Chinese Lessons on Language Learning

by multilingualmania on December 14, 2010

in Bilingualism

student teacher

You can’t escape China news recently. Although there is an undercurrent concerned with mutual understanding in the stream of reports, language issues only surface in two ways: Americans seem to see Chinese language skills as one of those exotic skills which the young should (and may not, as this article discussed) gain to prepare for the future; and sometimes one hears about China being the country with the largest number of English (as foreign language) speakers – or at least, learners. Just recently, Chinese education also made it into the news because Shanghai students participated in the OECD’s PISA (Program of International Student Assessment) test and ranked at the very top, “stun[ning] educators,” as the New York Times put it. A view from China shows both lessons to learn, and problems not to deny.

China does have a very strong educational tradition. In Confucianism, learning is seen as a path towards improvement; during imperial times, the exam for entrance into a bureaucrat position was the main road to social advancement. Even in modern times, the college entrance exam (GaoKao) is a major event in a student’s life.

One finds both positive and negative sides of China’s focus on studies. Learned persons are held in high esteem, but practical matters – read: money – have come to such prominence that the pursuit of education has turned into a pursuit of certificates. Thus, even languages are learned not as much to communicate as to gain degrees. Only too often, students ask for – and study – strategies for the tests they want to take, learn vocabulary lists by heart which just proceed alphabetically, no matter the level or usefulness of the words in question. Grammar exercises and lists of vocabulary thus become well-known, but active use of the language remains far behind passive and (maybe) translation skills. This tendency is exacerbated by the high preference for “book learning” and learning by heart. It goes to the point where students measure their academic earnestness by the number of hours they spend in a classroom “reciting” their textbooks – it is certainly not a coincidence that one of the Chinese words for “study, attend school” (du shu) also, and literally, means “to read books.”

Obviously, however, there are not just problems. In fact, the great support given to learning as a means of social advancement – and the extreme pressure that accompanies school life in China because of it – also has positive effects, as seen in the Shanghai students’ fabulously high scores on PISA. (These do have to be taken seriously, but with a grain of salt, as James Fallows points out.)

Especially for a learner of Chinese, a language which requires you to put in hours and hours of practice if you ever want to become able to read and write, it is a very necessary lesson. Where “Western” language education has come to focus on communicative, especially speaking, skills and produces people who are well capable of brattling on about things that interest them, Chinese education brings about students who can certainly read well, may be able to write quite well – and certainly tend to do good on standardized tests – but are at a loss when it comes to spoken words.

Interestingly, this problem comes about even though the tradition of studying by constant repetition is one of recital in the truest sense of the word: oftentimes, lessons are repeated and prepared by reading them out loud; sometimes in the classroom, often walking in the park. In the extreme, Li Yang has made a fortune advocating “Crazy English,” where the language is supposed to be learned by shouting word lists and reciting texts as loud (and oftentimes, as fast) as possible. Again, it is not the worst advice for language students to practice by reading aloud. And again, Chinese itself is a case in point: as it is a tonal language (where different ways of speaking the same sound have different meanings), it is essential to speak aloud – but it is not enough only to repeat set patterns, of course.

In the end, as happens so often, the best and most difficult lesson to learn is that it takes balance. Having fun learning a language is great, but can only take you so far. Without proper discipline, you will not get to a decent level. At the same time, only putting in hour upon hour of disciplined practice without actually having fun just experimenting with using the language will not lead to competence, either. Only a balanced approach will let you advance in all skill sets it takes – but maybe that should include shouting in the park as well as chatting with foreign language speakers.

About the Author: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is an independent scholar with a background in ecology and cultural anthropology, writing about his interests at, and He hails from Austria, and currently works as German lecturer in China. During his career, he has learned something of nine languages and forgotten much of it again.

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