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How to choose a language course: Vademecum for expatriates

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Dear Reader, during my first year in Shanghai I attended Chinese language courses in different private schools. As it often happens, I had good and bad experiences. So, I thought to summarize some advices that could help you to more easily identify the language school that will support your progresses in the learning of the Chinese language and also render it a pleasant and rewarding activity. Please do not hesitate to forward me your comments.

Enquiry about the teaching approach, teaching methods and techniques: You should hear words like communicative method, project-based method, and hopefully not traditional grammar approach… Please note that sometimes what language schools explain you during the interview, is sometimes different from what you will experience in class. Asking a written description of the pedagogical approach they are using in school, no schools could provide me with a clear explanation on how the classes are structured and the activities organized. No language school had an idea of what „lesson design“ is.

Enquiry about the lesson design (please note, that no school representative knew what I was talking about): A good lesson design will include an introduction to the unit, brainstorming activities, presentation and understandable explanations of new words (and characters), listening and comprehension activities, group and individual activities, games, movies, music, … I suppose you do not want a lesson starting with a grammar explanation, don’t you? Well, that’s what unfortunately I had to experience.  I suppose, for the majority of you all this is obvious, but I noticed that in the majority of language schools Chinese teacher have difficulties in coordinating games, organising role-plays and even using the listening and comprehension activity in the correct way (that means listen twice to the text, answer the questions, eventually review the result with a school mate and so on). They pretended that I understand every single word! So just make sure that the listening and comprehension won’t end up with the repetition of the text word-by-word/phrase-by-phrase, which is surely a good exercise but it is not the goal of a listening and comprehension activity.

Evaluate the course book: Valuable books are rich in pictures and colors, Chinese characters are printed big enough to be recognized, good grammar explanations follow the lesson, sufficient exercises are offered. Please note that some Chinese books of Chinese publishers sometimes lack of grammar explanations or if there are, these are insufficient and even misleading.

Enquire about the teacher’s academic degree: Language teaching is a complex activity which requires, apart from a very good language knowledge, knowledge of teaching methods, cognition and psychology. All this is usually acquired with a Master degree in language teaching.

Enquire about the learner’s group composition (e.g. age, profession, language level): If you are an adult you may feel comfortable in an adult language group, if you are a beginner you will surely enjoy a beginner class (and this is not always obvious. So, you may eventually be placed into a class with people that already can speak Chinese and that do not leave you the opportunity of speaking or completing exercises in a reasonable time).

– Enquire about the learner’s nationality: for example, if you like to stay in a tranquil class, with people not asking too many questions during the lesson, than you may want to sit with Japanese or Koreans. If you like a class, in which students  ask questions, you may want to sit in a class with Americans. If you want a class with good humour, then you may think to sit in a class with Latin people.

Enquire about the placement method and ask for the warranty that you will be placed into a class which is suitable for your level (sometimes language schools do not have enough students to create a class, so they match people with different levels, which can of course have positive effects, but can also lead to frustration and make difficult for the teacher to manage different needs and levels).

Check the room conditions: Teaching rooms should be luminous (have windows and a good lightning system), have enough place for activities such as role play and games and have good air-conditioning systems. I remember to have attended a trial-lesson in a language school, where the class was a small room without windows, whit the air conditioning blowing directly into my head. Well, I just spend every minute of the trial-hour hoping to finish the class as soon as possible.

Room infrastructure: The teaching room should have pencil board (avoid traditional black boards as the chalk may irritate your eyes). Also the table should be big enough to enable the organization of games. Eventually a flipchart and of course a laptop to watch movies (very useful to get the intonation and recognize some sentence patterns).

The teachers should have the ability of coordinating different types of exercises, from role-plays to games and problem-solving activities.

Inquire about the techniques used to teach hanzi. For example, I found very efficient the method which sees the teacher writing the hanzi stroke-by-stroke and explaning the radicals and other components of each single hanzi. There are also efficient methods for memorization, e.g. the use of self-created PPT presentation for reviewing the hanzi learned in the lesson, cross-words or even creating a personal terminology database.

Exercises should be presented from the simplest to the most difficult, in order not to congest our brain’s information processing. Difficult exercises should be completed at home, not in class.

If you are attending a conversation class you should get enough chance to speak. Sounds banal? Well, try and see what conversation classes look like in Shanghai. If you are in a group, the teacher should organize exercises that enable each single student to speak long patterns, not only single phrases. And that’s the problem, if the teacher is always interferring with the students‘ activities.

The teacher is a facilitator and should enhance the communication between the learners in a learner-learner interaction and with ad-hoc exercises. If she/he is always giving directions and saying who has the right to speak, you will limit your brain capabilities. If you do not get enough chance to speak in a natural way choose another course.

The teacher is not the main actor of the course. If the teacher is always coordinating the class, always giving directions on who may speak, you are probably in the wrong class. Choose another course or another language school.

Forget everything you might have learned about language teaching methods, how to organise an interesting class, how to use games and real materials (e.g. newspapers)… you won’t probably find it here.

… and more…

– Last but not least: At the end just follow your heart and you will probably choose the course that is right for you.

For a review of the language schools I have attended and that I could recommend go to the entry „Learning Chinese in Shanghai: Adult education“.

admin123 • 9. November 2009


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