We all know language learning can be challenging and we definitely know such challenges apply to Mandarin learners, especially those who do not live in the Chinese language speaking environment.
Different tones, different writing systems and different cultural expectations can all lead to despair and demotivation. This is particularly true after you have passed that initial excitement phase of learning something new. Then there also comes the pressure of exams and assessment. Many students who reach intermediate level tend to ask the similar questions: "Is it possible to speak fluent Mandarin ever?", "What's the secret?", "How can I get to the next level? I feel I can't break through the plateau!"
It is no doubt that there are many common ways being mentioned in the literature and research in terms of how to increase students' motivation. To name a few here:
- making your teaching approach interactive, fun and engaging;
- adapting your teaching style to reflect needs of different learners;
- focusing on progression instead of marks;
- using technology effectively to facilitate teaching and learning.
These approaches are important and useful. However, they tend to put the emphasis heavily on teachers and the way they teach. It is also restrictive in the sense that motivation can only be maintained and enhanced during the classroom teaching.
In this article, I'd like to propose a different way to motivate students which goes beyond teachers and classrooms. That is by bringing real success stories and real role models to our students and ensuring that is part of their learning experiences. As we say in Chinese, you can learn a lot from a 过来人 (a person who has gone through the same journey - and survived). In essence, we would like those successful learners to inspire current learners.
The concept itself is nothing innovative. We do this every day in other aspects of our career and life - we want to learn from the more experienced and successful! We buy books, watch videos and attend seminars. But if we could, who wouldn't want the opportunity to meet the 'legend' in person and have a proper chat? If you study investment, I bet you want to meet Warren Buffet; if you study entrepreneurship, I bet you want to have a conversation with Lord Sugar or Sir Richard Branson; if you study technology, I bet you want to ask Mark Zuckerberg a few questions. So why shouldn't that being purposefully applied and practised in language education?
I truly believe we should do that for our students to enrich their learning experience and enable them to learn from those 过来人. Here, I will share three case studies at LSE to show you how this can be done.
LSE Research in Mandarin
LSE Research in Mandarin is an ESRC Impact Acceleration Funded project at LSE, led by me interviewing 16 LSE academics on their research fully in Mandarin Chinese. Amongst these 16 scholars, 7 are actually non-native speakers. They are from UK, USA, Italy, Germany, Finland, and Canada respectively. Their research ranges from the anthropology of China, Chinese political thoughts, Chinese family and education, geographical indications in EU and beyond, Nationalism in China and its foreign policy, Economic relationship between Europe and China in the Mao's Era to performance-based pay in UK and China schools.
Although the project essentially aims to showcase the LSE’s world class research and engage wider academic and non-academic users in all Mandarin speaking countries and regions, it has achieved much more. The project has generated valuable open education resources for all Mandarin learners at LSE and beyond. In addition, it has provided role models to students in various subject fields. For any students who wish to learn Mandarin for academic purposes, these scholars are true success stories. They are not some kind of fictional figures, they are professors and researchers at LSE whom students can identify and talk to. The relevance to students' subject knowledge creates additional educational value and useful input which may not be possible in Mandarin classes. Currently, we are planning more regular lectures in Chinese provided by all non-native yet fluent Mandarin speaking scholars to interact with our learners.
Documentary screening event with the Director
On 21 October 2017, LSE Mandarin team celebrated Black History Month by hosting a public screening of the documentary 《非洲人在义乌》(Africans in Yiwu）followed by conversation with director Ms Hodan Abdi in Mandarin Chinese. It was a true pleasure to have her at LSE to screen the documentary for the very first time.
Africans in Yiwu is a documentary film co-directed by a transnational team of Chinese and African filmmakers and academics. It investigates the realities of the lives of Africans in the city of Yiwu, located in southeast China. Yiwu is home to the world’s largest Small Commodities Market and the second largest African Population in China. The film is comprised of 6 Episodes, each tackling different aspects of their lives including, Work, Family, Education, Music and Arts, Public engagement, and Food Culture. This documentary film is an effort to show the colourful and complicated lives of Africans in Yiwu, the challenges they face, and their relentless struggles.
As for our Mandarin learners, the real opportunity lied in meeting Ms Hodan Abdi in person. Hodan is originally from Somali and now a lecturer in African film and media at the Institute of African studies at Zhejiang Normal University. She shared her experiences learning Mandarin, working and now permanently living in China as well as being a film director for the first time. She admits that her language abilities were key to her successful integration but strongly believes that setting high goals and working hard is what got her to where she is today. Her success story being a black woman who stood out in a competitive and sometimes sensitive media industry in China really inspired and touched all students who attended the event.
A face-to-face conversation with an internet sensation
Blair Sugarman, a British internet sensation known for his Mandarin skills and work experiences in China, was invited by us to give a talk on "The Secret Code: How to Learn Mandarin Well and Start a Career in China" at LSE on Jan 26, 2018.
Blair studied Chinese and Russian at University of Edinburgh. He now lives in Shanghai working as an independent strategy consultant. However, for our students, he is better known for his Youtube channel MYBY孟言布语. Every week, he and his partner Dayday (another successful Mandarin speaker from US) post about their lives in China, Eastern vs Western culture and other random things they want to share with the viewers.
During the event, Blair shared his knacks of learning Chinese characters, improving accent and tips of communication in Mandarin. He also introduced some interesting experiences in representing the UK on Chinese talk show "A Bright world 世界青年说", a Chinese TV show of a panel of foreigners living in China discussing the culture and history of their respective countries. During the Q&A session, Blair talked about renting an apartment, job hunting and networking strategies in China.
Blair’s stories have received positive feedback and attracted lots of students. They were actively involved in learning and interacting, taking photos and added Blair and each other as Wechat (China’s most popular social media software with over 980 million monthly active users) friends.
So you have it. At LSE, we engage and motivate our students by providing real and unique opportunities to interact and learn from those who have learned Mandarin successfully from a range of different backgrounds. We also identify speakers from those sectors that provide relevance to our students in terms of their study or career. In such way, a conversation, an exchange and some suggestions can be truly inspiring and encouraging.
As language educators, bringing success stories into students' learning is not something optional. Providing opportunity to interact and learn from already successful Mandarin speakers should constitute an essential part of the overall learning experience of any Chinese language learners. Moreover, such experiences should be carefully planned and created in order to make it even more memorable, effective and meaningful.
PS. My sincere thanks to my Mandarin team and all speakers, without them, the above experiences would not be possible for our students.
For more information on ideas to help with student learning please visit the HEA Knowledge Hub.