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Five Tips for Learning and Teaching Mandarin

One of the world’s most widely spoken languages offers a passport to Chinese culture

By Caitlin Crawshaw, ’05 BA(Hons)

May 19, 2023 •

In the last year of her education degree, Nanyen Lau, ’13, BEd, enrolled in beginner-level Korean. She didn’t need language credits — she was majoring in elementary education and minoring in Chinese language and literature — but she wanted to experience learning a new language from scratch.

Her plan was to teach in the Chinese (Mandarin) bilingual program, which is offered from kindergarten to Grade 12 at 14 schools in the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) system. She had graduated from the program herself, but her experience was made easier because she’d grown up hearing Mandarin at home. By taking introductory Korean, Lau got a deeper understanding of what many of her future students would be experiencing as brand-new Mandarin learners. “In the program, we have some kids who don’t speak any Mandarin, some kids who come in completely fluent and some kids who are kind of in-between,” she explains. 

To further prepare herself for teaching Mandarin, Lau spent two years in China earning a master’s degree in language education. She’s now a supply teacher in the Chinese (Mandarin) bilingual program and also teaches children how to play the erhu, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. 

Here are five of Lau’s tips for learning and teaching Mandarin.

1: Embrace culture

Learning about culture keeps students — especially those with Chinese ancestry — engaged in learning Mandarin. “Language learning is so much more than just learning words and vocabulary,” she says. “It’s having the opportunity to do things like learn how to use chopsticks or celebrate Chinese New Year.”

Culture is deeply embedded in the program, which was founded by U of A alumni who wanted their children to hold onto their Chinese culture and the language. They formed an organization called the Edmonton Chinese Bilingual Education Association and, in 1982, piloted an English-Mandarin bilingual curriculum that was adopted by EPSB the next year.

After 40 years, the program is still going strong and now attracts students of diverse cultural backgrounds. It remains one of the largest in North America and has been described by the Chinese Ministry of Education as the best Chinese language program outside of China.

2: Show and tell

Some people struggle to hear the four different tones of Mandarin, let alone pronounce them properly. Some students learn better when Lau tells them where to place their tongue in their mouth to make the correct sound. Mastering pronunciation is critical in Mandarin, which has many homophones differentiated by changes in tone that can seem very subtle to native English speakers.

3: Play detective

Mandarin contains thousands of unique characters symbolizing words, but no simple way to determine meaning or pronunciation. Lau challenges students to analyze the visual elements of a new character for clues about meaning (such as the three strokes resembling water droplets in the characters for swim, lake and ocean) and identify patterns in the language.

4: Embrace technology

Adopting a new language isn’t easy, especially if you’re learning it from scratch, but technology can help. Look online for your favourite television show dubbed in Mandarin for more exposure to the spoken language. Students of Mandarin also have a world of apps at their fingertips, making it quick and easy to look up character meanings and hear proper pronunciation at the same time.

5: Befriend failure

Mandarin learners can be reluctant to speak out loud, but it’s necessary to become fluent. “Sometimes the language feels foreign on your lips and you need to kind of roll it around on your tongue a couple of times,” says Lau. Mastering pronunciation takes repetition so it’s better to welcome, rather than avoid, mistakes.

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