A Shared Approach to Teaching English and Chinese

  • Michael Lapointe
  • May 19, 2019

How bold of a statement would it be to claim to offer English and Mandarin courses under a single academic framework and methodology? Well, that is the concept Study Bali International (SBI) has used to develop and bring to life a novel approach to language acquisition. And why not? The more one contemplates it, the more natural it seems.

 In Bali, like many other world-famous travel destinations, the tourism and hospitality industries drive a demand for English and Mandarin courses. Most companies here need their staff to reach an elementary level of fluency in both languages if they desire to stay ahead of the game. That’s why SBI’s first step was to offer in-house training for both languages, a one-stop service to cover those communicative needs in the work environment. The next step happened as a result of close coordination among the SBI team. We decided to share and examine the commonalities of teaching English and Mandarin in order to assess whether two dissimilar languages could be taught using the same philosophy and methodology. As it turns out, we decided they could and we have pursued that goal with great success since.

 ​​The fact is attempting to align any language to a CEFR framework is arguably one of the most natural things to accomplish, because that’s what it is inherently, an international standard for describing language ability. The focus of the CEFR shifts away from specific grammatical features and concentrates rather on practical skills, in other words, what students are able to communicate in real life situations. Therefore, the SBI academic team decided to map out the course levels along the well-known bands (A1, A2, B1, etc.) of the CEFR for both languages, with the aim that students would have similar communicative proficiency in English and Mandarin at comparable stages. The work is still in progress, but we’ve managed to map a dual language academic framework and shared outcome statements. The result is that students are able to position their level of ability in two very different languages along a single curriculum, one that is internationally understood and recognized.

 English and Mandarin are very different when written. The patterned, phonologically sound Latin alphabet provides a stark contrast to the intricacy of Chinese calligraphy. Writing and reading in Mandarin is far more difficult – At SBI we don’t see this as an obstacle to finding a common methodology in teaching as our Mandarin teachers focus on teaching speaking and listening skills using the Pinyin transliteration method as a guide to pronunciation. Our clients in Bali seek highly specific in-house language training and study outcomes don’t usually demand Mandarin reading and writing skills as staff working in the tourism industry need Mandarin for day to day communication with Chinese guests.

 As for the methodology of our classes, the SBI team has embraced widely lauded method of CELTA (TEFL, TESOL) teaching. And why not? It’s the backbone of the innumerable classes being delivered daily all around world to a multitude of people learning the globe’s Lingua Franca. Once again, we wondered whether this could be applied to Mandarin, especially since it is a method that the experienced SBI academic team knew to be effective. If concepts from the CELTA methodology—student-centered classes, low teacher talk-time, total physical response activities, concept check questions, the meaning-form-pronunciation-appropriation approach, feedback and correction techniques, etc.—could work for English, surely they could be applied to other languages as well. So we tried. The first trial saw members of the SBI team standing in front of the white board, fly-swatter in hand, waiting for the Mandarin teacher to speak one of the four tones so that they could be the first to smash the correct answer on the board. That was a first for us, as well as the Mandarin teacher. It is not to say that no one has ever done this, but our aim is to eventually reach a point where English and Mandarin classes, which have traditionally been thought of as separate and different entities, are delivered using the same internationally recognized methodology.

 In yet another bold move, SBI has done away with textbooks, choosing to follow the CELTA methodology in an almost puritanical fashion. The foremost reason is that textbooks create a constrained learning environment, one in which the teachers and the students are unwittingly beholden to the editorial choices of a publishing company. Our goal at SBI is to provide classes tailored to the specific needs of our corporate clients. There is nothing groundbreaking about this, teachers all around the world do this all the time, but it is imperative to facilitate a flexible approach as we align both English and Mandarin under a similar academic framework and methodology. Textbooks would segregate where we choose to integrate.

We have implemented our plan, we have conducted successful trials, and yet there is a lot of work ahead of us here at SBI. Nevertheless, with the right attitude, we will unify our English and Mandarin curricula under the same academic framework and methodology and provide our students with an analogous experience in their acquisition of English and Mandarin.

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