An Awareness of Chinese in the Classroom


Survival Classroom Chinese
The standard approach to ESL teaching is not to use student’s mother language (L1) when teaching, but rather just use the target language (L2) – this way you create an environment that allows the student to develop his/her language skills in a similar fashion to how we learnt our mother language.
All our students are Chinese, so Chinese would be the L1 and English would be the L2. So, we only teach the students by English and avoid using Chinese as much as possible. This approach to teaching English as a second language is widely accepted in the ESL community and most teachers (myself included) quickly see it’s merit.

However, when trying to teach using this methodology 100% of the time I have encountered a few problems:

The student’s English level is too low to express basic needs. Imagine being in a classroom as a child and you really need to go to the bathroom but the teacher can’t understand you! It could result in some very messy situations. This is why I quickly learnt three key phrases in Chinese: 尿尿 (ny-ow, ny-ow), 便便(byen, byen), 厕所 (tse su-oh) – pee, poo, toilet. The kids will say these words to you or their parent in class – don’t worry they are not being rude or disrespectful, 尿尿and 便便 are very cute ways to express the need to go to toilet!

The student can’t understand a basic instruction or request (despite your best miming skills!). The main one here for me is the idea of homework – I have many students who “conveniently” forget this word. There are also some other simple instructions that you can spend 5 minutes or more trying to get across – but don’t fret, the Chinese is not complicated!

Homework 作业 (zoh-a yeah!)- the “yeah” part is falling tone, so say it quickly and a bit dramatically! So long as you pronounce this word sort-of right, they will understand.
Speak 说 (show-a) – For the times you have underlined, circled, pointed and mimed for them to say something outloud!
Read to me 读一下 (do ee shya) – similar to speak, but great when you want the student to read the example sentence to you!
Write 写 (shy-eh) – If you are making a homework slide and you know they won’t know to write, then paste this little character in!
Draw 画画 (hwa hwa) – For the young learner’s who don’t understand you want them to draw a cat!
Understanding when the student is confused. Most of the time you know when the student is confused, either from their glazed expression or maybe they will just tell you “I don’t understand”. However, for lower levels they often just say something in Chinese and you are not sure if they are translating or trying to tell you they have no idea what you are going on about! Luckily, the Chinese always use the same phrases to express confusion:
什么意思 (shen meh ee seh) – “What does it mean?” They will say this about many things, it can be applied to word, a situation, your manner.
不懂 (boo dong) – “I don’t understand.” This is often paired with other words like look (看 kan) or hear (听 ting). Now you know what it means, I guarantee you will hear this in nearly every level 0 taster!

Below I have put some common expression you will encounter or things you might want to express in to a table. Maybe for the homework slide you can paste in the Chinese character for homework! Though it should be noted, if the child is 5 or under then they may not be able to read the characters!

Some Differences in Grammar
Chinese grammar is much simpler than English grammar – it is also very different. It is very useful to be aware of the differences even if you don’t speak Chinese. A knowledge of the differences will help you predict where a student is likely to have problems when trying to understand.

Chinese does not have tenses. It is strange to imagine a language without tense, but Chinese has almost zero tense. Their verbs need no conjugation and talking about the past or future is as easy as talking about the present. They typically just insert a time in to their sentence to show when they did it “I tomorrow go to school”, “I yesterday eat lunch”. So now you know why so many students struggle with remembering to use the past tense!

Chinese does not have singular or plural nouns. This is so true, it is sometimes confusing. The sentence for “I am playing with my friend” is : 我跟我朋友一起玩儿, and “I am playing with my friends”: 我跟我朋友一起玩儿 are identical. This is the reason why the students never add “s” to anything, it is a strange concept for them to understand. When foreigners speak Chinese they sometimes add random s’s into their speech, which is very funny to hear!
They say “niga” a lot. But it’s not what you think! This is word the have to show they are thinking, it is the Chinese equivalent of “erm”.

Making Questions. Asking questions is very easy in Chinese , they often just add one word to the end (吗 ma) -> “You do like cake ma?” “You are happy ma?”. So, when we are making questions by changing “You do like cake” to “do you like cake?” this can be very confusing for them. If they are using “what” in Chinese (什么 shenme) they would normally put at the end of a sentence. So sometimes students might say things like: “You like what?”. This may also be why student sometimes don’t realise you are asking them a question! They must listen for a question word at the beginning of the sentence instead of at the end!

Pinyin vs. the Western Alphabet. Maybe you have encountered this: you are teaching “y” and they keep saying “yee”, why is this? It is because in Chinese the do use the Roman alphabet on a daily basis, but the letters are pronounced completely differently. For example, y is “yee”, x is “tsee” and b is “bor”. This is useful to know, because if they are learning the pinyin alphabet at school then they will likely get confused when you are teaching them western phonics!

Some Cultural Differences:
There are so many cultural differences between Chinese people and most Western countries! I have lived in China for over two years and I am still finding new things that are totally different. I have listed a small selection, so you may better understand your students:

You are so fat! Like a pig. This is a massive taboo in mostly Western cultures, however in China it is like saying hello. It is so common, I get called fat by my closest Chinese friends (and partner) on the hour! It is meant in a playful and joking way, it is not intended to hurt feelings to give offense. So if they call you fat, please don’t be mad and explain to them the cultural differences! Also, a pig is a lovable chubby character – it does not carry many bad connotations.

Racial Sensitivity. In many western countries we have a lot of taboos that simply don’t exist in China. If you show a Chinese child a picture of some children and one happens to black they will point it out – and ask if they are from Africa. They assume all Europeans are white and all South Africans are black. So if you are a white South African, they will be confused! Please don’t be offended, just take this chance to expand their horizons!

Food, Food, Food. Food is arguably the most important in Chinese culture. The way British people can discuss the weather for hours, the Chinese can discuss food. The believe China has the best food. The whole point in travelling is to taste new food. The don’t say “how are you?” when meeting, they ask “have you eaten?”

Overall, the Chinese are a very warm-hearted people who regard the opportunity to speak with a foreigner as something very special. They love to learn about different cultures and countries. If you have the opportunity to travel to China then I advise you to seize it, they will welcome you with open arms. I have never met a nicer people before.

-Danny, IQBar Buddy

Danny has lived and taught in China for two and half years, he recently joined the IQBar team and is having a great time. He loves all of his breadies very much!




2018-06-24 01:35


I really enjoyed this! Thank you Danny

  • Estelle·Terblanche
  • 2018-07-06 11:32
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