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Friday, October 28, 2011

Reflecting on my summer in Beijing

A day doesn't go by that I don't think back to the wonderful experience I had this past summer in Beijing at 中央民族大學(Minzu University of China). I spent six weeks attending Hamilton College's ACC K-12 Chinese Language Teachers Institute for Non-Native Speakers of Chinese with 9 other Chinese teachers. Our goal over those six weeks was to not only improve our Mandarin Chinese, but also explore new ways of teaching Chinese language and culture.

During the course of our program we learned to push our Chinese language skills to a new level (with large help from a Chinese Language pledge) and cover an incredible amount of material: from cultural lectures, and curriculum design, to class visits and Chinese teacher conferences. Now, only a few months later, I still marvel at how much we learned and accomplished during those six weeks.
A rough outline of events for the first three weeks. We really had quite the busy schedule.

While I cannot emphasize enough just how much better my Chinese became after those six weeks, I think that even more importantly, I gained a new found confidence (and passion) for teaching Chinese to others. The ability to collaborate with other K-12 Chinese teachers from the United States, and teachers trained in China was, in a word, priceless.

One of the most important lessons I learned, came from the first day of class when we started talking about the "Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century." These standards, developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) are commonly referred to as the 5Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. These five concepts allow for teachers to provide students with a comprehensive learning experience, that will ultimately allow them to interact (successfully) in the target culture.

Inspired by our summer program and ACTFL's 5Cs, I would like to propose my own Standards for Learning a Foreign Language in the 21st Century, otherwise know as the 5Cs of language learning: Commit, Create, Consider, Crave, and Contribute... to language.

1. Commit yourself to the language you are studying. You don't need to be a genius to speak Chinese, but you certainly have to put in time and energy. During our summer in Beijing we did this by signing a six week language pledge. No matter if we were in the classroom or visiting the park, every word we spoke was in Chinese. This level of commitment isn't for everyone, but it certainly is possible to create your own language pledge in small doses. Giving yourself a commitment, whether it be by only Chinese, or making the time to study everyday is a key to success.

My language pledge (and desktop background for the program) was not only a contract with ACC, but also a contract with myself.
2. Create a study system that works for you. This summer we learned the importance of 因材施教 (yīncáishījiào), or the ability to teach according to a student's individual abilities. We faced this rather daunting task by playing games, making videos and overall thinking about the way that different students acquire new information. However, this is something that we as language learners should consider as well. If something isn't working, don't be afraid to try something else. With the availability of free teaching materials online, trial and error until finding something that works should be encouraged.  

A classmate learns how to teach bargaining by practicing her own skills in our classroom market.
3. Consider your environment. The classroom, the Internet, the streets, the people around you, these are all tools and ways that we can learn something new. A huge part of being a successful language learner is having a spark of curiosity. No matter where we are, there are new things to be learned and absorbed all around us. If you're not in a Chinese speaking environment, that should stop you. Let every encounter with a second language (spoken or otherwise) be a chance for new discoveries and insights. Our program took full advantage of our environment. We even had a class in Black Bamboo Park, where we all had the task teaching our classmates one of the many activities we learned that morning. 

My adventure in Black Bamboo Park had me learning to Chinese waltz!
 4. Crave more than you think you can handle. Push the boundaries of what you think you can do with Chinese. Sometimes we have do something that we think is over our head before we can learn what we are capable of. I never thought that I would be able to speak in front of a group of native speakers in Chinese (without being completely self-conscious) until I found myself doing just that for around 200 Chinese teachers who were heading to American and wanted to know what they should expect. At that point my confidence went through the roof. While those opportunities don't come around every day, it is never to early to start a blog in Chinese, sign-up for a speech competition, or switch your computers operating system. Just be sure to keep telling yourself that you can do it!

My classmate and I leading a two hour presentation on media technology in the classroom. Something we never thought possible before the ACC program.
5. Contribute to the language learning community. No matter if you are a teacher or a student don't be afraid to share your opinion. My summer in Beijing taught that my role as a non-native speaker teaching Chinese is incredibly important.  As non-native speakers we can relate to the mistakes students make, and share our own experiences from learning Chinese. As students, contributing to the language learning community is even more important. Let teachers know what works and what doesn't. Sharing input about what you want to learn will not only make lessons more meaningful, but also encourage initiative and independence in the language learning journey. 

Of course, my 5Cs aren't ACTFL certified, but they are way to keep language learning fresh. Now, living in Taiwan as a grad student, I realize just how much I learned during my six weeks in Beijing. My confidence as a second language speaker, and as a future educator has increase tremendously, and if I could go back again I would.  If you are a non-native Chinese speaker and have a career in teaching Chinese as a second language, or are considering one, I would highly recommend looking into the K-12 Chinese Teacher Training programs.

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below, or send me an email.

Students and Teachers of the 2011 K-12 Summer Program.
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