5 Keys to a Chinese Immersion Curriculum Your Students Will Love

Don’t throw your students in the deep end.

Contrary to popular belief, teaching Chinese through immersion doesn’t mean all Chinese all the time.

Nor is complete immersion the best way to learn Chinese.

Study abroad has proven to be a lonely and miserable experience for many students fresh off the boat in China.

After all, where do you start when you don’t even know how to say, “Please pass the rice”?

As a Mandarin Chinese language instructor, you’re in a unique position to create a better immersion environment for your students than even being in China would.

You have an opportunity to control the factors that determine how quickly they learn.

With the right amount of exposure to the language and guidance from you, they’ll learn faster than they ever would if simply left to their own devices.

By the time they get to China, they’ll be ready to go native.

If you just follow these simple suggestions, your students will make progress in leaps and bounds.

5 Keys to Developing a Successful Chinese Immersion Curriculum

1. Immerse Students in Chinese from Day One

Duh, right? Yet this may be the most misunderstood aspect of an immersion curriculum!

Students need to be speaking Chinese and learning to recognize characters right away. That way, when brief but necessary explanations in English occur, they have experience to use as a framework to help them understand the explanations.

However, it is easy to assume that just because you start speaking in Chinese, you should never stop speaking in it. This leads us to our next key to a sound Chinese immersion curriculum.

2. Don’t Throw Them in the Deep End If They Can’t Swim

Using Chinese from the start does not mean speaking all Chinese all the time!

The common misconception is that a 100% target language policy will help students learn faster because that’s how children learn their first language, and therefore that is the natural and best way.

This contradicts the common observation by polyglots that as an individual learns more languages, each successive language becomes faster and easier to learn. With each language, the learner is able to build on his or her existing linguistic framework.

This also contradicts the fact that it takes children a dozen years of formal education to master their native language.

That is because they have no preexisting linguistic framework to relate to in the process of language acquisition.

It took you through high school or even college to master English as a native English speaker, learning the language full-time, yet a native English speaker can become fluent in Mandarin Chinese in less than half a year of dedicated study. Advanced mastery can take less than two years.

The reason for this is that explanations in and references to students’ own language and culture can provide equivalencies and stepping stones that allow them to understand meaning and usage in a fraction of the time it takes to make sense of things on the fly.

That’s perfect, because learning quickly is one of the main purposes of immersion!

The trick is finding the right balance of target versus native language instruction.

Finding That Balance

I view the purpose of class time as being to provide the one resource that students lack outside of class: a Chinese-speaking teacher.

Most time in the classroom should be spent engaging students in conversation. A smattering of help in English throughout class can free up precious minutes of class time. Otherwise, a certain amount of time will be wasted by students wading through their own confusion.

There is value in letting students figure things out for themselves, but you should always be asking yourself the following:

“Is what I am doing right now contributing to students learning to use Chinese quickly and effectively?”

“Am I meeting the goals and objectives I established at the outset of the course? Or am I just trying to will into reality common theories about immersion and the ideal that students should figure everything out themselves (while they become discouraged in the meantime)?”

Chinese language activities can and should continue outside the classroom, but I also find that homework is one of the best ways to incorporate native language material.

Providing students with brief English explanations of difficult grammatical concepts and glosses of vocabulary that just aren’t sinking in can complement Chinese language activities, rather than detracting from them.

I personally find that aiming for about 90% of class content being in Chinese hits that sweet spot where student progress is optimal. You can find what works best for your class through experimentation.

3. Deepen Immersion with Realia

A perennial source of anxiety for Chinese language teachers is the pressure of coming up with engaging lessons that expose students to authentic language and culture, especially if you are providing an immersion environment that is mostly in Chinese.

Having a ready source of realia could save you a lot of trouble and provide a lot of benefits for your students. Even if you are incredibly creative and entertaining, you can take immersion a step further by introducing as much realia as possible.

One way to outsource the potentially time-consuming job of hunting down realia is with FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

FluentU saves you time by searching out the best material for learning Chinese for your students, including songs, commercials, cartoons, scenes from TV shows and more.

Even better, the material has already been broken into digestible units so that students can easily review the words and phrases used in the clips. There are even school accounts that make it easy for language teachers to assign clips as homework, track student progress and communicate with students.

With the time constraints every teacher is under, it is tempting to resort to just following a prepackaged textbook course. Many of these are excellent, but they are often designed to appeal to the average student (which doesn’t exist, in my experience) and have limited amounts of literature, popular media and other authentic cultural materials.

However, you will likely still use a textbook as a supplement to your Mandarin Chinese immersion course, as they can provide a good foundation of core material that your class can keep returning to. It’s important to choose carefully, as the right textbook can also provide you with some handy, ready-made realia. 

One of my favorites for this purpose is “Huanying,” which I find provides just the right amount of grammar explanation, as well as lots of fun poems, songs, silly sayings and brief introductions to various aspects of Chinese culture.

Meanwhile, “Chinese Link” contains extensive glossed lists of supplemental vocabulary. Students like being able to explore beyond the core vocabulary, plus the series contains authentic signs, menus, poems and other real cultural material to delve into.

“Taiwan Today” is more advanced, but contains fantastic realia including dating classifieds, signs, calligraphy, horoscopes and more.

You can also save time by letting your students explore their own interests. Even though everyone else assumes that once you’ve taught a course two or three times you can teach it on autopilot from then on, teachers know that every year their students have different interests and needs.

That is another reason why a textbook isn’t enough: For language learning to feel relevant to students, you will need to cater to their interests from year to year and lesson to lesson. Let’s look at some ways to do that.

4. Deepen Immersion with Relevance

When students are learning Chinese in the classroom, the relevance of a language to their own daily lives can seem less than that of the calculus class they just came from.

No matter how many flaming torches you juggle at once or how ferociously you crack the whip over them, there are always some unmotivated students.

This doesn’t mean you are a boring or bad teacher, nor does it mean the students are lazy. It just means you need to relinquish control to them.

It never ceases to amaze me how once you make students responsible for their own learning and let them pursue the things that interest them most, their motivation and IQ seem to double.

More to the point here, student empowerment is more in line with the idea of immersion. The things students are interested in are the things they will most likely be using Chinese to communicate about in the real world.

Having them do projects that interest them in class allows them to practice speaking, listening, reading and writing about the subjects that they already communicate about the most in their lives.

Allow students to pursue their own interests as much as possible. Students are far more likely to stick their necks out to learn language material that involves passions, hobbies, friendships, humor and things they already encounter in their daily lives, most of which are not covered in a one-size-fits-all textbook course.

Better yet, what they learn will stick better because it relates to things they love.

Some students take Chinese because they are huge Bruce Lee fans. Some take it because they love Japanese manga, but the school doesn’t offer Japanese language classes. Some are only taking the course because their parents are trying to make them into the next international business mogul.

Let the Bruce Lee fan research kung fu.

Encourage the manga lover to read manga in Chinese.

Help the future business mogul explore her obsession with haute couture by following the Chinese rich and famous on social media.

Everyone will think the others’ endeavors are cool and intriguing, and will be all the more interested in connecting with each other to explore their interests.

Allow students to explore and present their interests through individual and group projects such as reports, presentations, performances and more using the plethora of electronic and online tools out there.

MS PowerPoint is a solid tool for presentations, or try Prezi for more pizzazz.

Voicethread makes it easy not only to create slide presentations with audio, but also for students to comment in writing or speaking on the slides. Audacity is great if you want to remove visual distraction and stick with audio only.

For shy students, avatars can create a distance from the embarrassment of making mistakes in front of everyone and can be fun to watch. Try Vocaroo or Animoto if you want to take this route.

For online writing and discussion, great places to create wikis, blogs and spaces for document sharing are Google Docs, Weebly and WordPress.

Also, one of the greatest motivators for learning Chinese is actually speaking with or writing to Chinese people. Create opportunities for this even if you are far from any Chinese population through such platforms as italki and Skype.

You don’t need to have a dozen different projects going on in your classroom all the time. Simply weaving in lessons that match students’ interests and having an occasional side project or conversation with a native Mandarin Chinese speaker will go a long way toward helping them care about honing their language skills.

5. Separate Conversation and Literacy

One of the most difficult trends to part from is the linking of conversation and literacy curricula. This means students learn to speak, understand aurally, read and write every character and word they learn in the course.

This is useful only to the extent that it achieves your course’s objectives.

Define Specific Objectives for Conversation and Literacy

While conversational objectives tend to be a little more clearly defined, most courses leave literacy objectives as something like “Be able to read and write 300 of the most commonly used characters found in Chinese newspapers.”

On the surface, this looks like it is preparing students to read newspapers or to pass the HSK, but it is actually mostly training them to recognize and write characters in isolation.

Immersion reflects the idea that you have to do the activity you want to be good at in order to get good at it. If students want to be able to read the newspaper, then they should be reading newspaper articles.

However, the language that is used in newspapers is not the same that is used in speech. Rarely do our styles of speaking and writing overlap. They use different diction and structures.

By restricting reading and writing to what students are learning to speak, and restricting what they are learning to speak to only words that use certain characters, no style of communication that is actually practiced in real life is fully achieved.

Specific objectives that immerse students in realistic conversation and writing will necessarily diverge to some extent.

Let them. Tailor your course to suit reality, because reality is highly unlikely to tailor itself to match your course!

If you want students to be able to talk about the weather, get a date, strike a business deal or discuss differences in educational systems, have them do those things.

There is no way they will be able to memorize the characters as fast as they learn the pronunciation and usage of all those words, so don’t try beyond the point that it is useful.

Again, if you want students to read poetry, lease agreements, philosophy, economic reports or texts with friends, have them do those things.

Even if they don’t remember the pronunciation of every word—or even how to write every character—they will still improve at decoding the specialized characters and structures more than if they tried to learn and retain everything at once.

Having a strong foundation in some basic characters is important, as is students being able to write some of the things they say, but don’t be afraid to focus on separate objectives for conversation and literacy to some extent.

You will discover that rather than being crippled by not being able to write everything that is said and vice versa, students will be far more capable of real-world communication.

In my experience, those are the keys to a Chinese immersion curriculum that trains students to doggy paddle in the shallows before diving into the deep end.

Enjoy the swimming!

Lucas Ledbetter is a Chinese teacher, writer, translator and lover of martial arts and Chinese tea who is constantly on the move.

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