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Self-reflection on the Teaching of Chinese at Australian Schools: From a Teacher-researcher’s Perspective

Yiye Lu

(University of Western Sydney, Australia)
Abstract: The rise of China has changed and is still changing the Australian economy, society and strategic environment. In order to face the challenge and shape the Australian future in the 21st Asian Century, one of the strategic plans Australian Government made is encouraging all Australian school children to be able to learn Chinese (Mandarin). However, the lack of qualified teachers constrains the development of Chinese language teaching and learning programs in many parts of Australia. This paper begins with the necessity of promoting language teaching and learning in Australia. Then, it focuses on three reflective stories from a teacher-researcher’s initial teaching practice. These stories reveal three main challenges that Chinese language teachers face. Following this, other obstacles related to Chinese teaching are presented. It argues that the number of appropriately qualified and experienced teachers of Chinese to work with beginning non-Chinese background Australian learners is highly demanded.
Key words: Chinese teaching, reflective stories, Australian schools, Chinese teachers

Living in a multilingual knowledge society with intense globalization and human immigration, it is crucial to present “an appreciation of multiple languages and cultures and to develop an ability to communicate effectively with people across languages, cultures and communities” (Duff, 2008, p. 5). Chinese has attracted much international interest and has become the second most important language in the world at present, after English. It is widely used for communication among people from different ethnicities and language backgrounds (Duff, 2008; Orton, 2008).
Australia, as a proactive country in the world’s multilingual knowledge economy, has made Asian languages education as a top priority in order to remain competitive globally (Orton, 2008). This initiative was first proposed in the early 1990s by Kevin Rudd who later became Australian Prime Minister from 2007 to 2009. Rudd (1994) claims that Asian languages and cultures are of great significance to the development of Australia’s economy in the Asian-Pacific region, especially given China’s role in Australia’s export market.
Asian Language and Australia’s Economic Future (Rudd, 1994) emphasizes that a national Asian languages and cultures strategy should be developed in the context of second language education. To this end, four priority Asian languages were selected based on their economic significance to Australia for study in schools. The nominated languages were Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, Indonesian and Korean.
Following Rudd’s report (1994), a number of educators have expressed their deep concern about the need to develop Asian languages in Australia in the last few decades. For example, Henderson (2008) provides the following statement in conclusion to her review of Rudd’s report on Asia literacy:
For Australia to remain competitive regionally and globally depends not on capital, resources and technology as before, but on whether future generations are educated and sufficiently skilled for Asian engagement (p. 190).
Even recently, the Australian Government released a White Paper entitled “Australia in the Asian Century “on 28th of October, 2012, drawing even more extensive and intensive interest and attention to Asian language teaching and learning for the educators and teachers. The then Australian Prime Minister, Ms Julia Gillard said, “The transformation of the Asian region into the economic powerhouse of the world is not only unstoppable, it is gathering pace (Australian Government’s White Paper, 2012, p. ii)”. The rise of the Asian countries is changing the whole world, and of course, it has changed and is still changing the “Australian’s economy, society and strategic environment” (Australian Government’s White Paper, 2012, p. 1). Therefore, how to face the challenge and shape the Australian future in the 21st Asian Century? One of the strategic plans Ms Gillard mentioned in the White Paper is encouraging all Australian school children to be able to learn an Asian language. In order to prepare the nation for the “Asian Century”, the four priority Asian languages are Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, and Indonesian.
Among these four languages, Chinese, in particular, obtains urgent and high-level attention at the national level and has been selected as part of an Australian national language curriculum (ACARA, 2011). This is because “Australia’s fate is likely to remain solidly bound up with its relationship with China” (Orton, 2008, p. 8). In Orton’s report “Chinese language education in Australian schools”, she outlines a dense and wide-ranging linkage between Australia and China. She claims that in Australia, there is one country which is:
1) a regional neighbor
2) its largest trading partner
3) a rising world economic power
4) a major source of immigrant workforce
5) a major source of international students
6) a major source of tourists to Australia
7) a major destination for Australian tourists
8) the source of its largest number of immigrant settlers
9) a country with a long and prestigious culture
10) home to 1 in 5 human beings on the earth (Orton, 2008, p. 8)
This country was China in 2008, and it is of even greater importance now. This situation has become much more obvious, witnessing China’s growing status all over the world. To achieve mutual benefits for both Australia and China economically and socially, it is important to further develop present positive Australia-China relationships by engaging with China at a greater linguistic and intellectual depth. Therefore, to understand China and to speak the Chinese language well is identified as vital to future Australian prosperity. However, there is a need for the “urgent development in the breadth and quality of Chinese teaching and learning in Australian schools” (Orton, 2008, p. 9), which is regarded as a matter of national strategic priority.
ROSETE-An innovative teacher education
partnership in NSW

It is well recognized that the lack of supply of qualified teachers constrains the development of Chinese language teaching and learning programs in many parts of Australia (Orton, 2008). In order to meet the demand for qualified teachers at all levels, many States and Territories fund various in-service and pre-service Chinese teacher education programs in universities for those already approved teachers from a Chinese background but lack formal language teaching qualifications and also for novice Chinese teachers (Orton, 2008).
According to Orton (2008),in NSW, there is a successful program, which supplies Chinese First Language (L1)speakers as volunteers to teach Chinese language in the local schools, so that the shortage of Chinese teachers can be solved to a certain extent. This program is called ROSETE, which is an abbreviation of “Research-Oriented School-Engaged Teacher Education” (Zhao &Singh, 2008). It is the result of a partnership among the Ningbo Municipal Education Bureau (NMEB), the Western Sydney Region (WSR) of the NSW DEC, and the University of Western Sydney (UWS). From 2008, there have been fifty-four Volunteer Teacher-Researchers (VTRs) from Ningbo, China, who have been studying for a Master of Education (Honors) at UWS and teaching Chinese voluntarily at local schools every week. This international collaboration Program aims to prepare future teacher-researchers through a combination of research and teaching practice or as Singh (2013) indicates as a “university/industry” (p. 6) collaboration aiming to improve school students’ learning outcomes. The ROSETE Partnership is an innovative model for language teacher education, which provides a new approach to combining teaching, theory and practices so that novice language teachers can steadily improve their teaching efficiency based on day-to-day reflection of their lessons. As one of the VTRs in the third cohort in this Partnership, the author of the paper provides the following reflective stories to explore the teaching of Chinese at an Australian school.
Three reflective stories
When I was a child, I dreamt of going abroad. When I was a child, I also dreamt of being a teacher. This dream, fortunately, came true in 2010 when I came to Australia as a volunteer Chinese teacher involved in ROSETE program. My main responsibility was to encourage and inspire primary and secondary students in Western Sydney public schools to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture.
However, this dream shortly became a nightmare because I encountered many challenges in teaching my mother tongue (Chinese) to Australian students. In this paper, I will present three stories to demonstrate some of these initial challenges. It starts with a narration of each story, followed by my reflection.
Story one:
Today’s lesson was about animals. When I taught my students that ‘老鼠 (LǎoShǔ)’ is mouse, and ‘老虎 (LǎoHǔ)’ is tiger (see Table 1), at that moment, one student put his hand up and asked, “Miss, mouse and tiger belong to different families of animals, why do they have the same character ‘老 (Lǎo)’ ”? What a brilliant question that was! To be honest, I had never thought of this question before.
Table 1: Teaching episode of mouse vs. tiger
Pinyin                               LǎoShǔ     LǎoHǔ
Hanzi (Characters )        老鼠            老虎
English meanings Mouse Tiger
The next day, when I taught the same topic to another group of students, I purposefully mentioned this question. I explained the problem to the students in this way, “Year 7, you might find it interesting as to why ‘老鼠 (Lǎo Shǔ)’ and ‘老虎 (Lǎo Hǔ)’share the same character even though they are not from the same family of animals. ‘老(Lǎo)’ literally means ‘old’. Its usage is very similar to a prefix that is used in an English word. For example, you can find some English words that share the same beginning part (prefix), such as unhappy and unlucky. The prefix ‘un’ means ‘not’. So in Chinese ‘老 (Lǎo)’ is a prefix which means ‘old’”. I thought that this time there would be no more strange and bizarre questions coming from the students. However, as a matter of fact, my students always went against my expectations. A sweet girl asked, “Miss, so little tiger is also called ‘老虎(LǎoHǔ)’? How can a young tiger be called ‘Lǎo (old)’?”
My reflection:
There are so many lively episodes such as these that have occurred in my teaching at local schools in Western Sydney Region. These critical teaching moments illustrate the first challenge: How to respond unexpected students’ questions, to which I have no ideas about how to respond. “Is Chinese really my mother tongue?” I ask myself, questioning whether I am really a native speaker of Chinese. Being a native speaker of a language does not mean one can answer non-native speakers’ intellectual questions about the language.
Having said that, however, this challenge is very common among First Language (L1) speakers of Chinese. This is because, to the best of my knowledge, that when a Second Language (L2) learner starts to experiment a new language, they consider it from a totally different angle, and tend to compare with their L1. As a result, this leads to a tremendous challenge for native speakers of Chinese teachers in three different ways:
1) Something that teachers who are L1 speakers of Mandarin take for granted might greatly inspireL2 learners’ interest and curiosity.
2) Something that L1 speaking teachers know about Chinese, but they do not know how to explain to L2 learners.
3) Something that L1 speaking teachers might explain about Chinese, but their explanations might result in students’ further confusion or more perplexing questions.
Story two:
We were discussing about food and food preferences in different cultures. Suddenly, a year 7 student asked me, “Miss, do Chinese people eat dogs?” “Yes, we do.” I responded without any hesitation. This student continued to ask me, “What kinds of dog do you eat?” I was just thinking how to respond to students, when my mentor interrupted, “Let’s focus on the task.” She redirected students’ attention from an open-ended conversation for which I was unprepared to the task at hand.
My reflection:
This is one of the impressive lessons which presents the second challenge: How to involve cultural discussion, especially controversially culture issues such as ‘one child’ policy and the Chinese Communist Party. On one hand, I appreciate that my mentor saves me from an embarrassing situation; but on the other hand, I am curious about why she do that. After the lesson, she tell me very seriously, “Never tell students that you eat dogs. You know what? Dogs are their pets. So how could you eat their pets-their best friends? They think that Chinese are so cruel. If you tell them that you eat dogs, they will suddenly treat you differently, and they will also see Chinese and China from a different perspective. So do not lose your status in students’ hearts.”
Due to the fact that L2 learners, as a rule, hold different ideas and beliefs about the same cultural phenomena, it is vital for teachers to control the way in which cultural information can be presented in a positive way. If no appropriate and careful consideration was taken into account, then a negative impression about the teacher like me and Chinese people would be the result. This would further affect a teacher’s authority in students’ heart. In the above example, year 7 students would probably think I am cruel because of eating their pets. Therefore, a language teacher needs to know the local (Australian) culture as much as possible.
Story three:
This was the first lesson that I observed my mentor to teach Chinese characters. Table 2 illustrated one example, the character 好 (hǎo). She explained that the left part “女” is a picture of a woman. You could remember this because to me it looks like a woman curtseying. Then she used her body language to help her students visualize the characters. She also gave a curtsy with an explanation about a king and queen to give the students a mnemonic tip to help remember the left part “女”. In addition, she explained that the right part “子” is a picture of a child. A small baby wrapped in a blanket with his/her head and arms sticking out. In order to connect the meaning of this character (good) with the two images (a woman and a child), she further explained that Chinese people think that the ‘good’ (the meaning of ‘好’) thing in the whole world is the relationship between a mother (the left part ‘女’) and her baby (the right part ‘子’). So in coming up a symbol for ‘good’, they put the picture of a mother and a baby together.
Table 2: Character好 (hǎo)
Hanzi (Character)
Visual notes         English
My reflection:
This is an amazing example, which demonstrates an innovative way to teach Chinese characters. However, this also presents the third challenge: How to effectively teach characters and help students memorize them in the long term. Traditionally, native speakers of Chinese teachers rely on countless times of reading and copying to force children to memorize the difficult characters. Some teachers, if they are more knowledgeable, talk about the system of composing characters like radicals; but this is too difficult for beginners to understand, let along to grasp and remember all the theories and characters.
However, the strategy that my mentor has used built on students’ prior cultural knowledge. In terms of the left part “女”, she connects it to Australian culture as a woman curtseying. This contrasts to the Chinese culture, where this can be explained as a girl dancing. While speaking of the right part “子”, the explanation of a baby is common in both Chinese and Australian culture. This pedagogical strategy applied a variety of social and cultural knowledge to establish the connection between the character and the students’ prior knowledge. Thus, learning Chinese, undoubtedly, became easier and even more interesting.
Discussion on obstacles in developing the teaching
in Australian Schools

Three stories indicate three challenges that Chinese language teachers face: How to respond unexpected students’ questions, how to involve cultural discussion, as well as how to effectively teach characters. These issues are not only essential for all teachers, native speakers of teachers in particular to improve teaching quality, but also beneficial to inspire and maintain students’ interests and learning efficiency. Looking back, the history of Chinese language development in Australia was dated back to decades ago. Since then, other challenges regarding teaching and learning of Chinese has appeared for both native and non-native speakers of teachers at school and national levels.
The first main obstacle comes from the supposedly “difficult” nature of the language itself. About 20 years ago, in order to better serve Australia’s economic development, the government initiated a drive to produce “Asia literate” (Orton, 2008, p. 25) graduates from Australia’s schools. Under that driving force, there were numerous programs established to promote and assist Chinese teaching and learning at every level of schooling. However, it did not last long. This was primarily because that “Chinese, in particular, had proven too hard” (Orton, 2008, p. 25). As a result, some school principals were unwilling to provide and participate in Chinese programs anymore, despite of strong support and encouragement from the government.
The second and key problem is the availability of qualified teachers, as this has largely constrained Chinese language education(Orton, 2008). In Zhang and Li’s (2010) report on Chinese language teaching in the UK, the same problem has been pointed out. They further state that “the lack of qualified and experienced teachers has become a bottleneck that constrains further development of Chinese teaching in UK” (Zhang& Li, 2010, p. 94).
Regarding teacher supply, “some 90% of teachers of Chinese in Australia are native Chinese speakers, with most by far coming from the Mainland; but there are also some from Taiwan and Southeast Asia” (Orton, 2008, p. 21). Interestingly, these teachers come from all walks of life. Many are not fully employed Chinese teachers. Some are qualified teachers in their own countries but in subjects other than Chinese, such as English. Some have transferred from other industries and begun to teach Chinese with no or little training. Therefore, being L1 teachers of Chinese who speak Chinese as a first language, they lack experience and knowledge of how to make Chinese learnable for English-speaking Australian school students. They often find difficulties in adapting into Australian school culture; relating well to Australian school students, colleagues and parents; applying contemporary Australian pedagogical approaches to teaching; employing the communication strategies and modes of intercultural expression that are suitable for Australian students, and focusing on oral practice at the expense of character teaching(Orton, 2008).Most of them, therefore, are rejected as unsuitable, due to doubts about their capability to relate effectively to Australian students and successfully manage an Australian classroom. In addition, research shows that due to their various backgrounds, teachers for whom Chinese is their first language also face other major challenges which are summarized below.
1) Acculturation: this applies particularly to the educational environment where behavioral patterns and attitudes of students as well as interpersonal relationships among teaching staff differ greatly from those which a native teacher would have experienced in a Chinese learning environment.
2) Pronunciation: it seems to be a common phenomenon that native speakers whose mother tongue is other than the Mandarin dialect speak Mandarin with a pronounced accent, and some have great difficulty in mastering particular Mandarin sounds. In general, native speakers from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and to a lesser degree, Taiwan, fall into this category.
3) Romanization: Taiwanese, even those whose native tongue is Mandarin, would have no exposure to the Pinyin Romanization system (Wang, 2009).
4) Language: the most important thing for the Chinese teachers when they are teaching in an Australian classroom is that they should use English fluently so that they can have a good communicative relationship with their students. However, most Chinese teachers complain that they find difficulties when explaining language features and giving instructions to Australian students. Therefore, communicative ability in language as the medium of instruction is as important as, if not more important than, proficiency in the target language (Scrimgeour, 2010).
A report on the future of Chinese language education in Australia schools (National Forum Report, 2008)highlights the same major deterrent to retention of classroom L2 learners of Chinese, that is, teachers are not trained to teach the Chinese language specifically to English-speaking students. In UK, some schools decide to give up shortly after starting to teaching Chinese, because the students have not had a good learning experience due to the teachers’ lack of experience and skills (Zhang & Li, 2010).
Therefore, L2 teachers of Chinese, whose first language is not Chinese, are keenly sought after by schools. However, their language proficiency level in almost all areas, such as phonology, grammar, vocabulary, is often not at the desired level, which is not encouraging for L2 learners. In addition, it can sometime be a source of embarrassment for L2 teachers, when the class includes L1 speakers whose language proficiency is superior to them (Orton, 2008).
The third problem is the lack of an adequate syllabus and examination system for Chinese teaching and learning (Zhang & Li, 2010, p. 92). This has been identified as a key issue in UK, while in Australia such a curriculum is now being developed. In terms of syllabus, not many states in Australia have their own Chinese language syllabus, except NSW and Victoria. What they do is borrowing from other languages, especially European languages’ syllabus. However, it is found that they are all too difficult for beginning learners of Chinese. In terms of examination system, there is no systematic and localized system for different levels of learners, such as beginners, continuous, heritage and background speakers. There are a number of reasons for this, among which, the major reason is that Chinese entered the curriculum much later than other languages. Therefore, it is the right time to set up an adequate syllabus which meets the needs and objectives of overall curriculum requirements as well as reflecting on English speakers’ approaches in learning Chinese (Zhang & Li, 2010).
The fourth problem is the lack of adequate teaching/learning materials specifically designed for making Chinese learnable for English-speaking students (Zhang & Li, 2010). This is an increasingly acute issue as Chinese language teaching/learning has grown rapidly in the last few years in UK. It is also a key problem in Australia. While there are many textbooks and teaching materials available in the market, yet few of them are designed with regard to how English-speaking students learn Chinese in the local contexts. Zhang and Li (2010) argue that “most of the available teaching materials are designed from the point of view of the Chinese language itself rather than the needs of the learners and users” (p. 93). Therefore, L2 learners, especially beginners, find that Chinese is “inaccessible and impossible to learn” (Zhang & Li, 2010, p. 93), which damages the enthusiasm students have for learning the language. It also adversely affects the efficiency and results of learning and teaching of Chinese from teachers’ perspective. Therefore, in order to make Chinese as a main language in Modern Foreign Language family, it is urgent to develop locally relevant teaching/learning materials in Chinese. However, the learning content needs to be relevant to students’ everyday lives, and needs to incorporates CIO-linguistic features known to beginning learners who speak English.
Apart from the above main problems, Orton (2008) also summarizes other important issues existing in Chinese language education in Australian schools, such as (1) time on task; (2) background and non-background learners in the same class; (3) 94% attrition rate of L2 learners before the senior years. With 94% of non-background learners dropping of Chinese classes, it is an urgent issue for teachers and researchers to think about and find appropriate solutions for Chinese to remain one of the most important Asian languages for Australian school students to learn.
Chinese is believed to be a difficult language for English-speaking learners, and it is less rewarding to learn (Zhang & Li, 2010).However, due to the increasingly powerful status of China socially, cultural and economically, learning Chinese has become a popular and an urgent task for school students, businessmen, and others in all walks of life in English-speaking countries, such as Australia. Thus, the question arises how to make Chinese learnable for language learners who speak English as their first language?
This question can be firstly answered by increasing the number of appropriately qualified and experienced teachers of Chinese to work with beginning non-Chinese background learners. This is a major challenge. To a large extent, teachers are a decisive factor in the whole process of learning and teaching. Even with no adequate syllabus or suitable teaching materials, teachers who are appropriately educated can adapt existing materials or create their own suitable materials to meet the needs of students and the curriculum so as to engage students.
Secondly, even though an increasingly large number of student-teachers, traditional Chinese teachers, and Chinese who are from other walk of life have become or try to be Chinese teachers in a foreign language country, like Australia, teaching our mother tongue is not an easy task. I very much doubt the commonsense claim that “you are a native speaker of Chinese, of course, you can teach your mother tongue to non-Chinese students”. Three stories from real classroom practice have clearly identified the high demand for qualified teachers, including knowing both cultures thoroughly, knowing students’ prior knowledge and knowing locally recognized instructional language and pedagogical strategies. If teachers are capable of investigating and developing sound and innovative pedagogies for L2 language learners, they can, as a rule, reduce the cognitive load needed to enable students to be successful in learning Chinese.
Fortunately, ROSETE program has provided all VTRs, including me a platform and an opportunity to explore an urgent task: How to make Chinese learnable for English-speaking learners. More specific, based on continuous reflection, challenges and obstacles that we face in the classroom inform us the knowledge, as well as develops the capabilities to make informed decisions about technology, curriculum and pedagogy. I believe teaching is a long journey, and I am now better prepared to learn more. I value what I have learned through ROSETE program. Carrying all of these valuable assets with me, I can now be more confident in the Chinese teaching career. 
I would like to end this paper with this very encouraging quotation:
When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens-and when it happens, it lasts (Wooden, 1997, cited in Hiebert, Gallimore, & Stigler, 2002. p. 13).
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