Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

A beautiful symmetry

Two weeks ago I started studying Mandarin for the first time.

My school offers weekly two-hour evening classes, and in the two classes so far we have covered the basics of ‘What’s your name?’ ‘What’s your surname?’ ‘I’m English. And you?’ ‘I’m a teacher/student.’ I am one of two students, and we have a native speaker teacher, who also speaks English. Outside class, I thought I should practice what I preach and find some extra things to help me study, in addition to the materials our teacher gives us. I have started compiling a list of the resources I’ve found, and if anyone has any others to recommend, please let me know. My three favourites are currently:

During the first lesson, I was reminded how alien a new foreign language can sound, especially when it is as different as Mandarin is from English. It was also a timely reminder about how scary it can be for students to be confronted by a wall of sound, with no distinguishable features or similarities to your own language, and how easy it is to cling to your L1 in such a situation – my classmate and I discuss most things we have to do in English before attempting them in Mandarin. Being used to the teaching method and having studied various languages before, I have a slight advantage as I can guess what some of the language is or what we are expected to do in tasks, but even this is not enough at times. This is not to say that our teacher is in any way lacking; in fact, she provides us with clear tasks and models all of the language needed. She is also very patient, which is necessary because what we produce must have sounded horrible to her! I’ve really enjoyed the lessons so far, despite leaving with a headache both times (!) and I’m looking forward to continuing with them for the rest of my time in Newcastle. The bug has definitely bitten!

One day, this will all be perfectly clear!

One day, this will all be perfectly clear! (from by me)

So, what does that have to do with a ‘beautiful symmetry’ then?

Well, four days ago I started teaching two Chinese men English. They are both in their early twenties, and probably had about fifty words of English between them when they arrived (separately) in Newcastle a week ago. I didn’t know I would be teaching them until after they had their placement tests on Monday, so this was a happy coincidence.

Their first class with me probably felt a lot like my first Chinese class, although at least they can write Roman letters as they are used in Pinyin 🙂 But apart from that, we were starting with an almost completely blank slate. There are two students for two hours every morning, and one of them has an hour of personal study programme time and another two hour lesson in the afternoon, which we mostly use to consolidate what I introduce in the mornings, and to try it out on students around the school. In eight hours, the total time of the morning lessons, we have so far looked at:

  • What is your/his/her name? My/His/Her name is…
  • How are you? I’m fine. And you?
  • Where are you from? Where is he/she from? I’m from… He/She is from…
  • Where do you come from? I come from… (introduced by the students)
  • 1-20
  • A-Z; How do you spell…?
  • colours

This has included a small focus on I/my, you/your, he/his and she/her differences, which don’t exist in Mandarin – one pronoun is used for both functions in each case.

So far, all of the lessons have been based on flashcards, cut out letters, a set of felt-tip pens, a box of pictures from old magazines, board pens and the whiteboard. I have also invited in almost every person who has walked past the classroom so that my students could practise introducing themselves! Taking advantage of the wifi, I showed them how to play the scatter mode on Quizlet (guide) and they have already become quite competitive. We have also recorded some conversations on Audioboo for them to use as examples when they are at home. I am using Edmodo to record what we have done and give the students exercises to practise more at home.  If you would like to see what we have been doing on Edmodo, please let me know via Twitter or by leaving a comment here with a way to contact you.

I’m really enjoying the challenge of teaching beginners, especially the look of happiness on their faces whenever they manage to have a successful conversation or complete a challenge I have set them, like putting all of the number flashcards in order as quickly as possible, and beating the fastest time from the previous day. It has reminded me how important it is to be patient as a teacher: students at all levels need space to take in what you are teaching them, and this is particularly important at low levels. Patience also includes an ability to stay interested as a teacher: if you get bored with recycling ‘What is his name?’ ‘What is her name?’ again and again, then teaching beginners probably isn’t the right place for you! Creativity is important here too, to keep up both your own and the students’ interest in what you are doing.

I’m looking forward to seeing how much they remember after a three-day weekend, and to my third Chinese lesson, which happens on Tuesday too!

Comments on: "A beautiful symmetry" (14)

  1. Hi Sandy, I think this is a perfect opportunity for you all. Community Language Learning used translations, and I think you could really make use of your desire to learn from them too. Here’s a Chinese language plant with Brad. They might like it too! Good luck with Lesson #3.


  2. I think we tend to underestimate how important repetition is at that level. We think ‘introductions, done, numbers 1-10, done, alphabet, done, verb to be, done, what’s next…

    I remember the best advice I received as a newbie teacher with my very own elementary class was this

    “Try and find as many ways of teaching the same thing as possible. Then do all of them”.

    A challenge!

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Learning German is helping me to teach English to Germans too 🙂


    • And teaching English is probably teaching you German too, if my experience of Spanish and Czech is anything to go by 🙂
      Thanks for the comment Roya!


  3. What a beautiful post!
    I’ve just begun going back to learning Spanish, on a small scale and you are learning something sooo different!
    I like what you wrote about teaching beginners.
    When you are a beginner each new sentence or phrase acquired is a huge excitement – its like when a child begins speaking! What a thrilling time!
    Good luck!


    • Hi Naomi,
      I agree about how exciting it is learning new language as a beginner, especially when you get the chance to use it and it works the way it’s supposed to. Good luck with your Spanish!


  4. Hi Sandy,
    It will be fun following your efforts with the two new students. I’ve only taught a few Chinese here so far, but all of them have more than 50 words in their passive vocabulary; they’re taught English from the third grade (of 9 years compulsory schooling) but English is taught as a science, not a language here so many are false beginners.
    How are their writing skills?


    • Thanks for the comment Ken. They can form the letters without any trouble (possibly because of pinyin?), but we haven’t done much writing yet. Watch this space and I’ll let you know!


  5. Good for you, Sandy!

    Give a read to Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 months) if you fancy swapping notes with a great autodidact, by the way.


  6. Glad to see you’re using Chinese Writer! I would suggest also checking out our Dictionary and Flashcard program and our pinyin trainer

    Good luck with your studies!
    加油! 加油!


  7. […] me to finally find a good use for the photo box, and they have now become a staple of my current beginner classes. You could substitute eltpics or pictures drawn by students. Here are some of the ways I have used […]


  8. […] April last year my school offered a short beginner’s course in Mandarin which lasted for 10 weeks. I joined it, and decided that Mandarin would be my next language […]


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