Ever had your students completely lose their focus in the middle of class?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It happens to the best of us, especially after a long day.
But with Chinese, it’s a little more complicated. Students need willpower if they’re ever going to grasp the more difficult concepts the language has to offer.
As arguably one of the more difficult languages to learn, studying Chinese can feel mentally draining for students who have challenges understanding your material.
One minute you’re teaching basic vocabulary and pronunciation—the next, you’re trying to wake the entire class up from a deep sleep.
For this reason, teachers are encouraged to explore unconventional ways to teach Chinese that allow them to engage with their students. Finding ways to incorporate hobbies and interests, pop culture or anything particularly exciting into a lesson is a guaranteed recipe for success when teaching language—especially one as difficult as Chinese.
And one of the easiest ways to achieve this is through music.
How to Make Your Next Chinese Music Lesson Go Platinum
In my experiences as a teacher, Chinese pop music has been an incredibly effective teaching method. It’s fun and engaging, and offers a nice break from drilling vocabulary and completing workbook exercises.
But teaching with music offers more than just a better learning experience. There are also a number of language benefits that your learners can gain when you teach with music. It teaches students how to speak more naturally, like a native speaker, and offers deeper insight into Chinese culture.
Continue reading learn more about the advantages of adding Chinese music to your curriculum.
3 Reasons Why Your Students Need Chinese Music Lessons
Songs help with learning tones correctly
As we know, conquering the tones is probably the biggest challenge when it comes to learning Chinese.
But unlike most language-learning curriculum, there isn’t as heavy of a focus on tones in Chinese music.
In songs, the tones are not as emphasized as in daily conversations. The understanding of lyrics comes more from the overall flow—the connection between phrases in a sentence—not from specific tones.
As a result, students become more comfortable expressing themselves in a music setting. The encouraging environment will surely boost the effectiveness of your teaching skills.
Of course, that’s not to say that tones aren’t important—they are. And as your students become more comfortable with using the vocabulary, have them work on using the tones correctly.
Lyrics are condensed and idiomatic
Lyrics in Chinese songs are usually not presented in complete sentences.
They are shorter, artistic and more creative, which is a great complement to traditional teaching methods. Students are exposed to different forms of expression such as 成语 (chéng yǔ), also known as idiomatic expressions.
In order to understand a song fully, students have to develop a solid understanding of the nuances in Chinese language. After all, a character can have up to 10 different meanings. This forces students to familiarize themselves with more complex aspects of the language.
Students learn the cultural significance of music
Music plays an important role in everyday life for the Chinese.
Chinese people, especially the younger generation, watch a lot of concerts and music competitions on TV. Music is even an active topic of conversations among friends.
With knowledge of Chinese music, students will find it much easier to interact and make friends with Chinese speakers, which then leads to even more opportunities for cultural immersion and language practice.
Consider going a step further by adding FluentU as part of your teaching material. FluentU lets you expand on material covered in songs by letting you engage students with other authentic Chinese resources, including news articles and video clips from popular television shows. As a result, they’ll learn how to communicate like a first-language Chinese speaker while getting an up-close-and-personal view of life and culture in the Chinese-speaking world.
Getting the Most out of Chinese Music in Your Lessons
Interested in learning how to integrate Chinese music in a teaching setting and make the best use of it?
It’s actually not as hard as you may think. Here’s how you can do it.
Find the right level for your students
This is important with Chinese music since different genres usually have specific speed and word usage—i.e., difficulty levels.
For example, we have the slow and romantic love songs, which are suitable for beginner and intermediate levels. Then there is C-pop, which is for people with a solid Chinese foundation. On top of that, there’s rap for students who really want a challenge.
Carefully pick Chinese songs to teach based on your students’ levels and interest. You want to choose songs within their range of difficulty, otherwise, your students are likely to become frustrated and give up.
Be patient and give lots of examples
After you pick your songs, make sure your students are engaged and following along with the lyrics.
I recommend playing each song a few times, adjusting the speed if necessary. Then ask students questions to determine what they do and don’t understand. Based on the feedback you receive, make notes of the keywords that influence the meaning and theme of a sentence.
After you have a list of keywords, the next step is to explain these words to students in a comprehensive manner. Do this by providing them with many examples, preferably in the form of everyday language in a number of different settings.
This not only helps students understand the songs better, but also equips them with knowledge for future success when they’re studying Mandarin Chinese.
Last but not least, it’s important to be patient. Students may find this method challenging when first starting off. But once they become comfortable and realize the benefits that come with it learning Chinese music, the process will get easier for them.
Combine language lessons with cultural references
Inevitably, students are going to be intrigued by some of the references in songs. After going through the basics like grammar and vocabulary, help your students understand the nuanced meanings and messages “encrypted” in songs.
For example, certain songs directly reflect people’s thoughts during a specific period. This could be politically-charged messages, pop culture references or highlighting current events in China and abroad. Whether relevant or not today, songs with deeper meanings are interesting to talk about with students.
Come up with some activities
There are a number of ways you can target specific language-learning skills with different activities.
- Fill in the Blank: For this activity, print out the lyrics of a selected song and remove a few keywords. Students will be given time to read through the lyrics, getting familiar with the context. Then, play the song a few times and see if students can fill in the blank. This activity works well for introducing keywords of a certain topic, where the song acts as a segue to your breakdown process.
- Sing Along: Students first listen to an easy song a few times, getting the tones right. Then, while the song is still playing, press pause and ask students to continue singing without music. This activity works well as an icebreaker, but it might be too difficult for students new to Chinese music or the language as a whole.
- Connect the Lyrics: Students are given a handful of words and then ask to use their judgment to best connect them to form a sentence. Afterwards, show students the correct version of the sentence. Then, play the song again, highlighting that sentence to the class.
Also, Genius is a great site for lyrics. You can find lyrics for most songs there, even Chinese ones!
5 Popular Chinese Artists
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at some popular Chinese musicians with songs you can add to your lesson.
You can find her as Teresa Teng on YouTube. As one of the most popular Chinese love songwriters, Teng is popular among people born in the 1960s and ’70s. A lot of her songs are still relevant today, including “月亮代表我的心 (yuè liàng dài biǎo wǒ de xīn)/The Moon Represents My Heart.”
When this song came out, China was in a peculiar period. This song can be taught along with a cultural lesson of China in the 1970s.
Her style was in striking contrast to the then officially sanctioned songs in mainland China, which were often revolutionary songs, and made a strong impact on its listeners.
Also known as Faye Wong, 王菲 (wáng fēi) is considered by many to be “the Diva” in the Chinese-speaking world. Her song “因为爱情 (yīn weì aì qíng)/Because of Love” is a classic, and as the title suggests, it’s about love. The lyrics are a little abstract, yet beautifully written.
In a lesson, this song is suitable for a class about love and relationships. For example, teachers can introduce related vocabulary and phrases. Also, teachers can talk about how “love” is expressed differently in China.
For intermediate students
Known in English as Leehom Wang, this artist is a Chinese-American singer, songwriter, actor, producer and film director. In other words, he’s super talented.
Wang’s most popular song is “唯一 (weí yī)/The One and Only.” It’s a song about long-distance relationships and was inspired by Leehom’s trip to Greece, as well as his own realization of how unfair love can be.
This artist is known as JJ Lin in the English-speaking world, and is a powerful singer and songwriter. You have to listen to his song “她说 (tā shuō)/She says” if you are a fan of Chinese music. It’s a beautiful song that tells a story about complete, yet imperfect, love.
Best suitable for intermediate level students who already have a basic understanding of Chinese music, Lin’s songs are often more figurative than literal. For this reason, he’s perfect when teaching Chinese metaphors and idiomatic expressions.
For advanced learners
周杰伦 (zhōu jié lún) goes by name Jay Chou and is a popular Chinese hip-hop artist and all-around cultural icon in the Chinese-speaking world. In fact, a lot of Chinese kids started rapping because of him.
One of his most popular songs,”青花瓷 (qīng huā cí)/Blue & White Porcelain,” uses the object of porcelain to introduce flashing scenes in a young man’s head after meeting a beautiful lady. What’s more, the song is filled with slang, metaphors and unique expressions that you won’t find in most textbooks.
Putting It All Together
Music is just one of the many unconventional ways you can reach your students.
Now that we’ve covered the many benefits music brings to the table, try incorporating it into your coursework.
You can start by playing a popular song at the beginning of a class, gauging your students’ interest, collecting feedback and eventually fitting Chinese music as part of your curriculum.
Not only will your students be more engaged, they’ll get a better idea of contemporary Chinese culture.
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