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US Appetite for Mandarin Grows but Good Teaching Material Lacking

Although Spanish is still the most studied second language in the US, Mandarin has never been more widely taught, though students are being deterred by both poor quality, inappropriate teaching material and unprofessional teachers.

Photo: Is there an All-American way to learn Mandarin?
Is there an All-American way to learn Mandarin?
Photo: Is there an All-American way to learn Mandarin?
Is there an All-American way to learn Mandarin?

While the US appetite for leaning Mandarin grows apace, there is still a distinct shortage of appropriate teaching material, according to a number of exhibitors at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Annual Convention and World Languages Expo in Texas. There was also much discussion with regard to electronic teaching materials, 'blended learning' and mobile devices, though old-fashioned print was still seen as dominating the language market.

Spanish is still, understandably, the most popular non-English language for US students, while Europe and South America are the prime destinations for students and TEFL teachers travelling abroad. Learning Mandarin, though, has grown massively in popularity over recent years.

As well as the changing linguistic priorities, there were also concerns about addressing the latest methodological requirements. Tom Alsop, Founder, Publisher and Teaching Content Provider for Indiana's Creative Teaching Materials and Workshops, said: "It's an evolving situation, methodology-wise. Teachers are kind of in the middle, so they're doing traditional things – communicative activities and grammar – and in another part of the class, they're using technology. It ends up being what's called 'blended learning', where you blend the methods together.

"Everything still works. It's just that teachers have to be a little more creative when planning lessons than they were 10 years ago."

A significant number of the teaching materials exhibitors at the expo were presenting technology-focussed products and services. One such company was New Hampshire's Transparent Language, a cloud-based learning programme provider. Explaining the company's approach, General Manager Chuck McGonagle said: "Any technology learning is enhanced by an instructor. So we're very strong proponents of blended learning. Blended learning is better than working solely with an instructor alone or solely with a computer. You optimise. You let the computer do what it does best and let the instructor do what he does best.

"We think that empowering people to make their own materials is a key element here. So we do a lot of that. We allow instructors to author their own lessons and deliver them to their students. We focus a lot on productive language – speaking the language and writing the language are important in our systems. I think they'll continue to be but, of course, we'll also be doing it all on mobile."

Integrating language-teaching programmes into mobile devices – phones and tablets – is seen by many as vital. Lisa A Frumkes is Head of Language Learning Products for one of the leading consumer-facing, language-learning brands worldwide, Seattle-based Rosetta Stone. She said: "One of the things that we talk about is that everyone's got mobile devices. It's about trying to weave language learning into the everyday.

"We're all very busy and we know that it takes a lot of time on task to achieve proficiency in any skill. So, for me, I want to be able to do my language learning during my commute, I want to do it while I'm waiting in line for lunch or waiting to pick up my kids from their soccer game. It's about making a product that allows you to get into all those dead-air spots, while using games and social engagement to get there."

Top line topic and growing force though electronic media may be, it's not a panacea, with a number of delegates and exhibitors keen to emphasise that many traditional teaching methods and materials are still a vital part of the mix. Assessing the overall balance, Alsop said: "Our sales are probably still about 65/35 in favour of print. I think that eventually – eight or 10 years down the road – I'd say that it'll all be digital.

"You have to be careful. Everybody out there isn't doing all the technology and you still have a lot of traditional teachers. Half of them accept it totally and half of them not at all. It's still very much a mixed bag."

An over-reliance on teaching through electronic devices can, in fact, be counter-productive. Carl Robertson is Associate Professor of Chinese at Southwestern University Texas. Attending the expo as a representative of the Chinese Language Teachers' Association, he said: "There's more and more technology used in teaching Chinese. One of the issues with that, though, is that the more you use the computer, the less you remember the characters.

"One private school introduced its first-year student to computers and had them write with the computer. So they're writing in Romanisation and the characters come up. By the third grade they couldn't even read – they could probably read the Romanisation, but they couldn't read Chinese characters.

"Cognitive development is very important, not just because of the special nature of Chinese, but just because of the expended utilisation of the brain. It's important to have hand-eye co-ordination. To me that's why Chinese calligraphy is so important."

Learning Chinese has enjoyed tremendous growth in the US but, with increased opportunities there are also increased demands for greater professionalism. Robertson said: "Immersion learning for children is really taking off. In the US lots of immersion programmes are popping up in schools all over the place.

"Most of the teachers are Chinese natives. Some 20 years ago, when I came to these conferences, I'd say most were non-Asian. Now it's primarily native-Chinese speakers. It's not sufficient to be a native-Chinese speaker, though. You pretty much have to have an advanced degree in specifically teaching Chinese to non-native speakers or you're not going to be able to land a position."

Alison Castle, Marketing Manager for MacMillan Education, international publishing house, also saw a need for Chinese teaching in the US market to deliver more. She said: "A lot of the materials that have been published over the years – certainly the materials that have come out of China – tend to be much more traditional, much more grammar-focussed and based on rote memorisation.

Photo: Castle: “Teaching Mandarin in a western context”.
Castle: "Teaching Mandarin in a western context".
Photo: Castle: “Teaching Mandarin in a western context”.
Castle: "Teaching Mandarin in a western context".
Photo: Robertson: “Too much technology”.
Robertson: "Too much technology".
Photo: Robertson: “Too much technology”.
Robertson: "Too much technology".

"Our Discover China series tries to bridge the gap – teaching Mandarin, but in a Western context. It is the way that kids in the US or the UK are expecting to learn a modern foreign language.

"The biggest challenge is working with Chinese teachers who may be used to teaching in a certain way. We have try and open their minds to look at something a little bit differently."

Teaching materials suppliers also noted certain peculiarities of doing business in the US. Greg Jones, Marketing Executive for Kong Park, a Seoul-based Korean and Chinese language publisher, said: "There's a lot of differences when selling into the US. The US market is tougher in some respects, partly because of the lack of independent bookstores and the domination of the chains. There is, however, lot of interest in learning Asian languages."

Selling into the US public sector also has its challenges. Castle said: "For us, the hardest thing is all the differences between the states and how they make decisions on book-buying. Some of them work at state level, with the number of years that goes between changing a book different for every state. Then you have some states that work at district level. So it's keeping on top of that, and knowing exactly when is the right time to get your book in to be potentially reviewed as something that can be used."

Despite the growth in popularity of learning Chinese, the number one non-English language in the US is still Spanish, thanks to the large, and growing, Hispanic community. Universities consortium, IES Abroad, based in Chicago, is a non-profit study abroad organisation. Programme Dean, Leland L'Hote, said: "We do work with a number of universities that are traditionally Hispanic-serving institutions. In those cases there is more interest among the US Latino population in studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. It's the same thing with students of Asian parentage. A high proportion of our students studying in China have some heritage connection.

"Our largest centre is Barcelona. We usually have 250 students studying there at any given time. Our second largest venue varies, sometimes it's London, sometimes it's Rome, sometimes Buenos Aires, sometimes Vienna."

Photo: The ACFTL 2014: Nation learning to speak unto nation.
The ACFTL 2014: Nation learning to speak unto nation.
Photo: The ACFTL 2014: Nation learning to speak unto nation.
The ACFTL 2014: Nation learning to speak unto nation.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Annual Convention and World Languages Expo was held at the Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center, San Antonio, Texas, on 21-23 November 2014. More than 6,000 teaching professionals attended the event, taking part in a range of seminars and browsing the products and services of 250-plus exhibiting companies.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Texas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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