The Challenges Chinese Teachers Face in the USA

The worldwide boom in Chinese study has resulted in a greater demand for Chinese teachers. China is the natural supply, and thus the Chinese government is working hard to train teachers and send them abroad to teach. I’ve heard from numerous sources (including people in the Hanban, an organization which oversees the governments efforts at teaching the world Chinese) that schools are often disappointed with the Chinese teachers sent to them. American schools feel that while the teachers may know about the Chinese language, they are much too traditional in their teaching styles. They just don’t connect with American students very well.

It was interesting, then, to get the other side of the story. ChinaGeeks recently wrote about Teaching Chinese (and China) in the United States, and linked to a great New York Times article: Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America. C. Custer makes some great observations, and his article is well worth a read.

Reading the NYTimes article, Ms. Zheng’s disappointment and frustration is palpable. Clearly, culture is a huge issue; the challenges faced cannot be explained away by outdated teaching methodologies.

> Still, Ms. Zheng said she believed that teachers got little respect in America.

> “This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

And yes, there are also a few ironies in this article that anyone familiar with China will appreciate.


John Pasden

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


  1. Hahaha… get the feeling Ms. Zheng has been ‘out of China’ far too long to remember what it’s actually like (and she’s never been to SH in her life?) ? 😛

    Anyway, to anyone studying in the USA, good luck… Unless you live in NYC or the Bay Area.. you’re probably going to be hard to get Chinese IMMERSION, which is when your language study really kicks into high gear (eg. come to China, pick a mid-sized city, and you’ll learn Chinese in a year).

    ‘Appealing to Americans’ isn’t the teachers job, especially when the culture/language of China are so entwined and vastly different from Western ‘logic’. It’s tough.

    • Mike:

      Actually if you do a search – Google or even the Asia Society’s list of Chinese schools – you’ll find an ever-increasing number of immersion programs outside of NYC or the Bay Area.

      We started one three years ago in a rural part of the country in a community without a large Chinese population. It enrolls 40 new kindergartners in the program each year (grows a grade a year) and has a wait list of over 70 children every year.

      You’re right – immersion is the best way to learn Chinese – especially at a young age. Thankfully, many people in the US are starting to realize that fact!

  2. Harland Says: May 13, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Disrespect for authority is an American institution. It’s what made us different from the British. Chinese teachers are just going to have to get used to it, much like Americans in China just have to get used to not shouting when they don’t get a perfectly customized burger at Burger King.

  3. Jaques Aandy Says: May 14, 2010 at 12:55 am

    When my daughter was 13, she attended Beijing55 Middle School. She didn’t know a word of Chinese, but this American girl was fluently conversing as well as reading and writing in Chinese after only 5 months of immersion learning (for the first 5 months, they studied only 3 subjects -all in Chinese of course-, math, physics, and language). She wasn’t the only one that did well. Whatever method they used, must have still appealed to the Americans (and other foreigners) in class. They all did very well.

    On the other hand, even with all her great aptitude for languages, after 4 years of Spanish in American high schools, her Spanish (though OK)is pathetic compared to her un-maintained, un-practiced Chinese.

    I guess what I meant to say, that some teachers of Chinese are great at what they do regardless of the cultural differences between them and their students.

    • @Jacques

      At 13 a child is still (but just barely) in the “critical period” where they can pick up language without being taught. At this age, the best thing to do is just throw them into the water and let them figure out how to swim themselves. If your daughter had been 18, the results would have been quite different. How old was she when she studied Spanish? When I was in school in the US in the 80’s/90’s my district didn’t even offer foreign language until eighth grade, right when we were just passed the optimal time to learn language. Hopefully things have changed since then.

      • Justin Hong Says: May 16, 2010 at 2:06 am

        Sink or swim, really. Five months of nothing but Chinese at school where your entire academic existence depends on your learning the language vs. 4 years of just one elective class of Spanish; there’s simply no competition. I’d say THAT’S more of the deciding factor than any “critical period” in play here.

      • Jaques Aandy Says: May 22, 2010 at 5:15 am

        hi Ben. I agree with you. She was almost a couple of years older when we returned to the US.

        Still I find very few students in the US with good foreign language proficiency even after many years of taking it in junior high and high school (and college), unless they were very motivated individuals or went to charter/immersion or specially good schools. I don’t think we have been paying enough attention to teaching /learning foreign languages in our schools.

  4. Great, it’s the topic that I’m very interested in too as an Mandarin teacher.

  5. Money worshipping is more than alive and well in Shenzhen…

  6. It’s interesting to read these opinions as my wife studies to get her teaching license in the states. She complained about a few of her classmates not using standard pronunciation and providing inaccurate cultural views (mostly from classmates who haven’t lived in China for 20+ years).

    And licensed teachers in public schools get decent salaries in the US–especially if they have a master’s degree.

  7. @Jacques

    I think you’ve definitely touched on the problem. Most foreign language learning in the US is pretty worthless. But I think that part of the strategy needs to be greater emphasis placed on foreign language in elementary school and preschool. China is doing this now with its children (the wealthy ones at least), and it will be interesting to follow these kids as they progress through the educational system.

Leave a Reply