Data presentation and analysis
Core beliefs about teaching Chinese as a foreign language
The CI Chinese teachers in this study hold some core beliefs about teaching Chinese as a foreign language. They talked explicitly about their beliefs and summarise them in well-phrased idiom-like maxims, such as, (a) '^Ш^№' (xian zhun hou kuai), which means 'accuracy is given priority over fluency'; (b) '^^^'W(xian si hou huo) or (si qu huo lai), which means 'to master the (rigid) grammatical structure first before generating various meaningful sentences (at will)'; (c) 'WioJ (you yu wu wen, xing zhi bu yuan), which means a Chinese learner cannot go far without learning the written form of the language.
The following extracts from the interviews and field notes are presented to show these beliefs.
(a) '^Ш^№' (xian zhun hou kuai)
This belief gives priority to 'accuracy' over 'fluency':
They want to run before they could walk. I told them that I am not opposed to you talking anything beyond, but first of all, you should get those sentences in the textbooks right. (T4)
To learn Chinese well, one must have a good beginning, a solid foundation; otherwise, the results would be disastrous. (T7)
Obviously, these teachers subscribe to the 'getting it right in the beginning' approach (Lightbown & Spada, 2006), especially in the teaching of pronunciation and tones. The 'disastrous' results may mean the 'fossil- ization' of errors. In a group discussion about the issue of whether or when and how to correct the students' mistakes in class, the participants hold the view that one of the teachers' roles in class is to model the good use of language and correct the mistakes committed by the students. In addition, they also believe that is what the students want as well: 'I believe the students also expect to be corrected when they make mistakes' (T1).
The emphasis these Chinese teachers put on the students' accurate use of the language may reflect their behaviourist view of learning, but they do not think this belief 'is a cultural thing', or 'it is only Chinese way', as McGinns (1994) claims, where accuracy versus creativity in language use is a clash of culture of instructions. They think the determinant factor for this corrective practice is students' learning goals as well as the formal language learning process itself. However, it is interesting to note that one of the reasons given by the teachers for her 'zero tolerance of errors' sounds culture-specific:
I am not tolerant of their mistakes, (because) it is not just her face, but also my face is at stake. I don't want people to think that's what I taught. (T6)
Arguably, 'saving face' is often presented as a Chinese cultural practice, and her statement also indicates her belief in a strong relationship between a teacher and student. As a teacher, she tends to take more responsibility for her students' learning outcomes. Although all the participants believe corrective feedback is beneficial to student learning, they also state that they are sensitive to their students' feelings and 'face' when giving feedback in class. Moreover, they would not correct all the mistakes the students made at once, but only the key points, which are usually the learning objectives for that lesson.
(b) 'JkM1^'W(xian si hou huo) or (si qu huo lai): 'Creative use of
the language comes from the mastery of the rigid rules.'
This belief is mainly about the relationship between form and meaning. The teachers do not put them in opposite but rather in sequential relation: to master the rigid grammatical structure first before generating various meaningful sentences at will. First of all, the participants in this study all have a strong belief in teaching grammar as an essential part of TCFL for the students to achieve mastery of the language, as shown in their words:
- • 'Grammar is the shortcut to having a command of a language.'
- • 'Grammar helps them understand both meaning and form.'
- • 'Grammar is not just about language knowledge but also about language use.'
One teacher offered her explanation for the explicit way of teaching grammar:
If you (the teacher) do not direct their attention to the special language structure, they will not learn it consciously, and they will not consciously use this new structure, but only rely on the simple expressions and stop making progress. (T2)
These Chinese teachers believe that through analytically learning grammatical rules, the students can build a generative language framework that enables them to recombine linguistic elements to create new utterances. Although the process might be rigid, the product is much more desirable in the long run. It is worth pointing out that their emphasis on grammar teaching does not mean they devalue the communicative practices. On the contrary, they believe form and meaning are equally important in their classroom practice. They subscribe to the task-based language teaching methods and put grammar learning in functional contexts. So, among their teaching beliefs, creating meaningful communication and developing students' sophisticated syntactic structure are both important. Moreover, according to them, the sophisticated or unique syntactic structures of Chinese have to be consciously taught and learned in the classroom. That is why some participants call their teaching xue yuan pai, meaning 'college/academy style', in contrast with those less rigorous or informal language programs.
Consistent with their rigorous teaching goals, they tend to believe that traditional drilling exercises are necessary in order to consolidate students' Chinese language skills and reach the goal of proficiency. At a workshop, T6 disagreed with a local Chinese teacher's condemnation of 'drilling':
Drilling is not the devil. It is an inseparable part of learning activity. Of course, you don't want to make it boring; you can animate your class in various ways and keep your students engaged and alert. (April 2013)
For the participants, 'drilling' is a legitimate learning activity; the key is how to use it effectively and productively. These beliefs may be easily attributed to Chinese educational culture, but the participants tend to attribute their beliefs to their previous successful teaching experience in their home university as well as the unique features of the Chinese language, which, in their belief, requires much practice and repetition in order to achieve mastery.
This finding shows that both elements, behaviourism or instruc- tionism (Cohen et al., 2004) and constructivism, are represented in the teachers' discourses - though one paradigm is more dominant than the other.
(c) 'Wio’XAj (you yu wu wen, xing zhi bu yuan): A Chinese
learner cannot go far without learning the written form of the language.
The participants shared the belief that Chinese characters should be taught early, without delay:
- • 'It is good to teach characters from the very beginning.'
- • 'Practicing writing characters can get the feel and essence of Chinese language.'
Although CI Chinese teachers agree that 'speaking comes before writing' xian yu hou wen), they were quite surprised that some students in their class could only read pin yin (the phonetic system of Chinese language) and did not learn characters, even if some students had already studied Chinese for one or two semesters. They subscribed to the immediate character instruction (ICI) model (Ye, 2013) with the similar rationale that characters are an essential aspect of the Chinese language, and if learning characters is delayed, the students are likely to rely on pinyin, which will make learning their characters more difficult in the long run. In addition, one participant said, 'I have never met a person who speaks Chinese well but does not know characters' (T8, 22/2/2012, field note). That is why they also showed strong disapproval of the local practice that students were not required to write Chinese characters in the early stage of their learning. They seem to believe that writing Chinese characters would enhance the students' enthusiasm for learning Chinese as well as their understanding of the essence of Chinese language as a whole.
Generally speaking, these Chinese teachers put more emphasis on the study of proper language (i.e., pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar), and believe that a good language teacher should improve students' language skills (i.e., listening, speaking, reading and writing) holistically and effectively. All these core beliefs are manifested in their notion of being 'a proper language teacher' ('Ш—', zuo yige benfen de yuyan jiaoshi). In other words, the ultimate goal of their teaching is to produce native-like Chinese speakers. That is why T7 found the American foreign language standards, the so-called 5Cs (communication, culture, connections, comparisons, community) rather confusing. He said, 'If you do a proper job as a language teacher, the other competences (of the student) will come along' (28/11/2012).
Here 'the other competences' refer to communicative competence and social-cultural competences as stipulated by the curriculum.