What I wish my Chinese teacher knew

One of the things we do at AllSet Learning in Shanghai is to continually train our teachers. Of course it’s not that our teachers have no training; in fact, many of them have masters degrees and many years of teaching experience. The issue is that many of the academic degrees and classroom teaching experience attained in China draw on an outdated teaching tradition, largely a variation of how the Chinese educational system teaches Chinese children.


Add to that the fact that our service is based on deep personalization for individual learners, each with her own goals, needs, interests, and quirks, and you pretty much have an endless bounty of teaching issues to discuss and improve upon.

As a result, we’ve been sharing some of our ideals, methods, and tips with our teachers in Chinese on WeChat. Then we also post a lot of the same material to our own blog. Some articles come from old Sinosplice posts (like this one), sharing the foreign learner perspective with Chinese teachers (like this one), while others share more specific teaching tips. (We have a number of articles of this type which haven’t yet been ported from WeChat.)

The point of this post is to ask the question: What do you wish your Chinese teacher knew? I’d be happy to make it into a topic that we address in Chinese in a constructive way, and share online.

Obviously, we’re not talking about politics or cultural differences. It’s issues like:

  1. I know my tones suck; why won’t you correct me more?
  2. I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…
  3. If you’re my Chinese teacher, why do you ask me to call you “Sunny” instead of something Chinese?
  4. This textbook doesn’t even have the word for “cell phone” in it… why can’t we update?

Please share your ideas in the comments, or on Facebook, or whatever. All constructive feedback welcome! This is about working to improve the situation, not simply whining.


John Pasden

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


  1. Stavros Says: July 14, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    My regrets are not so much what a teacher knew. After all, Chinese is their language and China is their culture. They are the ones who have the most intimate knowledge. I have met ones who had a vast knowledge of my own language and culture. For me, it is more about attitude. In other words, I wished the Chinese teachers I dealt with were more informed of their prejudices and biases, all of which – as cognitive psychology is revealing – we are unaware of. I wish my Chinese teachers had the following attitude:

    “I believe with the right guidance any person who applies themselves, regardless of cultural background, can learn Chinese as a communicative language. All students are different. They have different needs and learning styles. I will assess and monitor accordingly, using both my background in teaching and in-depth knowledge of the culture to make decision related to my teaching and how I choose to act with a particular student according their needs.

    “As a Chinese teacher I am proud of my cultural heritage. As a person, I have dignity and integrity and I expect to be respected by students for giving them the guidance they most require. I am not in awe of foreigners or do I feel inferior to them. At the same I do not feel superior to them. I understand that sensitive topics will come up. I am prepared to deal with them and I will take them as learning experiences. It is up to my discretion whether we discuss them or not. Most Westerners are culturally ignorant about China, and it is my hope I have both the intelligence and confidence to inform them how to express matters of a sensitive nature – or any nature for that matter – in a culturally acceptable manner. I have the hope that my students can be both linguistically competent as well as culturally sensitive.

    “As a Chinese teacher I will encourage my students to constantly use the target language and create language learning opportunities as much as possible. At the same time, I will accept English being used for clarification purposes but only as briefly as possible as I understand that the student has limited time with me and they might lack more willing listeners. They need all the practice they can get. I will accept English in the early stages, but with more advanced students MOST of the learning can be conducted within the target language. Remember, its my job to hold the students to a higher standard.

    “English is a big part of life in the new China. Students who have made the conscious decision to learn Chinese must learn to accept it. Yes I agree, a good many Chinese insist on speaking the language and continually will act dumb no matter what you say in either English or Chinese. This also applies to whether or not your Chinese is better than their English. Always remember, you have a choice in this situation. Everything depends on how you choose to react. Rest assured for students who insist on only using the target the language during teaching time, I am happy to oblige. As for people on the street, the only advice I can offer is that nobody owes you anything. Remember, English – perhaps in merely a hybrid form – is a big part of the new China.

    “I will use interactive methods, not simply expecting students to recite a text, and I will attempt to vary the methods, assessing if they are suitable or not and always trying to improve my own teaching. But at the same time, I do expect a student to accept my methods.

    “Chinese has become an international language in the Asia/Pacific area, which also includes English speaking countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Learners must have acceptable pronunciation, and I will give the best feedback I can.

    “Because of the above I will disregard old notions about “not getting it”, and I will believe in progressive ideas that complement language learning.

    “Character learning martyrdom is dead and buried. Within six months a Westerner who’s mother language has roman script can all learn 3000 characters. The last 1000 will be hard due to their lack of frequency.

    “In conjunction with learning characters, a student must learn the tones for a lengthy period of time. During this time they are given very specific feedback and correction, to the extent they may give up on the language. But they are constantly reminded that learning tones is non-negotiable as proper pronunciation hinges on it.”

  2. For me I think one of the really big issues I hit on was that the Chinese I was learning was phrases I never, ever used in real life.

    The classic is, of course, 你好吗? I could have done with knowing how Chinese people naturally greet each other if they bump into each other in the lift/going in and out of their apartment/in the street etc – all the 去买东西啊?出去啊?下班啦?吃饭了吗? that I hear all the time.

    I could have done with not having my dialogues based on a western situation – I want to know what to say at the public security bureau, when I’m haggling in a shop, phoning up to get a courier for work, what on earth I say in these endless toasts with clients etc etc.

    I would be delighted for my teacher to have known that all 外国人 are not the same and that 国外 is a big old place. I, as a British learner of Chinese, have different difficulties from my European friends. Even between me and an American, there are differences – I have to get rid of a very indirect way of speaking and writing (I was just wondering if you could perhaps help me with…. Would you be so kind as to X? or the classic ‘you must come round = please never set foot in my house again’) that some regions of other Anglophone countries don’t have. Equally, I find Americans find 面子 sometimes a little more difficult to adapt to. Language-learning is probably 70% language, 30% social custom-learning. And by that I mean actual social customs, not in 我们中国 we all have a 茶海 that we pour our tea over every evening before serving a cup and so on. We’re all guilty of it – I find myself telling foreigners that taking afternoon tea is a British custom, but that doesn’t reflect reality.

    Also, the great, mysterious and seemingly unanswerable question of living in China: Why is there a bucket in every Chinese person’s bathroom and what is it for? ;P

    • frankfurt Says: July 22, 2016 at 6:08 am

      ni hao ma is important
      its the polite way to speak
      what your neighbours say is on another level
      when you are in the “inner circle” with

    • Steve Gordon Says: July 25, 2016 at 10:07 am

      Buckets or basins are often kept in the bathroom. Have you ever seen people in some old streets washing their face using a basin? Buckets are often used to wash feet, keep water then use it for flushing the toilets. Just habits. Well at least it saves water and this is great 🙂

  3. David Marjanović Says: July 15, 2016 at 4:43 am

    2. I really don’t think I need to be able to hand-write 2000 characters…

    Are there people who are able to read 2000 characters without being able to hand-write most of them? I, for one, probably couldn’t pull this off; I wouldn’t learn the characters in enough detail to tell them apart from similar characters.

    Disclaimer: I’ve only ever learned a few hundred, and have (to varying degrees) forgotten most of those.

  4. 1. Systemic study of how to write the most common Chinese characters, including correct pinyin, should start immediately and continue until competency.

    2. Requirement to routinely read out loud using Pinyin for as long as it takes to complete item 1 listed above.

    3. Compose classes and class material based on each individual issue: i) listening; ii) speaking; iii) reading; iv) writing.

  5. “Within six months a Westerner who’s mother language has roman script can all learn 3000 characters. The last 1000 will be hard due to their lack of frequency.”

    Holy frijoles! Almost 20 new characters per day? Sorry, not buying it.

  6. I have had many Chinese teachers in my six years of studying Mandarin. The majority of them were one on one teachers. I wish that my initial teachers had the linguistic awareness to teach pronunciation properly. Namely being able to accurately describe the tongue and mouth positions of the ji, qi, xi, yu, sounds.

    My initial teachers would simply demonstrate the sound a number of times asking me to repeat before saying that ‘I needed to keep trying’ and giving up. The same as the third tone, it needs to be accurately described in order for most students to perform it accurately.

    Secondly, I believe that some teachers need to understand that ‘less is more.’ I would rather my teachers let me practice a handful of new words, phrases and situations in depth and send me into the world with confidence using them, rather than feeling that it is acceptable for them to be explained once, read aloud and used in a questions once without any repetition.

    I wish that someone in the publishing world developed controlled communicative practice activities for Chinese such as those that exist in the teachers manuals for many ESL textbooks.

  7. Some of my teachers from back when I first started learning were actually very good, but others didn’t really seem to “do” anything in class. They just went through the textbook step by step, and if there was still time left over at the end they’d just have us repeat an exercise or recite the text again. I couldn’t get over the feeling that there was little point in actually having a teacher, as I could have almost done the same lesson on my own (our books had audio CDs for listening). I’ve met more than a few western English teachers here who do the same thing, and I admit I’ve even done it myself before. A complete lesson needs more than just a textbook however, and I wish more teachers (whatever their nationality or side of the language spectrum) would realize that the book is meant to supplement the lesson, not BE it.

  8. After studying Chinese for some time with lots of different teachers, I have one amazing teacher. These are the qualities that make her stand out:

    1. She is open, flexible and encourages you to be interactive (other teachers I have had just stick to one method regardless of whether it is working or not. I have also had teachers who feel challenged when students ask questions and who don’t include any real interactive elements in their lessons. Reading dialogue out from a text book is not interactive).

    2. She explains things simply and accurately with lots of examples (for me the best way of learning is through examples rather than complex explanations. I can’t tell you how many Chinese teachers I have had who have been unable to explain Chinese grammar or concepts in a way that is easy to understand).

    3. This is something that is probably more down to her circumstances, but she has a really in-depth understanding of English speakers and is able to see things from a English speaker’s perspective. This is not something I have come across in any of my other Chinese teachers (probably due to their circumstances).

    4. Finally, she has a great sense of humour. This really helps as our lessons are always entertaining and enjoyable which makes me want to come back for more.

  9. Lantian’s Laoshi Laments

    1. Remember new words that you’ve taught me, and keep re-inserting them into phrases as we speak. Keep doing this over and over, I won’t get bored. Make my memorization easier, not harder. I realize that’s very anti-Chinese traditional teaching establishment thinking!

    2. My tones suck, I know. You don’t have to remind me. Instead, you can say the tone more clearly, slowly, quickly, several times, just part of the process. Let me garble-attempt it a few times, and then after about 10 minutes, sneak it in again. I will garble it again. Repeat it again for me, at a normal pace, just let me hear it again and again. Pause to let me lamely attempt it again…and again.

    3. I’m not going to remember any chengyu that has four or more totally new characters. We might focus on one for fun and cultural insight, but I won’t have much opportunity to use it in the real world after class. This means I’ll forget it.

    4. If I am making a consistent grammar mistake, or pattern that is wrong. Let’s go over it in detail, teach me the correct grammar. Give me additional sentences using that grammar. And then we move on. When I repeat the old pattern in conversation again, just use the proper pattern, *wink* at me, pause, let me digest, let me try to rephrase.

    5. In a conversation, you see my eyes glaze over, you know you’ve used too many new words that I don’t know. Pause. Rephrase the idea so that a four year old would understand. Let me reply back to you at this same level. Then push up the level again and use the advanced language again, I’ll probably “hear” just a bit more, and thus increment higher.

    6. If you’re talking a lot more than me, then I’m not really retaining much.

    7. If you don’t repeat what I learned in the previous class a few days ago, don’t expect me to remember it three weeks later.

    8. I like talking, discussing, writing, composing, texting, calligraphy, hanzi, jokes, etc. I don’t find any to be particularly hard, not that I’m good at any of it! Ever see a five-year old’s handwriting, yup I’m just as challenged. And I’m not going to go to school everyday for the foreseeable future!

    9. I don’t really need an explanation in English, I pretty much understand the world really well already in English. I would like to understand “in Chinese.” This may frustrate and challenge your creativity!

    10. I like honest, personalized feedback. For example, you’re speaking faster lately. Or, I hear you using words, X, Y, Z lately. Very good. Try saying ABC, instead of CBS, it’ll sound better.

    I don’t want to hear: Your Chinese is great! Your Chinese is terrible. How long have you studied Chinese? Your pronunciation sounds like a foreigner, from Hong Kong, Xinjian. You should learn more Chengyu.

    Happy new year 2017!

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