UCL IOE tutors Colin Christie and Caroline Conlon tell us about their time studying beginner’s Mandarin Chinese at Peking University in Beijing…
The UCL Institute of Education PGCE Languages course has, since 2010, included a cohort of teachers training to teach Mandarin Chinese. This began as a group of 10 and has expanded to 18 for this academic year. Alongside the specialist tutors in Chinese, the European languages tutors have worked hard to include specific references to best practice in Mandarin Chinese teaching. Keen to improve our knowledge of Chinese language and culture we, being two of the tutors, Colin Christie and Caroline Conlon, eagerly took up an excellent CPD opportunity. This was of a beginner’s course in Mandarin Chinese at Peking University (PKU) with some time built in to explore Beijing. It was kindly supported by the UCL IOE Confucius Institute, the Head of Department (CCM), Hanban and PKU.
In preparation for the visit, we did an online PKU course (or MOOC) aimed at beginners and HSK level 1. This was led by Yu Bin, whom Colin had previously met, and met again at the UCL IOE CI during the course. This made the course feel more personal. The course covered basic topics such as personal identification, likes and dislikes, numbers and time expressions.
Once in Beijing, our formal classes started at PKU at 8am. The first class was intended to have a written focus (hanyu), and the second class, with a different teacher had a speaking focus (kouyu), from 10am to noon. We then were very fortunate enough to have a PKU student, Emma, to tutor us for 2 hours in the afternoon.
On arriving at the first class, we were very glad we had completed the online course so thoroughly. It was quite a shock having to integrate into an established class as the ‘newbies’, especially as the class was (like so many classes the world over) of mixed experience, with international students (from Columbia, South Korea, Germany, USA, France, Russia, Canada, Belgium, UK) of varying degrees of expertise in speaking, if not writing. Our initial challenge was greatly eased by our previous learning.
The class reinforced our experience of the importance of the face-to-face element and the need for personal interaction. It was so helpful to see exactly what shape the mouth had to make to create the different sounds and tones. It was also useful to have a range of topics but we noted how motivation and engagement increased when faced with examples of language that learners actually wanted to use. It was this personal content, or ‘meanings that matter’, that made a difference. What was also valued was any time built in to allow us as learners to manipulate the new language to construct our own messages.
Being on the learning rather than teaching side of the experience helped us realise the stresses which can be potentially felt by the learner. The first of these was when the teacher asked us individually not just one question but a succession of three questions, each one dependent on the answer to the previous question. This was high pressure but perhaps good for developing spontaneous talk. The second example was when we had to create and then perform a dialogue in front of the class- we found we needed to write it down and read it. We are often encouraging our student teachers to get learners to perform without written support, but perhaps this needs removing more gradually than we might think. Finally, reading characters without the support of pinyin. We managed this when we had had some preparation time, but fell down once when we had to read characters in a dialogue without any preparation. Again, we realised how key that gradual removal of scaffolding can be. All in all, though, we were pleased that we felt we held our own very well as newcomers. One of our classmates even confirmed this to us!
We were also very grateful for our afternoon sessions with Emma. She helped us with oral question and answer sessions, putting together new meanings around our past experiences and future plans for free time in Beijing, going over some of the characters and homework, clarifying points from the lessons. All this she did with great humour, patience and teaching skill: prompting and probing but also rewarding us with praise! Thank you, Emma.
In terms of culture, we noted how friendly people were. We threw ourselves into Beijing life: using the metro, eating in small, local restaurants in hutongs, asking the way in Chinese, fresh from our lessons.
We also did the usual tourist attractions which were so impressive and world class: the Great Wall at Badaling, the Forbidden City, Square, the Summer Palace, the Lama temple. A particular highlight was making our plan B trip to the wall on discovering that the train had been suspended. The 877 bus did the trick- we felt like real locals! We also enjoyed a show at the Laoshe Teahouse, and especially enjoyed the Sichuan face-changing routine.