Learning mandarin is difficult to say the least. Or so popular opinion has it. There are however many techniques available to make it easier. The worst way to approach the task is to try to study it in your home country. You need to element of natural communication in order to succeed. The second worst way is to go to China but attend a public university. This may seem counter intuitive. It would make more sense that a Chinese public university is a great place to learn Standard Mandarin. There is however certain barriers that students need to overcome to begin communication that is very difficult to handle in the classroom environment of a large university.
When I write about a Chinese classroom environment I am describing a situation in which there are around thirty students for every teacher. This leaves the teacher with very few options other than to stick to the pre prescribed curriculum no matter what. Individual questions are simply not possible to address in the time frame that the teacher has to teach such a large group.
This issue is problematic in two ways. The first is the shear difficulty in the initial introduction to Chinese language studies. Chinese Mandarin differs in mainly two ways, which can be categorized as pronunciation and characters. Standard Mandarin pronunciation, like all other dialects and other Chinese languages, is tonal. That means that the pitch matters in a way that no Germanic or Latin language speaker is familiar with. The same syllables have multiple meanings, which are without a doubt one of the hardest matters of confusion to address by the teacher. For a student to be able to wrap their tongue around this new concept individual attention is necessary. A large classroom environment is unable to provide students with this crucial component.
The second facet that constitutes a problem for people that are just beginning to learn mandarin is the concept of characters. These are very difficult to learn in an efficient way until you have a few hundred firmly logged in your mind. Most classes need to include new characters in the normal day-to-day curriculum; this makes the first few months the hardest for mandarin learners being taught in a thirty students per teacher classroom. Total focus is necessary to understand the new grammar and the confusing nature of tones. To simultaneously focus on the procedure for writing characters is too much for most people.
Individual attention is therefore, clearly, of immense benefit in Chinese studies, like it is for most educational procedures. However, for a Mandarin curriculum I would go further and say that it is actually a necessity. You can argue that of course it possible to teach in this way as there are many universities that teach mandarin in just such a way.
To that I can only answer that the results of such studies are moderately successful. The gap in basic knowledge of tones, characters and grammar, that the over charged brains are unable to assimilate is such that it creates a very poor foundation for future studies.
It can be that the student is able to learn many new words but unable to pronounce them in natural communication in an intelligible way because the tones have not registered. It can be that student is has learned lots of words, has been able to learn how to pronounce them, but in this case there would be very little focus left on actually understanding Chinese Mandarin syntax, which is also difficult. There will also in that scenario most likely is the case that the student is unable to read and write Chinese Mandarin at the same level as she or he can speak the language.
Without giving students the time to ask individual questions, no teacher, however good, can hope to impart a holistic and consistent level of proficiency. Mandarin language studies are too difficult initially to be taught in a thirty student to one teacher environment.
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