How Do I Make Learning Mandarin Chinese Easy and Fun?

This week the Hutong School blog was visited by a guest blogger: Mike from Chinese with Mike

Nǐ hǎo! My name is Mike Lǎoshī, and I am the creator of Chinese with Mike, a video/textbook series to learn Mandarin Chinese. If you follow your average celebrity news websites, you’ve probably heard of me.  If not, here are the basics: I live in a one-car garage in Chicago; I have a great fashion sense; and I’m the coolest Chinese teacher on Planet Earth. That pretty much sums it up.

Chinese with Mike was born in 2010 when I began posting Chinese-learning videos online. Almost instantly, I became an international sensation with my very own YouTube channel, Twitter account, and Facebook page. To this day, my fans continue to tell me that I make learning Chinese easy and fun. I can’t disagree with them–I do! Who wouldn’t like learning from a dude who blows off firecrackers, breaks coffee pots, and plays the guitar while he’s teaching?

Chinese with Mike

Recently I also started teaching Mandarin at a local community college. Everything was going great until my boss threatened to fire me for violating the school dress code and “having too much fun in my classes.” (Lame, I know.) Anyway, I’ve had to tone things down a bit, but I’m still making Chinese easy and fun. How? The Mike Laoshi 5-Step Plan (explained below). Give it a try—it works.

P.S. What you are about to read is top-secret information, so feel free to share on social media.

STEP 1: SHIELDING

Chinese with Mike

Many people tell me that they’ve heard Mandarin is the “hardest language in the world,” yet I doubt anyone who has actually studied Mandarin would perpetuate such a myth.  Spoken Mandarin Chinese is the one of the easiest languages I’ve studied; sure, learning to read and write Chinese characters takes a little time, but even that’s not so bad.

Unfortunately, many students do not enroll in multiple semesters of Mandarin Chinese because they lack the confidence they deserve after dedicating their time to learning the language.

As an instructor, my first step is to shield beginners from the more difficult sentence structures in Mandarin. Initially, I recommend using Chinese sentence structures that mirror their English counterparts; doing so won’t overwhelm students with both new vocabulary and grammar; it allows us instructors to focus on one concept (vocabulary or grammar) at a time. We learn Wǒ shì Mike (I am Mike) before Wǒde míngzi shì Mike (My name is Mike) with both sentences employing a similar sentence structure using the verb shì (to be) whereas later, we learn Wǒ jiào Mike (I (am) called Mike) which requires a different verb, jiào, and does not translate well to English speakers.

Similarly, I teach Wǒ zài Běijīng (I am in Beijing) or Wǒ zaì dòngwùyuán (I am at the zoo) which translate directly to English, before I teach Diànnǎo zài zhuōzi shàng (The computer is on the table) which requires a more complex grammatical construction. Trust me—use the shield.

STEP 2: MANIPULATING

After your students are comfortable with forming basic sentences (asking and answering questions) recommend teaching several more key questions/answers using the same sentence patterns, and ideally, using the same verb(s). For example, if students learn shì, the “be” verb, it makes sense to ask them to generate as many questions/answers as they can using the same sentence structures.

Using only the verb shì, you can teach the following exchanges: Who are you? I am Mike. ; What is your nationality? I am American. ; What is this? This is a dog. ; What is that? That is a cat. ;  Where is London? London is in England. ; Where is your sister? My sister is at school. ; What time is it? It is three o’clock. ; What day is today? Today is Wednesday. ; What is the date today? Today is March 1. ; How old are you? I am 16 years old.

I could go on and on with examples, but I think you see where I’m heading. Just look at the vast territory you can cover by manipulating sentence patterns while using only one verb: shì. Don’t ask questions—just do it.

STEP 3: RECYCLING/RANDOMIZING

Back in high school, I tried (and failed) to memorize hundreds of Spanish verbs in my first-ever foreign language class. I had no problem acing my weekly vocabulary tests because I was good at cramming information, but a week or so later, I couldn’t remember much. As a professor, my approach is to recycle vocabulary and sentence patterns, pairing new vocabulary with old sentence patterns and vice versa.

Furthermore, I randomize conversations. For example, I may ask the class: “What is the day (of the week) today?” or “What is the date today?” and practice the pattern with students both collectively and individually. Then, without warning, I move to an entirely different topic of conversation with different vocabulary/sentence patterns. I will ask, “Where is your book?” or “How are you today?”

Again, I practice the patterns with students both collectively and individually. Working with students as one large group is efficient, as multiple students can practice speaking at once; working with students individually keeps them more accountable.

By recycling/randomizing vocabulary and sentence patterns, students are able to commit to memory more vocabulary words by practicing them regularly; additionally, students can generate more conversations of their own.

Chinese with Mike

STEP 4: BUILDING CONFIDENCE

The end result of employing Steps 1-3 (Shielding, Manipulating, and Recycling) is that students build confidence in their learning of the language. They are not overwhelmed;  they don’t have to memorize contrived situational dialogues (like what to do at the airport, the restaurant, or the supermarket) that they would neither remember nor employ if the situation ever arose.

Instead, students should generate their own sentences using vocabulary and sentence structures that are familiar to them. They will be able to speak comfortably with others, as well as better control the difficulty levels of their conversations. If a particular topic is beyond their level of proficiency, students can retreat to more familiar questions/answers, as they gradually work towards a mutual understanding.

Meanwhile, by following steps 1-3, students should already be proficient in asking questions, such as  “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?”, and “Who is the best Chinese teacher?”, and responding with answers like “My name is Mike.”, “I am from Chicago.”, and “Mike Lǎoshī is the best Chinese teacher.” Are these fundamental exchanges not the stepping stones to buiding relationships?

STEP 5: PARTY TIME

Everybody likes a good party, and if you and your students have followed my first four steps, you should be ready for party time, which consists of allowing your students to put their progress on display by actually speaking Chinese with other Mandarin speakers. Take them to China, if possible; take them to a Chinese event in your local area; best of all, schedule a tour of my garage.  Most importantly, let them see how what they learn in the classroom connects to the outside world. Party on, Wang!

So that’s the easy part. How is it fun?

Making Chinese Fun

chinese lessons

First off, there’s no magic trick to making learning Chinese fun. Sure, there are several fun classroom games and activities that teachers can use, but those will only get you so far. The key is—and the older the students are, the better this technique works—to convince students that the “fun” in learning Chinese is the challenge itself—the challenge to learn what some people call the hardest language in the world; the challenge to decode the mother tongue of over one billion people; and, most importantly, the challenge to better yourself for it.

Best wishes,

Mike Lǎoshī