Teaching Chinese: Nuances and Methods
Knowing a foreign language and being able to teach it are two different things, each of which requires an enormous work and huge patience, believes Tatyana Ioffe, one of the best teachers of the Chinese language in Russia. She is the author of a large number of scientific articles on linguistics and methodology and the winner of two all-Russian professional contests among pedagogues and teachers of the Chinese language.
Chinese language scholar, teacher, translator, Associate Professor of the Department of Oriental Languages at the Omsk State Pedagogical University
For many years, Tatyana Ioffe has been a translator for the administration of the city of Omsk, the government of the Omsk Oblast, and the Omsk Chamber of Commerce and Industry. At the same time, the expert sees teaching as the main focus of her work. Her experience in teaching Chinese to students and school children exceeds 30 years.
The professional has worked out and published an educational and methodological complex for teaching Chinese characters at the Omsk State Pedagogical University. It includes a textbook, a workbook, handwriting worksheets with a linguocultural component, and also a training manual titled ‘Intensive course of the Chinese language’.
Recently, Tatyana Ioffe has won two serious professional contests at once. Those are the ‘Language of Friendship’ First All-Russian Contest for Chinese Language Teachers and the ‘Best Scenario of a Chinese Lesson‘ Third International Contest Among Teachers of Confucius Institutes of the Russian Federation.
In her interview with the Global Women Media news agency, the pedagogue and methodologist explained her vision of the most important aspects in teaching Chinese. Tatyana Ioffe presented her approaches and principles in education and shared her expert view of problems related to intercultural communication between Russia and China.
– Tatyana, you were trained as a foreign language teacher but initially you specialized in German and French. How did your acquaintance with China and its language begin?
– Indeed, for some time, I taught German and French at the Omsk Automobile Armored Engineering Institute. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many professionals found themselves at a crossroads and I was one of them. That happened when I just returned from my maternity leave and realised that the situation in the country had changed. The new reality resulted in some things losing their relevance. French and German in Russian education became secondary priorities. At that time, I did not know what to do next as a teacher.
At that time, a Chinese language group was being recruited in Omsk for the first time. I decided to visit such a class despite not thinking that it was a proper field for me. I even had doubts that I could cope with it. However, I was very attracted to the personality of the teacher. Nicolas Lysenko, a Frenchman with Russian and Chinese roots, a lecturer at the famous Sorbonne, came to our city and delivered the Chinese language classes using his own methodology. It should be noted that the expert later influenced the development of the field of training related to Chinese language at the Omsk State Pedagogical University. Nicolas Lysenko brought his textbooks and presented his original methods of teaching the language adapted for foreigners for the first time.
Learning Chinese was incredibly difficult for me. I gave it up three times. Nicolas Lysenko personally brought me back to classes. Then I pulled myself together and continued. I gradually began to develop an interest in that subject. Studying Chinese was like a colourful mosaic. I was gradually assembling it and turning it into a clear developmental prospect.
It took me a year to master the basics of the Chinese language. To do that, I devoted most of the day to studying every day. I focused the rest of the time on taking care of my young child, my family, and myself.
A year or so later, I received an offer from Konstantin Churkin, Rector of the Omsk State Pedagogical University. He invited me to organise and head the Chinese language section at the Faculty of Linguistics. Thus, he entrusted me with the development and establishment of a new speciality in our region. I gathered a team of like-minders, which comprised the best course participants (N.N. Repnyakova, U.N. Reshetneva, T.V. Shevtsova, I.I. Kozlova, I.G. Churbakova, and S.A. Baturina). I never stopped feeling great responsibility before the university administration, my colleagues, and, of course, the students expecting us to provide them with quality education.
We started working at a time when there were no Chinese language textbooks. One could only discover teaching methods by trial and error and sometimes even had to invent them. Teachers from the Chita Sinology School supported and supervised our work. I will always be grateful to Oleg Gotlib, Valentina Lenintseva, and Elena Yuishina for their knowledge and assistance in organising methodology, theoretical grammar, lexicology, Chinese language stylistics, and Chinese literature courses.
Gradually, over the course of 10 years, we were getting on our feet. In 2001, N.N. Repnyakova defended her PhD thesis in Sinology our section. She was followed by other people doing that. Thus, we came to a clear understanding of how and what we should teach.
Then I had trips to China. I studied a lot and worked as an interpreter in different institutions including government structures. I have been to every part of China except for Tibet. I am still looking forward to that journey. That’s how China and the Chinese language that penetrated into my life unexpectedly have become a very important part of my life.
– Today, you not only teach Chinese, but also work with young university professors and school teachers. What areas of activity are most important for you today?
– In my teaching practice, I had the opportunity to teach all the subjects that the Department of the Chinese Language could offer. Some programmes have never existed in Russia before. Therefore, my colleagues and I had to scrupulously develop them for a long time. Today, I am very flattered when renowned experts visit my lectures on teaching methodology despite the fact that they are also authors of educational and methodological complexes.
Today, I invest a lot of my time in studying modern approaches to foreign language teaching. In my classes, I rarely use a chalkboard. I like to convert the material to a digital format, which is closer to the modern generation of students. I made a big step in that direction when I started to study the principles of social media. I bought a video camera, tried to create video clips, and took the Demanded Teacher course at Yulia Goryaina’s kitai_school. There I learned how to analyse the target audience and work on social media.
In the near future, kitai_school and I plan to implement an ambitious joint project on the methodology of teaching the Chinese language. Experts in the field of the Chinese language who have no profile pedagogical education show great interest in that initiative.
Today, in the age of rapid digital development, anyone can conduct educational blogs or online courses. Unfortunately, that resulted in a number of quasi-specialists who often offer people to master Chinese in a month or in just two weeks. I really want to show the modern generation of future Chinese speakers the value of the academic approach and convince them that it is important to know methodology, educational principles, and psychological fundamentals and approaches in order to teach the language competently.
In general, I am an advocate of combining modern teaching methods with traditional ones. If the process is based only on new technologies not taking into account the methodological basis developed over decades, one can hardly teach or learn something important to be remembered for a long time.
– What is your vision of a good teacher of the Chinese language today?
– Probably, my position will surprise many people. In my opinion, a good teacher does not have to be brilliant at the language. A teacher comes from the word ‘to teach’. That presupposes that he or she must be able to deliver information based on educational principles and the laws of methodology and psychology.
Moreover, the effect of being taught by a teacher who knows only three Chinese words but teaches them competently will in any case be greater than being taught by someone who knows the language brilliantly but is not able to teach it.
It is important for a good teacher to have a categorical apparatus. That means he or she needs to understand the learning objectives the learning process leans on. A teacher needs to be able to analyse textbooks and the exercises presented in them. He or she must keep up with modern competences, the educational programme, the process of exams, and many other things. This is a huge body of knowledge that requires systematic thinking and highly-developed pedagogical skills.
Of course, the love of a teacher for his or her job and his or her audience is of particular value here. Importantly, a teacher of any foreign language must understand the impossibility to learn a language perfectly or to teach someone ‘to the fullest’. In fact, language learning is a lifelong process.
If speaking about teaching Chinese, one should understand that it is different maths, history, or any other subject that presupposes specific amounts of knowledge. The Chinese language is not just about memorizing a certain number of characters, words, or phrases. It’s about immersing yourself in the culture of the country through the characters, words, and phrases.
Learning Chinese follows the ‘better fewer, but better’ principle. If the student does not understand the essence and the teacher only pursues completing the textbook, then the student will hardly learn anything. In this case, he or she is more likely to hate the subject and experience stress. It is important to make sure that the teacher understands that and is prepared to ‘slow down’ in explaining the learning material. If necessary, he or she must be ready to divide one-year textbook into two years of study.
I also find teachers knowing how to use creative approaches in delivering classes very valuable. Learning Chinese is a big and multi-faceted job requiting the work of both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. A good teacher is the one able to activate such holistic thinking.
– You are the author of the best Chinese language lesson scenario. What makes your educational approach unique?
– I often say that the numbers 1 and 5 have a special meaning in my life. If I enter a contest, I strive to take the first place. When my work is evaluated, I want a perfect grade (in Russia, 5 is equal to A-grade). I am an ambitious person and my lesson scenario presented to the jury was also quite ambitious.
I was competing against teachers from Confucius Institutes and acknowledged leaders in teaching Chinese language in the world. That is why winning the contest meant a world to me.
At the full-time stage of the contest, I was given the task to deliver a 90-minute Chinese language open and a 45-minute creative workshop for language and translation students. I devoted my classes to the topic of ‘Health’, which is relevant in any country and in any language.
The key to my success probably lies in the methodology I used. My lesson scenario turned to the basic principles of education already formed by John Amos Comenius: learning from the simple to the complex, accessibility, logic, coherence, creativity... In essence, our entire education system today is based on the foundation laid by that outstanding Czech humanist and educator of the 17th century.
In addition, the method of foreign language teaching developed by Efim Passov plays an important role in my pedagogical activities. Originally, the communicative method was designed to teach speaking. Over time, its application has been extended to all kinds of spoken and written language. During the full-time stage of the contest, I not only taught the class but also established an active dialogue with the audience. It is simply impossible to teach a language with no dialogue. We used all four types of speech activity in different exercises: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Methodology in education is an idea implemented according to certain rules, which is also the basis of the educational process.
However, it is important to understand that methodology is not dogma but only a key opening the doors to effective learning. The methods of John Amos Comenius, Efim Passov, and other prominent educators were formulated many years ago. Over this time, the world has changed and the generation of children has changed together with it. Therefore, when using the key principles of education, it is important to adjust them for today’s audiences and to supplement them with new ideas that can instil interest in students here and now.
The use of digital technologies in exercises is a bright example of making traditional methods more modern. For example, I was never really comfortable with building a sentence using the given words. For my own class, I slightly modified this type of exercises. I displayed rotating dice with words on each facet. The students had to memorize them, reproduce them in their minds, and formulate a phrase. If compared to usual format of such an exercise, the option proposed by me was different thanks to activating children’s figurative perception. Subsequently, we made a text out of five rows of sentence cubes. Then I asked each student to come up with a similar story about him- or herself.
It took me four months to prepare a scenario of one class. I had to think through an idea and a way to carry it through the whole lesson with different types of activities. In the end, we completed more than 20 activities in an hour and a half.
– What is the strength of intercultural communication between Russia and China?
– Both China and Russia have rich cultures, which manifest themselves in the history, art, and languages of these countries. However, that happens on different levels. For example, one can learn about Chinese culture largely through studying hieroglyphics. And one can learn about Russian culture through literature. Probably, no other country has so many outstanding writers.
Unfortunately, so far, communication between Russia and China is asymmetrical. While Chinese language and culture studies are becoming increasingly popular in Russia, the interest in the Russian language and culture in the Celestial Empire is not that strong. However, the communication between these two countries is gradually becoming stronger.
In any case, intercultural communication always enriches both parties. That is the main strength of such a dialogue.
– What can people from other countries learn from the Chinese?
– They can learn and borrow their efficiency and adaptability to all situations. The Chinese can work even under the most difficult circumstances. They have a goal and they move towards it no matter how hard and dangerous the path will be.
I am also very impressed by their constant desire to learn, to educate themselves, and to improve themselves. People in China have achieved quite a high standard of living through their own hard work. Now they do not spend their time doing nothing. They use their accumulated resources to get acquainted with everything that surrounds them.
People in China tend not only to see the best in everything and everyone but also learn from it. I believe, that is a very good role model to follow.
Marina Volynkina, Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov