“Due to the ubiquity of English as a global means of communication, [English mother-tongue speakers]may, in an anglophone country, never hear the sounds of the language they are learning outside the walls of the classroom. Compare this to the average second-language learner of English in almost any country in the world. As well as their own native language, they are hearing English, from an early age, through the media, through films, through music, but in an unstressed way. They are not being forced to understand it, but it exists all around them; they are immersed in English almost without realising it.” (Evans 2009: 2)
It was on reading this quote above that a natural comparison came to mind of the current attitude toward and teaching practices of the English language, and that of Mandarin Chinese. With economic reform and the opening up of China at the beginning of the 1980’s, it’s fair to say that teaching and learning Chinese to foreigners is relatively new. Its own uniqueness, in terms of tones and characters, has also led many to believe that it is ‘difficult’ to learn. Having recently begun to delve deeper into the theory that underpins language learning, and using my own personal examples, I will explore the notion that the difficulty of the Chinese language is less to do with the language itself, and as much to do with the socio-cultural and physchological factors that contribute to a percieved complexity, for native and non-native speakers alike.
Conditions that make a Language ‘Easy’ to Learn – It’s Cool!
English, it seems, is all around us. The international cultural environment is peppered with fluent English speakers, all giving interviews, or selling their products, in English. In terms of who or what is cool, trendy, or popular, the chances are, are that they are from the US or UK. Being naturally interested in a certain pop star who speaks another language, means that instrinsic motivation propels you towards wanting to understand more.
Conditions that make a Language ‘Easy’ to Learn – Native Speakers Try to Understand
England has a history of welcoming foreigners to their shores, and, having that basic understanding that not everyone may be a native speaker. Contrast that to China, where the idea of a foreigner being capable of speaking Chinese is still brand new, and where the media has popularised only one foreigner who can speak Chinese, (thank you Da Shan!), then there is a certain shock that must be overcome by the listener before they realise you are speaking their language. Couple that with the native speaker’s fear of losing face and being embarassed and not being able to understand, and it makes sense why locals prefer to just ignore what you say.
Conditions that make a Language ‘Easy’ to Learn – Inclusive Teaching Styles
Continuous developments in learning theory has led to fundamental shifts in teaching. Language teaching seems to be at the forefront of these changes, and a move from Teacher-Centred Learning to Student-Centred Learning is well in progress. It is commonly accepted that an awareness of different learning styles, identifying and responding to indiviual needs, facilitates learning. From my own viewpoint, as a language student in China, classes are very much based on the Confucius style of Teacher-Centred learning, where the textbook remains king. That said, there are some strong arguments that suggest Western educators are mistaken in their perception of the process of learning in the Chinese classroom.
The Chinese view on the Chinese language
Recently, a young Chinese friend and I had an animated conversation covering numerous controversial topics. Having mentioned my desire to practice Chinese she surprised me by suggesting I speak to old ladies on the street (of which there are plenty in Beijing, it is true). Why did she not suggest talking to someone my own age, with whom I might have something in common? (Not to mention, anything controversial would be completely off-limits?). At the end of our discussion she mentioned a trip to New Zealand where she was ‘surprised’ to find locals learning Chinese. She believed it was a ‘waste of time’, and that they should just communicate in English.
With no connection of foreign faces with the ability to speak Chinese, an ingrained perception that Chinese is difficult, and a personal desire to practice English for economic embetterment, it’s clear to see what makes learning Chinese in China, a little ‘difficult’. In terms of the language itself, many say that its grammar is relatively easy. However, it does not matter how easy something is, if you transfer that information in a difficult or complex way. A focus on the student’s needs in the classroom, highlighting and exploiting individual interests may make learning fun, and break down this perception of difficulty.
Changing the Perception of Chinese
How do we make Chinese ‘Easy’? Chinese TV programmes and music becoming popular on an international scale would help. Certainly, Sensitising the audience to foreigners learning and speaking could smoothen the pricess. In fact, a friend has a plan to record a Reality TV programme about students learning Chinese where we follow young students learning the language as beginners. Indeed, if you have never put yourself in the situation where you are learning a language from scratch for the first time, you have no experience of grading your language and making it accessible. In this way, a Student-Centred approach, and an awareness of different learning styles would contribute to changing the perception of Chinese as an international language.
Mitchell, I. (2009) ‘The Potential of the Internet as a Language-Learning Tool’, in M.Evans (ed.) Foreign Language Learning with Digital Technology (Education and Digital Technology). 1st ed. London: Continuum International Publishing Group: 45-72