I work for a Mandarin language school in Beijing. Time and time again I am confused when I read industry promotional literature on new course material. There is always a lack of insight into the issue of motivation. I recently wrote an article for the academy newsletter where I singled out motivation as one of the absolutely key components of any language curriculum. In many ways learning mandarin is comparable to university degree. It certainly requires a similar level of commitment to reach fluency. At the same the rewards of proficiency are abstract and it is hard to motivate oneself when the destination one is working so hard to reach is not clearly defined. Because of this all course material, in my eyes, and in the eyes of the academy’s faculty, must have a clear focus on keeping students motivated. It is absolutely essential to long-term success.
In all faculty discussions two key factors are concentrated upon as the source of motivation. The first of these is fun. Studies must be interesting, entertaining or in some other way intrinsically linked to positive reinforcement of efforts made by students to sit down and study. The second of these factors is even more important as a source of positive reinforcement: results.
Results are of course an effect of studying. By any definition of a good curriculum it is certainly the case that results must be there. However, what much of the available course material fails to address is the notion of perceived results. Students must be shown how their work is leading to bigger and greater things. That when they learn a hundred new words, the effort of the hard work they put in stand in relation to he benefits they extract.
The students must perceive these results in a timely fashion. It will not do to show progress on a monthly basis by handing out a test. The students will falter before the end of the month if they are not given an indication on a fundamental level that their work is in fact producing the desired outcome. There are many ways in which this results can be shown, but almost all material leave it in the hands of teachers to do so. Optimal material should help an education in this crucial aspect.
One of the ways that results can be illustrated is by base choice of topics. There could be a much more real focus on the daily life of students instead of generally less applicable content. One favorite of the editors of these books seems to be library visits. I know, for a fact, that no person that has ever learned to speak Mandarin, has done this to visit a library, or by only visiting a library. The topics should focus on actions that students often do. Like going for a drink, or going to a restaurant, or meeting a girl or a guy for a date, playing football – not library visits, how to sing happy birthday in Chinese or how describe The Great Wall. If students are taught the stuff they need in daily life they not only practice Chinese in daily life, they are also shown, on a daily basis, that they are in fact learning heaps.
Another way of showing students their phenomenal progress, that may other way go completely unnoticed, is by not only building each new chapter on the progress of the preceding chapters, like a cake, which of course is completely the right thing to do, but to take this one dimension further an introduce an element of progress testing in the material. The books should explicitly ask grammar questions similar to those that were asked in previous chapters. That way, either by students finding similarly difficult question easier or by understanding more complex tasks that are directly linked to previously encountered easier ones, students will find direct positive reinforcement from their school books. Which must surely be something any educator in the schools that all these books go out to must consider paramount.
About the Author
Rui Ming works for a Mandarin academy that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. If you are interested in more information about learning Mandarin in China, please consult the website of Beijing Gateway Academy.