Every morning I use the Memrise app on my iPad to learn a little bit of Mandarin. I’ve been doing it on and off for about seven years now, and almost every day for four years. Since it’s the only way I practise Mandarin, I’m still very much A0, though my progress has been slow, but steady.
Occasionally, I use the browser version of Memrise rather than the app, and it inevitably results in a bit of depression! I always score much, much lower, with only around 10-20% accuracy, compared to my normal 80% or so.
I think the reasons for this are threefold:
There is a time limit for typing in the browser – I often need a lot more time than it allows to pull the characters out of the depths of my memory.
On the app, I have the option of a kind of multiple choice, where I can select from a limited range of letters that make up the word rather than typing from the whole keyboard. These letters generally appear in a similar pattern each time the same word comes up, and if I think for a while, I can normally get to the right answer. I have it set to automatically accept the answer when it’s correct, so I can keep trying until I get it right. Not necessarily great for my long-term retention though, as I don’t end up repeating the problem words as much.
The fonts are different. This is the biggest one for me. Words I’ve been seeing for years in the same font, such as ‘good’ (part of the word ‘hello’, so introduced on day 1!), look completely different and I can’t recognise them at all. I got that one wrong this morning, as well as ‘teacher’.
I feel like this gives me a little bit of empathy with people who have dyslexia, understanding that a word can look completely different in different typefaces, and therefore unrecognisable. These two may not seem that different, but the serifs and line thicknesses add extra detail. I’m used to the more simplified version in the second image.
I knew about how challenging different fonts could be theoretically, but feeling it myself as a learner is different. This is why we should keep learning ourselves! Something to remember when making materials and tests.
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!
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)
A-Z; How do you spell…?
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!