The Language Learning Process: Ep.1 Chinese


Kevin Chen: [Introduction] Hello! My name is Kevin Chen, and you’re listening to the Language Learning Podcast, a podcast about all the language learning programs at Saint Paul Academy. Today, we’ll be going on a deep dive into SPA’s Chinese program.

To begin, I’ll be interviewing one of the Chinese teachers, Ms. Wang.

Kevin Chen: You’re one of the Chinese teachers and what levels of Chinese do you teach?

Tian Wang: So I teach Upper School Chinese at SPA, and at SPA Upper School, we normally offer five levels, level one, level two, level three, level four, and advanced Chinese. This year I’m teaching levels one, three, and four, and advanced.

Kevin Chen: I see, and what are the kind of differences between each of the courses. I remember checking the website and seeing that in Advanced Chinese, you have to actually study specific texts such as the Zhenbang, and it relies more on cultural elements. So do you mind discussing those kinds of increments?

Tian Wang: So for me, I always want to provide authentic materials to my students. Based on their level, I’ll add more and more authentic materials throughout their years. For level one and through level four, we use textbooks for second language learners, like Integrated Chinese for Advanced Chinese, we use multiple novels, Chinese literature, and also movies.

Kevin Chen: That’s really interesting. And for the novels that you use, and I think the Advanced Chinese class do you use any of like them since I presume that since Advanced Chinese classes detail the culture, do you use specific novels such as the Four Classical novels of China such as you know, the Journey to the West, and I think the Dream of the Water Margin, or I think the Dream of–

Tian Wang: Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and the Three Kingdoms.

Kevin Chen: Yes, yeah.

Tian Wang: : Yeah, I appreciate that you have the knowledge of those books. Yes, that’s what we covered last year. Advanced Chinese we have a two-year program. So last year I, in our class, covered all those four books in two semesters. This year, we’re just kind of focusing on some of the philosophies, classical philosophies and modern philosophies.

Kevin Chen: So such as Confucianism and Taoism and such and such. And I guess what’s interesting about the specifics of I think Chinese is because I remember some of the classical novels or some of the I think texts for Confucianism. I think they’re not in, I think modern, like vernacular Chinese, they’re in Classical Chinese, which has this kind of like, as a lot of grammatical differences. It’s written in a much more condensed way, and I think each word is much more ambiguous. So how do you go about teaching the students about Classical Chinese?

Tian Wang: Yeah, usually, I will present the original texts. Those tests are even very difficult for native speakers. So I use other resources like movies and short videos. I tell stories that reflect those concepts to help them to understand.

Kevin Chen: Yes, and I guess less about the texts, how are the what kinds of movies? Do you have the students watch or videos? Do you have any modern Chinese movies?

Tian Wang: Like last year, when we talk about those Four Classical Novels, there are Chinese-produced and different versions of those books. So I just basically do episodes of those topics. And yeah, I have modern movies, also Chinese.

Kevin Chen: Yes. And with this kind of information. I presume that through this class, you exercise both speaking and writing. I’ve heard students say that a requirement to learn Chinese is the memorization of characters, and so students would often have assignments where they have to memorize a set number of characters per day. I think this is more prevalent in levels I, II, III, and IV. Do you mind explaining that in further detail?

Tian Wang: I mean, ideally, they should have a set of numbers of characters they should memorize. We’re not doing that everyday, but the goal is throughout different activities, they can get familiarized with characters. So sometimes we do character quizzes, which are very straightforward. Sometimes we read the news, trying to figure out which characters they know. And also watching movies while looking at subtitles, which is also a way for them to get to know the characters. It’s really up to students to take the effort to memorize characters. When I was in school in China, I wrote rows and rows of characters. I think our students need to do more.

Kevin Chen: Yes, and I think I remember an important aspect of Chinese that is somewhat unique is that there is a stroke order you need to do, and I remember when I learned a little bit of Chinese myself, though nowhere near as intense as like an actual school education, I remember those kinds of character sheets where there be like these boxes and ended up like being divided into like eight sections so you can get the spacing right. Do you do that thing?

Tian Wang: Yeah, for level one, we tried to introduce the concept of doing characters in the correct order. There are a lot of things, like, sometimes I just have to do because we have very limited time for doing language classes, as we only meet two or three times a day. So I need to do characters, stroke orders, I need to think about which one’s more important. So, maybe we just introduced the stroke orders and names, and we do a little bit, but we don’t really have time to drill that down all the time, we need to move forward. So I have to think about what to focus on in that class.

Kevin Chen: All right. And a bit of an obvious question, do you use Pinyin, correct? Because I remember when I learned Chinese as well, I think the majority of the sources I read were in Pinyin, and I was never able to read the Wade-Giles, which I think was a little bit stranger to me, and also Bopomofo which is purely syllables. And do you also–this is kind of silly– but do you do any kind of calligraphy, such as the formal ways of writing Chinese characters or even like different kinds of scripts like oracle bone or bronze seal?

Tian Wang: Yeah, we have calligraphy. That’s in our classrooms. So especially for level one students, we introduced that just having to get a sense of how formal Chinese writings are like. So yeah, we do that too.

Kevin Chen: [Transition] Next, I will be interviewing Advanced Chinese student Zoe Cheng-Pinto.

Kevin Chen: So you’re in I think, advanced Chinese and you’ve been in SPA language learning, studying Chinese since ninth grade. And you begin with I think the Chinese II, right?

Zoe Cheng Pinto: Chinese III.

Kevin Chen: Ah, Chinese III. So, what did the course progression look like?

And the framework of the textbook was just like a set of vocabulary that was pulled through like a story of these characters, and so like the different levels of textbooks, just continue stories about the characters that you got to know, which was fun.”

— Zoe Cheng Pinto

Zoe Cheng Pinto: So we started with this textbook and it came in like levels I, II, III, and IV. So we started with textbook III. And the framework of the textbook was just like a set of vocabulary that was pulled through like a story of these characters, and so like the different levels of textbooks, just continue stories about the characters that you got to know, which was fun. And I think it made it a pretty smooth transition between Chinese III and IV. Because it’s basically the same structure, it’s just maybe more advanced vocabulary. And then this year, it’s been a little bit weird because we’ve had a substitute because Wang Laoshi’s on maternity leave, but I think that the choice to, you know, do something a little bit more difficult, you know, sort of the textbooks, now we have– they are called Tales and Traditions, you know, those ones? They have like adaptations, but, like, simplified versions of Classical Chinese literature, and I think that’s definitely a little bit more challenging than the stuff we’ve done before. But it’s, I think that’s appropriate for Advanced Chinese. So I’d say it’s a pretty good transition between the levels.

Kevin Chen: Yes, thank you. And for the course content specifically, what do you do to learn, I think, specific technical aspects of Chinese. Do you use flashcards or quizzes on numerous specific characters? Do you have any calligraphy activities? I think Ms. Wang told me that there are activities to do calligraphy so you can learn the stroke order. And how do you learn the grammar?

Zoe Cheng Pinto: I think, at least the grammar part is pretty intuitive. But we have done, like, sentence structure, projects and presentations. But also, as somebody who grew up speaking Chinese, I think that maybe that part is less difficult than maybe the reading and writing and memorizing characters. And for that, I mean, you know, you just write the same character many, many, many times, so you remember it. Yeah, we use Quizlet a lot in class and do, like, Quizlet live to help. We’ll have a fun activity for memorizing characters. Yeah, mostly just writing it a lot. And then sometimes presentations.

Kevin Chen: Yes. And I guess as you transition from, I think the Chinese levels I through IV to Advanced Chinese, from these you learn a bit more of the cultural aspects or more about the culture of China itself. All the ones I do more activities are based on, like, important documents or movies. So how has that experience been for you?

Zoe Cheng Pinto: Well, I think right now, we’ve been reading A Q Zhen Zhuan, which is very much about Chinese culture, like, you know, leading up to the revolution. So we’ve been talking about that, just so that we’d have a context for that and about society and also sometimes we, like, watch videos in Chinese or like, you know, South China Morning Post or something.

Kevin Chen: [Transition] Finally, I’ll be interviewing a Chinese student who takes two other language courses at SPA, Olivia Szaj.

Kevin Chen: So you’re in I think Chinese level IV, Advanced Spanish, and German level…

Olivia Szaj: German level I.

Kevin Chen: And so in Chinese, what kind of material is in the textbooks or also gone over in class? I remember in Spanish, we had this whole entire theme of either being in the environment or stuff with the UN and so and so.

Olivia Szaj: Yeah! In Chinese IV, we are using an IC book for level IV, which I believe is college level, which makes me feel very good about my language skills. Um, and we are also learning about the cities and like the world around us and stuff like that, which is super cool.

Kevin Chen: Yes. And I think on the more specific end of assignments, I remember that teaching in SPA heavily revolves around character memorization, because that’s, I think, a heavy part of Chinese itself. And so what are your experiences with that?

Olivia Szaj: With memorization?

Kevin Chen: Yeah, characters.

But over time, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it. I pick up characters easier because I also recognize the radicals more frequently. And it’s also really cool to see words in Chinese and Spanish and German that like, align with each other.”

— Olivia Szaj

Olivia Szaj: Um, I have found that I’ve gotten a lot better at it over time. My freshman year when I was taking Chinese I, well, first of all, I was putting three years of middle school into one year of high school. So that was not ideal. But over time, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it. I pick up characters easier because I also recognize the radicals more frequently. And it’s also really cool to see words in Chinese and Spanish and German that like, align with each other.

Kevin Chen: That’s so I guess, how is the speaking because, once again, I think immersion is like a key factor in language learning. So how often do you speak? Is it like completely in Chinese and alongside like, not even like, no written English, just solely Chinese as well, or is it not that strict?

Olivia Szaj: All my language classes are immersion. So as you would know, in Spanish class, we only speak in Spanish, or we’re supposed to at least. In Chinese class, we only speak Chinese. And in German class, we only speak in German. I found that to be the most difficult when I was first learning Chinese because I didn’t know anything or what anything meant. Like, with German you can kind of assume things and it’s the same with Spanish but in Chinese, like I just felt like I was a fish out of water.

Kevin Chen: Yeah, there’s absolutely no connections, because they’re completely different families. So yeah. And what have been the more cultural aspects? I remember when I interviewed Ms. Wang, she discussed in Advanced Chinese, you also get to learn about more cultural aspects and I think that was also present in the SPA course description. So is there that kind of cultural aspect, when you are in Chinese level IV mainly like, you know, specific bits and pieces?

Olivia Szaj: I don’t know if I’ve learned that much about culture in China. I think Ms. Wang has done an excellent job of teaching us things but I’ve been a little more focused on just learning the language aspect because it is so much–it’s so different from the languages I’ve already learned. And then in Spanish, obviously, right now we’re taking a class about culture in Spain. And then in German, you can tell with the language itself that’s a lot more direct than English is. Because also in Germany, people are a lot more direct than they are in the US, or at least according to my German teacher, that’s what she’s experienced.

Kevin Chen: Well, that’s all for the Language Learning Podcast. See you next time!