Learning Chinese at CLT

The Centrum voor Levende Talen (CLT) in Leuven, Belgium, is a language school that offers many language courses that are typically organised as evening classes. One of the languages that can be learnt is Standard Chinese. The Chinese language courses at CLT are a bit different from most language courses elsewhere, and, above all, much better. This article is about the Standard Chinese language courses offered at CLT between 2006 and 2012.

In Belgium, many language courses are not semester based but follow the “school years” that apply to most of the educational system. At CLT, there are exams in January and June, and only those who pass the exams can move up to the next year. People with previous knowledge of a language need to take a placement test. (By contrast, evening classes in Germany are semester based and typically have no formal placement tests.) CLT offers 8 years of Standard Chinese language classes; a school year corresponds to 120 “classroom hours” of 50 minutes each.

Standard Chinese language classes at CLT were based on a number of premises and principles, which include the following:

Classes took place either in the evenings from 18.30 till 22.00 or on Saturday mornings from 09.00 till 12.30. There were 120 classroom hours per year. The first two years covered CEFR level A1, the third and fourth year covered CEFR level A2, and the last four years covered CEFR level B1. For comparison, learners of French or English reached level B1 after three years. (Language schools that claim that you can complete level A1 in Chinese with just 60 hours of instruction are pulling the wool over your eyes — and perhaps also over their own.)

During the first class, the teacher told us that being a successful learner of Chinese required roughly 30 minutes of self study per day, in addition to classes themselves. (This meant roughly one hour of self study for each hour of instruction.) For learning Chinese characters, the teacher recommended the use of a small character notebook (a 汉字本子) that was small enough to fit into a jacket pocket. This small notebook could be carried anywhere and taken out to review vocabulary while commuting or during any other moments of spare time. (This was several years before the emergence of smartphones.)

During the first hours of instruction, the teacher talked about some of the characteristics of Standard Chinese and its writing system. The first few weeks were dedicated to “installing a new operating system” into the learners' brains, which included learning to pronounce tones, learning how works, learning how the particle works, and some other aspects that are unintuitive for native speakers of Dutch. Since the verb (to have) requires a different negation word than other verbs, and especially negating , was not taught during the first weeks of instruction.

We learnt Chinese characters from the beginning of the first year. The teacher explained a few basics about characters: the importance of stroke order; that each character filled a virtual square of the same size, regardless of its stroke count; and that we should write each character a hundred times before moving on to the next one. However, the characters themselves were not taught in class: we were given handouts with stroke order diagrams, and each week, we were assigned ten new characters from these handouts. We were expected to learn these characters at home; many learners added them to their 汉字本子.

The textbook used in the course was 新实用汉语课本 / New Practical Chinese Reader. However, the book was not used very much in class. The vocabulary and grammar covered in the book's lessons was covered mostly through conversation and to a lesser extent through reading and grammar exercises. This teaching approach was not intended as an implicit criticism on the New Practical Chinese Reader series of textbooks. Rather, it was based on the observation that learning about the experiences of a number of fictional characters in China is not very exciting. These experiences are not nearly as interesting as learning about real people, and the classroom is filled with real people. So instead of reading and talking about the fictional characters in the textbook, we talked to each other and about ourselves. The teacher made an effort to remember personal stories so that he could refer back to them in later classes. This resulted in conversations that were much more interesting, much more fun and much more “memorable” than talking about 林娜, 丁力波 and 马大为 from the textbook.
For example, after learning the expressions “真的” and “假的”, each of us had to tell a story and then ask whether the story was true or not (“真的还是假的?”). This exercise involved oral skills on the part of the speaker and listening skills on the part of the other learners. This approach can be summarised as “making it personal”.

The exercises in the textbook (as in many other textbooks for Chinese) are insufficient to fully master the vocabulary and grammar presented in each lesson. In addition, the exercises in textbooks are about fictional characters, which is not very exciting. For these reasons, a considerable amount of time was devoted to all sorts of activities that increased our mastery of vocabulary and grammar through activities that involved listening skills, oral skills, reading skills or a combination of these. As mentioned above, these activities were often made “personal”. For example, during the first class, we learnt expressions the basic expressions “你好吗?”, “我很好,你呢?”, “我也很好,谢谢。” and “我叫…”. With just this knowledge, we had to introduce ourselves and find out each other's names. First, this made learning Chinese “personal”, second, we had to find a way to ask somebody's name without using the Chinese equivalent of “What is your name?”. (The trick was to say, “我叫X,你呢?”.)
The teachers sometimes used unusual or unorthodox exercises, such as the “running dictation”. For a “running dictation”, the teacher pins up a text outside the classroom. Learners then work in pairs: one of them leaves the classroom to read part of the text and then comes back to dictate it to the learner who stays inside the classroom. (It is possible to swap roles halfway through the exercise.) This exercise trains reading skills, memory, pronunciation, listening skills and writing skills. It is also an example of an activity where the teacher is not the central hub of communication.
Also, at a very early stage, we were shown short videos (e.g. from YouTube) from which we had to pick out words and expressions that we had just learnt.

During the first two years, we spent one hour per week in a language lab with a different teacher. The goal of having a different teacher for one hour per week was learning to deal with a different accent, instead of getting accustomed only to one teacher's pronunciation. (The teachers of Chinese had noticed that learners sometimes had difficulties adapting to the pronunciation of a different teacher at the beginning of the second year.) The language lab was also used for pronunciation training and for listening to various media, including, but not limited to, the dialogues from the textbook.

In the third year, the teacher introduced something new for learners of Chinese at CLT: a discussion forum. In other language courses, e.g. Spanish, the discussion forum was also used, but as a type of homework platform, where learners were occasionally requested to submit a written assignment, such as a description of a trip abroad. In the Chinese language course, however, the teacher did not do much more than giving a number of suggestions to write about. For example, he wrote episodes of a story, and learners could then come up with continuations. But people quickly started writing about other things, sharing photos, stories and even occasionally asking questions about grammar. The teacher read the contributions and used colour codes to suggest corrections (red for an incorrect choice of words, characters or grammar; blue for missing words or characters; green for superfluous words or characters). Over the course of ten months, the 16 learners of the third year wrote roughly 600 messages. On average, each course participant wrote over 35 messages; in addition, most of them read over 500 messages. So the forum created both opportunities to write about what interested you, but also opportunities to read about people you knew, instead of reading about fictional characters from a textbook.

The teacher also monitored the messages to see whether we lacked vocabulary and grammar structures to express what we wanted to say. In the end, there were only a few things he thought should be added to what was already on the program. For example, in addition to , which we already knew, we also needed to learn 所有(的). We already knew , but we also needed to learn to describe repeated actions in the past. The teacher also found that we progressed much faster then learners of Chinese before the introduction of the discussion forum.

In order to practise oral skills and, to some extent, listening skills, the teacher used various types of media and made them the subject of conversations. In the third year, he showed pages from a comic adaptation of Journey to the West (西游记) and asked us to describe what was happening in the panes of the comic. The panes of the comic also contained dialogue and we were sometimes asked to try to figure out the dialogue, even though our vocabulary was insufficient to read all of the dialogue.

In the fourth year, we continued using the discussion forum, but our teacher gave us an additional task, namely to create a short video. The suggested topic for the video was to introduce your family members, to give a video walkthrough of your home, or both. The rationale was simple: creating this type of video requires you to speak and you often need to start over until you get it right. This is an effective exercise for your oral skills. The short videos were then shown in class (in the language lab). This way, the videos created listening materials for the other learners. The questions and answers after the video created another opportunity to practise oral skills. In addition, the videos created materials that were about people you know instead of fictional characters from a textbook (see “making it personal” above).
The videos also showed that there were clear differences in proficiency between learners: some learners spoke a single sentence between each scene transition. (sometimes reading sentences from a sheet of paper off-screen), while others stood before the camera and spoke 30 seconds or longer without interruption. The teacher later told us that stringing several sentences together in this way went beyond what was expected at our level.

In the fifth and sixth years, we continued using the forum. For the videos, the proposed topics were creating a video advertisement (in the fifth year) and an interview with a native speaker of Chinese (sixth year).

The teacher also used an unorthodox technique to increase reading skills. In the third year, when we had learnt at most 400 characters, we were given short newspaper articles. However, the goal of the exercise was not to learn to read every word in the article. Instead, we were given the task to extract everything from the text that we could understand with the vocabulary we had, and then to try to infer other pieces of information, mainly using our knowledge of radicals. This was always a collaborative exercise in groups of two or three course participants, and this worked best when the teacher withdrew from the classroom during these discussions.
This type of exercise was also part of the written exams, which were held after each semester. However, instead of answering questions about the newspaper article we were given, we had to extract up to ten pieces of information that we understood from the text.

In the fifth year, reading skills were also practised with excerpts from The Diary of Ma Yan (马燕日记). In the sixth year, we also used a graded reader from the Chinese Breeze series, namely 一张旧画儿. We read the story and had to rephrase in our own words what happened.