Learning Mandarin Chinese

This January I was given the opportunity to take up Mandarin Chinese for 10 weeks, with the University of Cumbria, in conjunction with the Confucius Institute at UCLan. I began the course with a colleague in my department – both of us speak Spanish and French. The course is designed for MFL teachers, so we were expecting a fairly fast paced course, but nothing could have prepared us for what we have encountered in the last three classes!

Our classes are led by Feixia Yu (or Yu Feixia as they would say in Chinese), the Director of the UCLan Confucius Instutute and Paul Livesy, a fluent Chinese speaker and we are using the BBC Active Talk Mandarin Chinese book and CDs which I have found further materials from the BBC on their website:  resources available online and interactive BBC materials. Our classes last two hours on a Wednesday evening and we tend to do language for approximately two-thirds of the lesson, and then we are taught about Chinese Culture for the rest of the lesson.

So far we have covered basic greetings, numbers (which inevitably includes dates, months and years), pronunciation, nationalities and  countries and jobs.

The hardest thing by far with this language is the lack of cognates which have always been my crutch as a languages teacher. Through using similar words and plenty of mimes my students tend to get the gist of what is happening, but with Chinese, I rarely catch any cognates and often feel quite out of my depth as a learner! At least I get to be put in the position of a learner again as it is always useful to remember what it is like to be in a foreign language classroom and to not understand a thing.

Actually, the hardest thing about Mandarin Chinese has to be the pronunciation: it is made up of various tones, which are represented by accents on the vowels. With learning to speak Chinese we are not really focussed on learning any characters, as they do not tend to tell you how to pronounce the word – instead, we see the word written in pinyin (which is the word written in letters) and most letters are pronounced the same as English, except for these:

c – pronounced like ‘ts’

q – pronounced like ‘ch’

x – pronounced like ‘sh’

z – pronounced likde ‘ds’

and zh – pronounced like ‘dge’

This approximation of pronunciation comes from the BBC book, but is quite hard to do, especially as we have been taught that c, j and x all take a slightly different sound, depending upon the proceeding vowel. Oh, and we keep getting told to curl our tongues back too to help with correct pronunciation. Yikes.

As I briefly mentioned, Chinese has tones, which can affect the meaning of a word. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese. The first tone is written with flat line above it, like on this ā, and is a high pitch, flat and steady tone. The second is a rising tone, and will be written á. The third is a falling then rising tone and is written ă and the fourth tone is a falling tone written à. A syllable without a tone is pronounced neutrally or without emphasis. confused yet? Try saying the following with the correct tones and play the ‘starter’ video on the BBC site to see if you were correct:

Nĭ hăo – hello

Nĭ hăo ma? – how are you?

Hĕn hăo – I’m very well.

Xièxie – thank you.

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The Digital Languages Lab

You remember the old languages lab don’t you? The big room, with the individual booths where pupils put on their headsets and listen to the audio recorded to the cassette in the booth?

Really? You still remember them? Gosh, your memory is good.

The department of which I am head embraces using technology in the classroom, and we are part of a school that is lucky enough to have Promethean IWBs aplenty plus lots of ICT support from the UCST/ULT group that we are part of. We are proud of our use of technology, and I know that many of us love to use engaging new technology in the classroom – in fact, today, I covered an ICT lesson for a colleague and found Year 9 creating Prezi’s on the future of technology. Cool!

So, languages labs. Unfortunately, our languages lab is approximately 18 years old, and, by machine standards, it is as they say “past it”. In fact, it is far beyond that – it is dead. As a dodo. Summer 2009 was the last chance for us to be able to use cassettes for the listening part of the A Level examination, and, with the new specification course we will never have cassettes again. In fact, this summer we caused a wee bit of chaos for the examinations officer as he tried to ensure that we had sufficient ICT bookings for the required time sand days, so this term he has been kind enough to purchase mp3 players for the department. This allows the pupils to do a listening exercise in lessons and get used to the machines,  before putting them to use in the exams.

For a long time, we have been considering a new digital languages lab, but, for one reason or another, it is still not a possibility. We have the space, but the new equipment and furniture, along with the software would cost a pretty penny, so for now, I am considering other options.

Earlier, I tweeted out to my PLN a question where I asked for an estimation for how much a digital lab would cost, and in amongst the replies came plenty of other ideas to avoid the purchase of such a lab, which got me thinking. Why do we want a digital languages lab? My predecessor wrote the following a few years ago:

  • Essential replacement for worn out existing language lab.
  • Necessary for external examinations.
  • local competing schools all have new ‘labs’, giving them a facilities edge
  • Software permits transfer of all analogue audio to digital format: this can then be made available to pupils via the new Learning Platform as well as be accessed directly by staff in each classroom (equipped with speakers) – this makes the cumbersome cassette players obsolete and vastly improves sound quality and ease of use for staff.
  • Pupils can work individually with downloaded video clips, web-based exercises and interactive multi-media tasks – this is particularly beneficial for VI form students, for whom exercises involving the latest news clips can easily be created.
  • The suite fully complements the new Learning Platform, since it encourages pupils to use their own area as a digital resource bank, accessible from anywhere.
  • Pupils will be able far more easily to chat online (in Target Language) and video conference with link schools regionally and abroad.
  • Pupils would be able to create their own audio files, recording their own answers to departmental questions and be able to upload them to use in a variety of ways.
  • Nationally ‘mfl’ is at the vanguard of the educational digital revolution, since the subject’s very content matter must reflect contemporary society and be authentic (the latter especially has been placed in a whole new sphere by the Internet age) – our mfl department is a digital department and has often been the first to implement new ICT technologies (interactive boards, data projectors, network based internal management, audio files on the shared area…), yet we are now stalling since we are unable to take the next step to integrate multi media resources and expand pupil and staff access without the new software and a specific ICT suite.
  • Given the current staff in the department, we are ideally placed to progress with this.
  • The ICT suite would be available for other departments, again complementing the whole school ICT development plan

So – as you can see, plenty of reasons for the provision of such a lab. But maybe we are being narrow minded by enclosing our learning space in a room? In fact, are ICT rooms becoming obsolete? Should we be considering the use of netbooks or laptops for each pupil? Or at least to have class sets available for regular use in each department? I know this is something that some schools do, but when considering my school and the layout of my department I over two floors wonder if this is a valid option?

@tomsale suggested the use of iPods with iTalks, all of which can be put online and on the school VLE. In fact an iPod Touch or iPhone, combined with internet access could provide many of the things we need, however, I worry that there would still be times where we would like to have access to a full size screen and keyboard, for example, when doing a piece of writing. I think there would be other issues with having a class set of iPods, such as, how to add things quickly and effectively, adding new apps in order to take advantage of tools such as voice recording etc. I have often thought it is a shame to ‘waste’ the technology most pupils have sitting in their pockets. They tend to have the latest phones, or at least have the ability with their phone not only to voice or video record, but to access the internet. Unfortunately, by pupils using their own technology they can often be tempted to use the tool for other, non-educational uses – such as texting their friends – when they should be doing a piece of work, so for now, I think this idea is not feasible.

I apologise now if my writing has become a bit rambling, but I have begun to write what I am thinking, and the thought I have now is that actually, a computer is still the best option. It would enable me and my pupils to have access to the teaching and learning tools that we require, but why should we make these computers permanently stuck to a desk? A trolley full of computers that can be connected wirelessly to the school network and internet would allow us to do nearly everything we would also want from a languages lab, plus a whole lot more (if the network filters aren’t too strict!). The only thing left to consider is how to record all of the cassettes that are gathering dust on the shelves without it taking a very, very, very long time? In fact, do we even need any of those cassettes anymore?

What do you think?

Why reinstate the compulsory teaching of modern foreign languages up to the age of 16?

I recently re-tweeted a link from a twitter contact urging people to sign the petition to reinstate the compulsary teaching of modern foreign languages up to the age of 16 and withing moments I received a message from another contact asking me why I believe this, which  has led to this blog post.

Twitter  @spanishsam - Mozilla Firefox 01092009 203719.bmpFirstly, let me  offer the quote directly from the petition’s page: “The government dropped the requirement to teach foreign languages to all children up to the age of 16 in 2002. As a result there has been a dramatic fall in pupils taking these subjects. This leads to a catastrophic loss of international understanding, cultural enjoyment and business competitiveness. We believe that all school students deserve to gain an understanding of the world outside these shores and a chance to communicate with others. In addition we believe this will improve students’ confidence, increase tolerance and enable more students to gain access to international jobs. This will help to enable young people to improve their lives by introducing them to the joys of other cultures.”

I wholely support the above statement as I truely believe that learning a language gives pupils the opportunity to improve their lives by developing their level of self-awareness and their understanding of others, whilst giving them what could be considered a life-changing skill. It certainly was for me. Most passionate teachers are not just passionate about teaching, but they are also passionate about their subject. On a personal level, Spanish is my passion, it is my fire, it is my creativity. Without Spanish my life would have been completely different and I would certainly have never become a teacher. In fact, my degree is in Accounting & Finance & Spanish. Take out the language and where would I be? Bored? In an office? With it, I am in an ever-changing environment that challenges me, stretches me and enthuses me everyday, whilst still allowing me to carry on the with the subject that I continued with to university level simply because I enjoyed it.

I recognise that not everyone will wish to continue with a language to A Level or beyond, however the skills that language learning produce in a human being a boundless. One could argue that it is one of the first things we learn to do in our lives: communicate. Language acquisition in a child is a remarkable thing to see develop, and it is also remarkable to see this development in the languages learned later in life. One of my pedagogical beliefs is to use and encourage the use of target language as much as possible in the classroom, in an attempt to simulate the language acquisition that every person goes through in their life. Learning a second language as a child or young teenager can improve development and awareness of words. Learning a language, such as Spanish, can be such a useful experience for pupils who struggle with the complex and often conflicting rules of spelling and pronunciation in English, and through learning this second language they become more aware of the structure of their own language, thereby offering support to difficulties encountered in English or literacy.

Having the opportunity to learn a language to the age of 16 is not about becoming fluent – after all, we do not expect mathematicians or physicists to be able to do complex equations or experiements to this age. Learning a language to the age of 16 is about awareness. Awareness of one’s own culture and other’s. Awareness of the country in which we live and the diversity it offers, combined with awareness of the wider world. Awareness of language and words combined with awareness of communication. The world that we live in today is becoming smaller and smaller as advances in technology and transport shorten the bridges to cross in order to reach different places. Not only do we need to be able to communicate effectively in this wider world (and who is to say that this should be done in English?) but we also need to be aware of the cultural differences that each place has to offer. Learning a language to GCSE level will offer pupils an insight into these cultural differences – they can learn about the different ways that Christmas can be celebrated, they can find out more about religion and the impact it has on society, or they can gain pleasure from watching a film or listening to music in a foreign language.

In the global community that we are building, knowing another language can open so many doors both socially and professionally. The nature of the global changes taking place means that in order for Britain to continue to be a ‘respected’ member of this community we need people to represent us. Do we really wish to be represented as lager swilling hooligans at football matches?

If you need any further reasons as to why language learning can be so important, then look at this excellent previous entry to the LAFTA competition: