, indeed, read it out when she reads the essay.

      It’s almost like someone from Boston saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll do the accent, you don’t have to spell ‘bar’ like that… ” 😉

      • One thing about that book: the beginning of the second chapter is difficult, but don’t give up there, it gets easier again after a page or so。

    • Brendan,

      Yeah, I hear what you’re saying about Beijing-hua… And, fair enough, a lot of it is simply northern Chinese. But a lot of what you learn in various textbooks isn’t what you actually hear around you in many parts of China (“most of China,” you might even dare to say), and that’s frustrating. If you learned your Chinese in the north, you haven’t experienced this issue. (You experience it as coming south for the first time and wondering, “what’s wrong with all these people, and why can’t they speak proper Chinese?”)

      Would be good to see writing taught better as well, yes, but first things first… 🙂

      • Coming from the opposite end of the spectrum (Taiwan), I was simply amazed how much eryin was used in Kunming (where I stayed a month). In HK, Shenzhen, and Guanggong my mandarin was almost totally fine and I felt like people spoke reasonable Chinese. Outside of there and Fujian province, there’s just an awful lot of tongue curling going on.

        Maybe the texts include more north-eastern stuff, which you don’t here in Shanghai, but from my point of view there was a lot of “Beijinghua” in use even there. If nothing else, you still get it on TV, from out of province people, etc.

        Now that I’m staying in the Beijing hutongs I regularly hear all kinds of stuff full of erhua variants I can’t understand. I haven’t found my textbooks to be too much help, except for a great one I picked up that follows 家有儿女. That one is gold.

  3. David Moser Says: November 22, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I agree with John’s assessment of the teaching of adults. There is another area which is even worse, and that is the Mandarin instruction to foreign students in China’s international schools and approved state schools. My daughter has gone to both kinds of schools (she’s currently in the international section of Beijing No. 55 Middle School), and I’ve seen firsthand how Chinese is taught at ISB and Western Academy. It’s all bad, pathetic, worthless, a waste of time. Kids at the height of their cognitive absorptive powers spend years in these classes and come away unable to speak real Chinese at all. The emphasis is almost entirely on the written language, and especially on character memorization, tingxie, etc. 55 Middle School uses yuwen textbooks designed for native-speaking Chinese kids. The content is 100% culturally Chinese, and assumes perfect oral fluency. There are no oral, spoken pattern drills in class, only characters and shumianyu. Foreign kids who live here do often pick up good Chinese, but they don’t get it from their Chinese classes, which are worse than a waste of time. Such classes most often leave foreign kids with boredom and hatred for the language, as they emphasize pointless rote memorization of literary constructions and characters that the child will never use in daily life. Even the foreign students at Beijing’s famous Fangcaodi elementary school are not getting their mastery of Chinese from the actual Chinese instruction, but from just interacting with others in the school’s environment. Every year dozens of parents complain to administrators about this, but to no avail. Most parents of children at international schools don’t really care that much about their child’s Mandarin instruction, and the local Chinese schools teach them with the only method they know, effectively classing them as mentally handicapped Chinese kids instead of foreign learners. Frustrating and stupid.

    • What do you think the root of the problem is? Why won’t the school administration effect change? Inability to cope with change (or innovate)? Apathy? Incompetence? Too much red tape? Simple laziness?

    • Jaques Aandy Says: December 3, 2010 at 6:34 am

      My daughter went to 55-zhong some 11 years ago when she was 11 after half a year at ISB. She was much happier there and within 6 months was impressively fluent and did very well reading and writing too. I think it helped a lot that she only took language, math and physics during the first 5 months (all in Mandarin of course).
      She doesn’t like the language though (notwithstanding her fluency). I never asked her why, but probably it’s what you said about the way they taught it. I was still impressed by the final result in that short time.

  4. jen_not_jenny Says: November 22, 2010 at 11:48 am

    (Personally, I suspect that a lot of the Beijing-hua taught in many textbooks could be reconsidered on the grounds that it simply doesn’t represent the Mandarin spoken across mainland China.)
    Yes, yes yes…yes yes, yes yes.

  5. I think one major problem is the test taking focus every class is built around. We must all pass the HSK, Student A may be able to pass the HSK3 with flying colors but he may or may not be able to order some food at the local 饭馆 and get directions as easily as someone who can’t.

    And that correlates directly with what you were talking about, the HSK vocab is not a high frequency spoken (perhaps written?) list.

    I’ve found that after going through a Chinese pod lesson just a few times I remember the words of the lesson and I’m even able to use them, yet after 3 classes of a few grammar structures and about 15 new words I can’t always remember all 15 and I struggle to use them in sentences unless I go out of my way to carry a list in my pocket and use it with the bike watching lady who doesn’t speak 普通话.

    If anyone is interested in determining objectively what high-frequency vocabulary is, and is willing to walk around and record their conversations and others, and transcribe it all, maybe we can get some sort of project going. I’d be interested in this, I’m not leaving any time soon.

    • Crowdsourcing the sample collection is a cool idea.

      You have to be careful, though. If you’re trying to build a corpus of spoken Chinese, you want all the conversations to be natural conversations between two native speakers. A corpus of Chinese between Chinese and foreigners could yield some truly interesting insights, but it wouldn’t be the same thing.

  6. From my couple of years of learning Chinese in Kunming I remember there being very little attempt to teach the language as an intellectual undertaking; pedagogy mainly consisted of memorization and then repetition. My efforts to ask ‘why’ was usually met with a shrug and a ‘just because’ from the teacher. I hesitate to criticize my teachers too much because without them I would have lacked a basic foundation for learning the language, but I feel like I would have learned much more from a slightly less by-the-book method….and ultimately, I did.

  7. With regard to no. 2, one of the problems is that many PRC-produced language learning materials are at least as interested in pushing a particular ideological view of China as they are in teaching useful language. So we get the usual stuff about going to hear 京剧 and the intricacies of 书法 and practising 太极拳, and how the main (and usually distressingly earnest) Western character in the textbook was initially sceptical about 中医, but after a mild cold became convinced of its extraordinary efficacy. All of this leads up to the conclusion that China’s a pretty splendid kind of place. Which it might be. And which is interesting enough. But this kind of agenda tends to get in the way of really thinking about what is useful when it comes to language learning.

  8. Had to laugh about the bit where you wrote about teaaching adult learners as if they were children. I was recently just explaining to my wife how that 快乐汉语 on CCTV 4 (which is the only channel available on our service) was way too childish with colorful characters and childish sounds popping up all the time. Also the themes are quite childish (and usually full of moral building stuff).

    If at least the childrens’ stuff was interesting and fun, it might be another matter but each time I ask my parens-in-law for some fun childrens’ books (like we might have Roald Dahl’s stuff, Harry Potter, Narnia, etc.) all they can find is books with 成语 which not only have moral lessons but also teach me 成语…three thumbs up from me…

  9. Great post,thanks.

    As for #1: TONES.

    I think a good way to teach tones is to remember that while a new learner makes many tonal mistakes they are still saying many tones correctly.

    A few friends of mine get so caught up when they can’t say things perfectly! You’re doing a good job, just keep trying!

  10. Great post. I think all the major areas have already been touched on. The teaching adults as if they are children and the lack of proper writing instruction come together nicely in my current composition class, where rather than teaching us how to write intelligibly in Chinese, the prof will assume we never went to middle school: “In China, we like to start our essays with a short introduction, and we end with a conclusion, you should indent after every paragraph break” etc.

    Tones definitely come in first for me as well. The runner-up would be the frustration with simultaneously learning what often seem to be at least three completely unrelated languages: the talk of the street with lots of 方言 and 俚语,the proper 普通话 of fellow teachers and students, and the 书面语 of any book worth reading. I love languages, and I love Chinese, but I do wish it were a little easier to keep all the different language registers straight. A good colloquialisms/slang dictionary would not be a bad thing either.

  11. John, another excellent post. One of the big issues in the USA related to learning Mandarin is the poor quality of the instructors. This is part of the reason that you still have incredibly high rates of attrition from the language. Too often kids will take 2-3 years of Chinese and then quit. I believe a big reason for the high failure rate is the inability of immigrant Chinese language instructors to fully understand the different needs of children raised in the more rigid Chinese educational system and those in the United States where such rigidity is often not well received. We need Chinese language teachers who understand how to most effectively communicate with Western kids rather than simply impose traditional teaching methods that may not be well suited for these students.

    • Adam Stout Says: October 31, 2013 at 12:44 am

      I think this is the root of the problem in US classrooms. I’m an American teaching Chinese at a middle school and a high school. I previously taught at a middle school. In both cases, I followed teachers from China.

      It seems like teachers from China are culturally and linguistically overwhelmed by the students. So they devolve, for reasons of classroom management, into simply saying words and requiring students to repeat. For homework, they give character practice sheets to students. The students don’t learn to produce any speech; they only learn to repeat when prompted.

  12. I think that the way reading/writing is taught alongside speaking/listening needs to be reconsidered, though I admit I don’t know which direction to go.

    In my university courses, we had two weeks of basics (tones, pinyin, beginning vocab) after which the 5-characters a (week)day approach began and didn’t quit until class ended. Some students handled this okay, but I found it quite overwhelming as I was still putting so much effort into just pronouncing these syllables.

    I found myself writing lots of pinyin between characters on all passages in my textbook that I could’ve potentially been called on to read in class. I crammed like crazy in the few days before an exam so that I would pass, and those characters were almost always forgotten in the following few days. Had we only been required to learn to half the amount of characters, I’m pretty sure I would’ve learned them more than twice as well as the full lot.

  13. I agree with the first point, however, I don’t exactly understand what you expect people to do when it comes to the second one. The spoken Chinese language is extremely broad, there is almost no way to account for any particular region one would end up if they learn based on a book. Chinese people don’t even go to different parts of China because of the dialectic differences, but of course they have a better grasp of mandarin than most foreigners. Unless you have a preconceived notion that you will only go to one place and stay there (also will not communicate with someone who is not of that region) chances are you’re going to have to adjust to the local speech pattern. For example, my boyfriend who is learning Chinese, will not understand you unless you are speaking the most formal of Chinese, following exactly the Chinese pinyin and tones. Who actually speaks like that? Not many. But there is still something to be said that certain words are suppose to be certain tones even if people relax those tones. Most Chinese people understand each other even if they don’t follow the tones strictly.

    With that said, these days, there are more and more people who speak mandarin, most Chinese people will still understand you even if you add or eliminate an “er” at the end of a sentence, the rest you just have to adjust to as with a lot of languages. It’s just unfortunate that for Chinese learners there are so many different dialects. I can’t possibly think that teaching someone to say “an3 me jia1 nei4 kou3 zi zai4 ta1 lao3 shenr3 nei4 ga1 da ne4″ is a good way of teaching someone how to say that “my spouse is at the house of my father’s wife’s younger brother’s house”, but it’s really frequently used in the north, and chances are that’s what someone will say to you.

  14. Another great post.

    I’m always harping about tones on my blog (here).

    Having an open spoken corpus and regional corpora would be great, but I understand why there isn’t one: they’re really difficult and expensive to create. It seems like a pipe-dream.

    I have another reason for creating regional spoken corpora: many Chinese dialects are dying: I’ve noticed that people born after 1980 usually speak less of their local dialect than their parents do and more 普通话. As soon as the next generation, many regional dialects will be start disappearing. Only a few regions will be able to maintain a robust language. Unfortunately, I think creating a regional corpora also runs into political issues. So much research about Chinese language (especially in mainland China) is based on the pretext that Chinese is an indivisible language and is the same everywhere.

  15. A great post as reflected by the feedback in your comments.

    I can’t necessarily relate to the China side/experience coming from Taiwan. However, I agree with much of the comments from a general point of view.

    I do want to say something about tones and writing.. I studied for 6 months at Shida in Taipei mostly for my reading and writing. My teachers on a daily basis corrected tones when needed. Sometimes it was mid-sentence, sometimes afterwards. As for writing, we wrote diaries, letters, stories, essays, sentences, etc.. all of which would get butchered in red ink. I hated turning in written work. I could check it and proof-read it 10 times and it would still come back red for bad grammar, wrong characters of the homonym type, characters with missing strokes, wrong word choice for part of speech, wrong word choice (literary vs spoken), etc.. If you study at Shida, you should be able to write more than a bday card or business letter.

    The biggest problem w/writing that I noticed is that not everyone thinks it is important. Many students just want to speak. They think reading and/or especially writing is too difficult and/or a waste of time. I’d blame the student before I blame the institution or teachers.

    • Adam Stout Says: October 31, 2013 at 12:46 am

      What about teaching courses for which the focus is speaking? In K-12 settings, it may just be too much to handle…

  16. Will’s point about ideological problems in textbooks is a good one. Part of the problem is the attitude that the student is learning the Chinese language only so they can learn more about China. Thus the textbooks are “obsessed with China” to a stultifying degree. Classes become one very unidirectional Chinese history and culture lesson.

    A look at an English textbook from one of the good EFL publishers will show you how much more interesting things can be when a language is taught as a tool for communication with real people rather than with inanimate cultural monuments (sorry, Great Wall).

    Chinese teachers seem to believe that people learn Chinese precisely because of their fascination with Chinese culture and history. Perhaps most foreign students do start off that way — I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure the way to keep them interested is to teach them how to communicate with other Chinese-speakers about things of genuine, contemporary interest.

    Also, my experience in the PRC certainly backs up Brendan’s point about the lack of attention paid to writing. Interesting to hear things might be a little different in Taiwan. But here we just need to compare the writing sections of the TOEFL, IELTS, CAE/CPE English exams to the HSK Gaoji (or worse, new HSK) to see how low the expectations are in the PRC. But I’m with Lin here: I’ve heard so many people studying Chinese say that they “don’t care about writing”, that I have a suspicion that teachers have ended up giving in to this student disinterest.

    Finally, I have a question for John: what do you mean by long-term systematic teaching of tones? What would that look like?

  17. I may be wrong but I do think that it will take many years before you could really speak and understand a foreign language well. I guess a lot of people after studying a foreign language be it chinese or french or japanese, would expect to speak and understand the language in 2 or 3 years, that is expecting too much. It probably takes on the average about 5 to 7 years before you could speak it reasonably well.
    The best way to learn your target language is to be with the natives speakers either in work or within the vicinity where you can hear them talking all the time, I really mean all the time, that is to say you wake up in the morning you start to hear them talking and you hear them all day long. And also you could speak them as well if you wish then it would help tremendously. Very seldom we could get this kind of environment so our language study is painfully slow.

  18. BA in Chinese here, from a mainland Chinese uni.

    From my perspective, there is too much of a focus on text books that are at least 10 years behind what the business community actually needs from its graduates.

    Sure you learn 国际贸易 but its all focused on case studies, I couldnt describe a pie chart or a bar chart in Chinese. The writing classes focus on writing 寻事 style notices that you see stuck to walls around complexes, there should be a greater focus on 21st century communication, i.e. writing emails, SMS jokes – basically forms of written communication that will be useful to students post graduation, of course that doesnt rule out essay writing.

    The majority of my classmates can’t speak Chinese after a 4 year degree, but they could ace an HSK test.

  19. This is a very interesting and important discussion!

    In Germany the FaCh (Association of Chinese Language teachers) recently published the following declaration concerning the problems of new HSK and Chinese competence…

    (then scroll down to Chinese and English version)

  20. I wish I could have been exposed to learning Chinese earlier. At my high school, near Pittsburgh, we had the option of French or Spanish. Some nearby schools were also offering German.

    Learning Chinese just seems to take a long time, and the earlier you can get good exposure, the sooner you can start to feel comfortable with the language.

    From the 3 semesters I did study in China, I felt that, in the beginning, tones were just over my head – even though they are such an important part of being understood in every day conversation. I would focus more on drilling writing, listening, and vocabulary – but that’s just my personal opinion.

  21. […] Two Wishes for Chinese Language Instruction (Sinosplice) […]

  22. I’m way late to this discussion but will chime in anyways. Regarding tones, they were never a huge problem for me, but I agree that instruction (at least in my american uni. classroom) was non-existent. In my third-year class we had plenty of white kids that were speaking jongwin, not 中文. God bless Chinesepod, though if we’re talking about classroom learning, I think that tones should only be stressed after 1-2 semesters, long after pronunciation is mastered. Has anyone ever done a ‘one tone at a time’ method, in which all four tones are slowly mastered, one by one, as students keep doing their reading/grammar/vocab? That may be an effective method. Nothing wrong with cutting back on vocab about the great wall or empress dowager cixi to make time for it.

  23. Kane 凯恩 Says: January 29, 2011 at 5:47 am

    I’m in my 4th semester of Chinese at the University of Central Oklahoma. I’m 38, having returned to school for a second bachelor’s degree.

    Both of my professors (as well as a history professor) are natives of Beijing. My Elementary Chinese professor has also taught in Italy, Austria, & Japan. Intermediate Chinese is taught by a business professor who used to work as a radio announcer in Beijing, so I know I’m hearing the standard of quality pronunciation (just like American Newscaster English). He even sounds better than the textbook CDs made in PRC.

    My (still deeply flawed) pronunciation is much more accurate than my other non-Chinese classmates, but that’s because I read online guides that explained the strange things that putonghua requires of your tongue & mouth. I went into class knowing I would need to listen carefully and that pinyin isn’t pronounced the way it looks to Americans.

    I think that Chinese phonetics shouldn’t be taught by native Chinese speakers unless they approach the issue as strict physiological phonetics. For the very beginning students, pronunciation would best be taught by someone who speaks the same first language as they & learned Chinese at about the same age as the students are now. Accent accuracy can be fine-tuned with native speakers in later semesters.

    None of my professors from China speak English without extremely thick accents & frequent grammatical errors (which I don’t hold against them – English is a bitch to learn, too). They don’t explain how Chinese feels different inside your mouth than English because they can’t. And no American student can pronounce Chinese accurately without having to fundamentally overhaul the ways their mouth moves. It’s like teaching models how to walk a runway; they have to get the posture, pace, & gesture a certain way that is very unnatural but must look effortless. You have to forget what you know, rewind back to before preschool, and start over. I had flashbacks of kindergarten reading instruction in my first semester, because that’s how basic I had to get.

    Also, since adults cannot automatically distinguish among sounds in languages they didn’t hear often as small children, they may not be able to perceive that, for example 少 and 小, or even 几 and 这, aren’t homophones. A well-traveled man in my class who speaks Spanish, French, Japanese, German, & Wolof (spoken in Senegal) proudly pronounces, for example, 是 as “shurr” and 学习 as “shway-shee”, with a bit of “let me show you kids how it’s done” attitude. I still have major difficulty distinguishing the sounds, but learning the feel of speaking them has helped a great deal.

    That’s what I’d do differently.

    • In slight defense of your classmate, the “shrr” pronunciation for “shi” is pretty common (particularly for males) in most of the northern half of the PRC.

      As for the shway shee…I feel the pain. I spent a year and a half saying shaw shee for xue xi and jway duh for jue de until I went to China.

      If I really take the time to notice my words, I’ll remember to say shweh-shee and jweh-duh, it’s just difficult to break the habit. And I’m considered to have very high level oral Chinese. Now if my listening just didn’t suck so much..

  24. I’m a rank beginner, so maybe I don’t have the right to speak. But I’m not sure I agree about the tones. If they are as important as pedagogues claim they are, then no one could possibly understand songs without printed lyrics. If I say my mother is coming for Christmas, nobody is going to expect a horse to ring the doorbell no matter how badly I mangle it.

    BUT, if you want to teach me the tones, let me listen to REAL Chinese and imitate it. I got 100% on identifying the tone in the samples on the DVD that came with my textbook. Then I was provided spoken sentences and asked to add the tone marks to the pinyin. I consistently got less than one-quarter. So stop giving students examples of tones that have absolutely NO similarity with real Chinese.

    • What’s the goal? To be able to identify tones — or to be able to understand words that happen to use those tones as a part of their phonetic makeup?

      The assessments that are given should reflect actual, useful components of Chinese that everyone needs to master. Only those who are going to be linguists really need to be able to mark tones on a speech sample, and they’re going to use equipment to make sure they get it right. How many native speakers of Minnan Chinese, for example, can tell you both how many tones it now has, and how they all change? Yet they use the language at a native level.

  25. I’ve been teaching Chinese to people of various ages for more than a decade using comprehensible input, focusing on the highest frequency vocabulary (and really, at the novice/intermediate levels, there is no need for a million-dollar corpus — any fluent speaker can figure out what is a frequent word and what isn’t, based on the group of people being taught.) After an intermediate-level learner has acquired all the structure of the language, they can easily go on to expand their vocabulary and repertoire.

    Tones — I don’t teach them overtly. Yet students acquire them. I use tonal spelling (Tonally Orthographic Pinyin, which does not mangle Pinyin spellings but marks tones in 3 redundant ways) and directional gestures (gestures which incorporate both a semantic and a tonal component and which are associated with new items). These are very powerful tools for boosting tonal performance and competence.

    We are also doing some very exciting things with reading, none of which involve counting ahead to figure out which sentence will be “yours”, looking up the unknown characters under your desk and preparing to read out loud (raise your hand if you’ve done that in a Chinese class…) 😉

    The biggest obstacle to “reforming” Chinese language instruction is inertia. By and large, people teach as they were taught, or teach as they were taught to teach. Few teachers have the time or inclination to look for a better way, especially when that involves reading research or thinking about “established” pedagogical issues from a completely new angle. This is not intended as a criticism of teachers — most of them have plenty on their plates already — but IMO it is a fact.

  26. […] something that require continued study well beyond a beginner stage. I agree with John Pasden’s critique of Chinese language education as assuming tones are a basic language feature, rather than something which can stymie even fairly […]

  27. I am developing an online Chinese-language learning program that makes heavy use of spoken Chinese sentences at both slow and fast speeds. I wouldn’t call it a corpus (yet), as I don’t have that many lessons, but I’ve made the lessons public to listen and practice. To wit:

    If you have any thoughts about if you find it useful or not, please contact me at Thanks for Sinosplice in general, it’s great reading.

  28. […] Pasden’s call for a public, large-scale corpus of spoken Mandarin gets a strong seconding from Sinoglot. The current corpuses/corpora are grossly […]

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